On Monday, the U.N.’s human rights chief accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes in his two-year-long battle against opposition to his rule. Navi Pillay said a commission of inquiry “has produced massive evidence … [of] very serious crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity” and that “the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state.”
It is the first time that Assad, whose brutal response to peaceful protests set off a civil war that has claimed nearly 126,000 lives, has been directly implicated in war crimes by a U.N. body. Pillay called for the case to be handed over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
While Pillay’s findings are very troubling, and her suggestion to turn the matter over to the ICC makes sense, this whole matter is complicated by the international community’s political tangle over Syria. Not only are Shiites and Sunnis facing off on opposite sides of the sectarian civil war, but the conflict has the West pitted against Russia and China.
A referral to the ICC requires backing from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Until now, Russia and China have blocked any U.N. action against Assad. They have done so for political reasons. For the same reasons, it is expected that they will not allow the war crimes accusations to be referred to the ICC. But the U.N. findings raise serious, fundamental moral issues, and an international response on such concerns must transcend the political sphere.
The extent and nature of Assad and his government’s atrocities is long and vicious — the most shocking, but by no means the most deadly of which, were the chemical weapons attacks in August. And while there is plenty of blame to go around for atrocities — “The scale of viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief,” Pillay said — the mutuality of wrongdoing does not absolve Assad from the crimes against humanity he is accused of carrying out against his own people.
It now falls to Russia and China to clear the way to move the very serious accusations against Assad to the ICC for inquiry. As they work their way toward a solution to Syria’s deadly, heartbreaking puzzle, the Obama administration and its allies should make a priority of getting Russia and China to allow the court inquiry to proceed.