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.

You May Like

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Video US Landmark Pushes Endangered Species

People gathered in streets, on rooftops in Manhattan to see image highlights that covered 33 floors of Empire State Building More

World’s Widest Suspension Bridge Being Built Over Bosphorus

Once built, Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge will span 2 kilometers with about 1.5 kilometers over water, and will be longest suspension bridge in world carrying rail system More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
    Next 
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.
Comments page of 2
    Next 

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs