News / Middle East

Is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Guilty of War Crimes?

People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla in this handout image provided by Shaam News Network, May 26, 2012.
People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla in this handout image provided by Shaam News Network, May 26, 2012.
David Byrd
The images from Houla in Syria had a sickening familiarity:  bodies wrapped in white shrouds, lined up in a large pit in the center of town while grieving relatives cried and wailed.  In all, a reported 108 people, all victims of last week’s Houla massacre, were being buried, 49 of them children.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights’ representative has said only about 20 of the victims were killed by artillery or mortar fire.  The rest had been shot in what appear to have been  summary executions.  Syria has denied its forces had anything to do with the massacre and says the killings were the work of “terrorists.”

The ditch reminded the world of others it has seen - in Nazi Germany, in the former Yugoslavia, in Cambodia, in Vietnam, in Libya and Iraq. In many cases, the atrocities committed there were ruled war crimes. But is what happened in Houla a war crime?  If it is, how can Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and others be held accountable?

War crime?

War by its very nature involves the violent taking of life.  But there are rules established in what are called the laws of armed conflict.  Some of the rules were codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The Conventions are considered to be part of international law and are applicable to all armed conflicts worldwide.

Cherif Bassiouni is the Emeritus Distinguished Research Professor of Law at DePaul University in Chicago. He has also served on five U.N. Commissions that investigated war crimes and was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee for the U.N.’s Diplomatic Conference on the Establishment of the International Criminal Court.

“Basically, the Geneva Conventions and the customary laws of armed conflict are very simple,” he said. “You cannot use force against non-combatants; you cannot kill or attack civilian populations; you cannot attack Red Cross, hospital, or religious establishments; you cannot torture POWs,” said Bassiouni. 

“In this case, quite obviously, when the Bashar al-Assad forces bombarded civilian places, this is considered excessive use of force and, as such, if civilians are killed it is considered a war crime,” he added.

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa Director with Human Rights Watch in New York.

“It absolutely does constitute a war crime,” she said. “Summary executions, executions of detainees, executions period - unprovoked executions, targeted attacks on civilians are indeed war crimes,” Whitson said.

Libyan parallel?

When Moammar Gadhafi’s forces nearly encircled Benghazi and threatened to annihilate civilians, NATO responded with airstrikes.  But there has been no such response in Syria despite a death toll of between 10,000 and 14,000, according to various estimates.  The primary difference? In Libya, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force.
That is not the case in Syria. Russia and China have twice vetoed U.N. sanctions against the Assad regime. Russia has its only naval base on the Mediterranean at the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia is also Damascus’s major arms supplier. China has economic and military ties with Iran, which supports Assad’s Alawite government.
Deaths Across SyriaDeaths Across Syria

Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch says as long as Russia and China stand in the way, the killing will continue in Syria.

“First and foremost, I hold Russia responsible for the failure of international action,” she said. “It is, I think, very important and appropriate that Europe and the U.S. have imposed sanctions on Syria.  But unless they are global sanctions, unless Russia and China are participants in that, it’s very hard for it to have the full effect that it should have,” said Whitson.

Cherif Bassiouni says that unlike in Libya, Russia and China might be waiting to see if their commercial and military interests would be protected if Assad were overthrown.

“What happened is that all of the oil concession and business matters in rebuilding Libya are going to be given to the Western powers and not to Russia and China.  And so they felt probably left out of it and they are holding on to their position with respect to Syria - which is untenable and it’s certainly a violation of every principle of humanitarian law,” said Bassiouni.

“But they are holding off for probably some political and economic benefits, and this is one of the regrettable aspects of politics interfering in the pursuit of justice,” Bassiouni added.

What next?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that lack of U.N. intervention pushes Syria closer to the brink of civil war. Several Western nations have expelled Syrian diplomats. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice has said military action against Syria is not out of the question, even without Security Council approval.  

But what can be done? Can charges be brought against those responsible?

Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights watch says there is only one person to blame.

“The Commander in Chief in Syria is in fact President Bashar al-Assad, and he is responsible not only for direct orders that he gives to regular forces as well as irregular forces such as the shabiha (government-paid plain-clothed gunmen) but also for what he has allowed to happen, and his negligence in failing to protect Syrian civilians,” she said.

“It’s not necessary to show that he gave the direct order if he did nothing when he knew that the troops under his command were committing horrible abuses,” she added.

Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University Law School says there is no time to waste.

“In this case there is no doubt that there should be a commission established by the United Nations to go and investigate and to compile a record of the criminal responsibility of Bashar al-Assad, and his brother Maher…along with the chief of staff of the army, and the head of military intelligence.  They are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he said.
And even though President Assad seems content to wait out the international community and to continue his policies against dissent, Bassiouni says he believes justice will be done.

“They [Syrian leaders] should know that even though Russia and China are protecting them tomorrow, that if there is a commission that investigates what they are doing, and has the evidence, they will not always be immune from prosecution in the future," said Bassiouni.

“And this has to be done now while the evidence is fresh,” he added.

Slow wheels

Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting atrocities in the Sierra Leone civil war. So far, he is the only former head of state to be convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international or hybrid international-national tribunal. 

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was tried by an international tribunal, but died before judgment was rendered in his case. Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo’s trial on charges of crimes against humanity is scheduled to start June 18.

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Comments page of 2
by: Malek Towghi/Tauqee from: USA
June 02, 2012 3:07 PM
On Syria, the USA should not create serious tensions in its relations with Russia. In order to confront Islamic fanaticism and terrorism successfully and punish Pakistan like rogue states we need the cooperation of Russia as well as China.

by: Paolo from: God Bless America, USA
June 02, 2012 10:32 AM
Yes, Denial, is that is your real name? We are not as stupid as you think. I bet you are just another dumb Iranian or Syrian intelligence officer You might also want to use spell check too. Yes, our country isn't perfect but why are so many people still immigranting to America? You, China and the Russians can continue to support Assad for all of the BLOOD MONEY and I look forward to when he, his family and generals are either hung, killed or put on trial for these MURDERS! Please watch out as you cross the street. SHAME ON YOU!

by: Stephen Real from: Columbia USA
June 02, 2012 2:19 AM
We are closing in on the second year of protests and still we watch the non-stop butchering of the Syrian children and women. Did you see those pictures of those little kids murdered? Damn fellas, I am completely shamed by my goverment here in the states and lack leadership on Syria. Fellas this is completely twisted horror show fo real. I expect way more out you cats then what I am seeing...Really fellas? Really? That's all you got? Let me put my paper bag over my head in complete embarassment and shame and go bang it against the wall once again.

by: Daniel from: England
June 01, 2012 2:54 AM
I know VOA is a state propaganda channel but even so this article is louzy. And how you go by the offical line "barrage from Syrian forces"
What the brainwashed americans need to realise is. assad has a responsibility to protect syria and is doing so. America wants to turn syria into a Libya 2.0. Run by islamists, sharia law etc.

by: Kurtis from: Earth
May 31, 2012 10:30 PM
Not only is Bashar al-Assad guilty of "war crimes", but his atrocities have reached the threshold where the only legal term that can adequately describe them is "crimes against humanity". If Assad is still alive after he's overthrown, I hope the international community goes on an all-out manhunt to bring him to justice. The ICC and every single nation should be required to put out a $5,000,000 arrest warrant on his head, and any country giving him political asylum ought to be completely isolated by the international community. This man must go to jail for what he's done, at the very least.

by: Anonymous
May 31, 2012 7:19 PM
It would be great to see Assad sitting in the hot seat in the Hague for what he has done to his own people. You would think he would know better, but he is just plain stupid, living in an ancient world where he thinks he can be untouched, WRONG. He will be held accountable for all his actions. He will likely commit suicide before that happens.

by: yessongs from: UK
May 31, 2012 6:20 PM
Any chance of ordinary people being first priority rather than oil/political influence/money? No? Thought not..

Why not send the photos of children with their throats cut to children all over the world? Lets hear what they have to say.

by: Julie from: US
May 31, 2012 6:03 PM
The actions of US and western countries led the war in Syria. Why are they warning Russia is encouraging civil war? Such a unfair world!!! Whose media control the world then who will be able to cheat the world.

by: SomeDude from: Los Angeles
May 31, 2012 5:33 PM
Question: Where is all the uprising in the streets of the Arab nations? How hypocritical do you have to be to watch episodes like this and not be filling the streets and trampoling images of Assad??? Can you imagine if this was the result of a U.S. drone attack? Why do the Arabs give this guy a pass? Think about it...

by: Anonymous
May 31, 2012 5:21 PM
Yadda yadda yadda inaction is the same as compliance we are all guilty.
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