Syrian Perpetrators: Beware the Long Arc Toward Justice

February 17, 2012

In an overwhelming demonstration of broad global consensus on the ongoing atrocities in Syria, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) yesterday adopted a resolution on the Syrian crisis by a vote of 137 to 12.

While a welcome show of outrage over crimes against humanity occurring in Syria, the largely symbolic vote does little to address the abysmal failure of the UN Security Council to act on the situation. This failure—precipitated by vetoes from Russia and China and reminiscent for me of a similarly precipitated failure to act quickly on crimes against humanity in Darfur—has had immediate impact. “Emboldened” by the failure, the Syrian regime actually stepped up attacks on civilians over the last week, killing hundreds in Homs and elsewhere.

I try to avoid charged words. Words like “horrors.” But I am at a loss to label the atrocities unleashed on the civilians of Homs and cities across Syria with anything else. Being so far removed from these horrors—and witnessing much closer the failures in New York—it can be difficult to see any light ahead. But the General Assembly’s resolution offers a glimmer of hope.

The resolution demands that the Syrian government cease all violence and protect its population, release all persons detained arbitrarily, withdraw all Syrian military from cities and towns and return them to their home barracks, and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstration.

But moreover, the resolution—in recognition of the Security Council’s failure to refer the ongoing crimes in Syria to the International Criminal Court—also references the ultimate need for justice.

5. [The General Assembly] Stresses again the importance of ensuring accountability and the need to end impunity and hold to account those responsible for human rights violations, including those violations that may amount to crimes against humanity

Eyes on Syria: A Warning to Perpetrators

The patterns of attacks on towns and cities have followed a predictable path in Syria. In advance of attacks, the military cuts phone lines and Internet access. The flood of video emanating out of besieged cities in Syria is surely of concern to military commanders, as denial of the ongoing atrocities withers in the light of flickering YouTube videos across the world.

But there should be a greater concern for the perpetrators of these crimes: there can be no lasting solution to Syria’s turmoil without accountability for what has been done, and what occurs yet as I hit these keystrokes. And the General Assembly resolution recognizes it as a global consensus.

Despite the efforts to shroud Syrian cities—cities that have become crimes scenes of the greatest magnitude—under a veil of communications blackout, the world is watching. Privacy in the commission of these egregious crimes—affronts to humanity—cannot be achieved.

And it is not just the most senior government officials who should worry. Any member of the Syrian military or any individual of armed opposition are bound by the same law as the most senior commanders. Attacking civilians—in contravention of the most basic and immutable international laws—is unjustifiable, regardless of orders.

The unstoppable video and testimony flowing from Homs and elsewhere combined with our collective ability to “watch over” Syria using satellite technology means the steadfast collection of evidence, even as we agitate for an immediate end to the abuses.

Integrating these multiple technologies, skilled analysts are able to capture the movements—and indeed the actions—of particular military units. For instance, by triangulating video with satellite imagery, we can know that on February 8th in the area of 34.714007N 36.687063E, Syrian military units were responsible for a particular episode of bombardment. We can and will know precisely which units those were, and the commanders and personnel attached to them.

Syria Homs Bombing
From, Multispectral imagery acquired from Geo Eye identifies the areas struck in Homs on 8 February 2012 by the Syrian Army near 34.714007 N 36.687063 E.

The commission of these crimes cannot be denied. While somewhat buoyed by the UNGA resolution, we must continue along the arc toward justice. The Security Council must act without delay. And above all else, we put the Syrian leadership and rank and file on notice—we are watching, and the dossier is growing.

As in Darfur, Amnesty International and agitators for rights will marshal all resources and technology to ensure justice. The long and still continuing march toward accountability for Darfur–represented by yet un-executed ICC arrest warrants on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide–should be a lesson for perpetrators in Syria. Do not be emboldened by the Security Council’s inaction. The arc may be long, but it does bends toward justice.

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