When a Criminal Leads a Country – by Steve Coll
The modern effort to build a global system of international justice based on universal human rights is usually dated to the Nuremberg trials, after the Second World War, and the ratification of the Geneva Conventions. In the decades since then, the United Nations has created an ad-hoc war-crimes court to address atrocities in the former Yugoslavia; a second ad-hoc court to address the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide; a tribunal for Sierra Leone to address war crimes such as arm amputations, sexual enslavement, and child conscription; and, most recently, the International Criminal Court, which has been joined by a majority of the world’s nations, but not by the United States or China.
Optimists see in this history an inexorable if jagged path toward transnational justice with teeth. Pessimists see a noble project derailed in part by the arrogance of Western powers—led by the United States—who use war-crimes prosecutions to selectively punish weak African thugs, while avoiding offense to authoritarian allies and evading accountability for their own transgressions. Ultimately, the pessimists fear, the hypocrisy and inconsistency in the system will destroy its credibility and tarnish the ideals it is intended to promote.
These last few weeks have been a time for the pessimists.
In Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been indicted for crimes against humanity, is ahead in initial Presidential voting. I.C.C. prosecutors have accused Kenyatta and his running mate of organizing militias that killed more than a thousand people after the last Presidential election, in 2007. Kenyatta has coöperated with the international court so far, and has asserted his innocence; his trial is scheduled to begin next month. It is possible that this week’s voting will be force him into a runoff, but, even so, Kenyatta might well become the first democratically elected alleged criminal on that scale in history.
The Obama Administration has warned of unspecified “consequences” if Kenyatta takes office, but Kenya is a frontline country in the effort to contain Islamist militias in Somalia; it also serves as a regional diplomatic center and has an important economy. It is hard to imagine that Obama or the European Union would risk destabilizing the country, even if they have to find a way to accommodate a government led by an international fugitive.
During his Presidential campaign, Kenyatta actually cited his indictment as a way to whip up support—presenting it as evidence of enduring Western colonialism. That is also the messaging strategy of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who defiantly travels in Africa and some parts of the Arab world despite being the subject of an I.C.C. arrest warrant. The warrant was issued because of Bashir’s crimes against humanity in the Darfur conflict, which remain unpunished.
And then there is the steadily accumulating horror of civilian suffering in Syria. Every American policymaker struggling with the problem of whether and how to intervene in the Syrian civil war might be advised, as a habit of conscience, to visit regularly the Web site of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria, just to peruse the statistics and names of the dead that are posted by activists working inside the country.
As of Wednesday, the Centre reported a count of fifty-one thousand five hundred and fifteen “martyrs” to the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. If you click on the “martyrs” button on the Web site’s home page, you can filter a search for individual victims by checking various boxes under “cause of death.” The choices include “field execution,” “kidnapping-execution,” “kidnapping-torture,” “kidnapping-torture-execution,” “un-allowed to seek medical help,” and “warplane shelling.” Many of the incidents are difficult or impossible for outsiders to confirm, but there is clearly state-directed murder underway on a great scale.
During the week of February 17th, Assad-regime soldiers allegedly fired “at least four” ballistic missiles at civilian areas of Aleppo, and killed a hundred and forty-one people. Seventy-one of the victims were children. A Human Rights Watch investigator reached the site and remarked, “I have visited many attack sites in Syria, but I have never seen such destruction. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the Syrian government finds ways to escalate its killing tactics.”
This week, I spoke with Mohammad Al-Abdallah, the executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, which was set up in 2012 to help collate and organize evidence about war crimes in Syria, to prepare for the possibility of justice after the Assad regime falls. Al-Abdallah said that Assad’s unrelenting brutality can be explained in part by the fact that, during the nineteen-eighties, his father’s regime discovered that it could “kill who you want, stabilize things,” and that afterward, because of Syria’s strategic importance as a neighbor of Israel and a fulcrum of ethnic and sectarian communities in the Middle East, the regime could count on pragmatic world powers to “get things back on track.”
Surely the present Assad regime reads the splits about Syria policy on the U.N. Security Council, and the hesitancy of the Obama Administration to involve itself deeply in the war by supplying weapons to the opposition, in a similar way. “He’s not going to give up,” Al-Abdallah said of Assad. “He’s not going to leave the country. He’s going to stay until he dies or somebody forces him to leave power.”
As the war grinds on, Al-Abdallah continued, and as Syrian civilians aligned with the opposition conclude that Western powers are not going to act decisively on their behalf, they have started to lose faith in the very idea of humanitarian law.
After an initial period when the opposition energetically collected names, videos, and photographs, now, he said, “one of the difficulties is to convince people of the value of documentation” of evidence that might be used later by the International Criminal Court or a similar postwar Syrian institution.
“They are becoming reluctant to talk about their crimes—torture or losing a child. More people are frustrated. They don’t hide their frustration toward the international community: ‘You don’t care about justice, so we are going to take it ourselves.’ ”
He added, “We have to send a message to the people: your loss is not going to be for nothing.” This is no time to yield the arguments about international justice to the pessimists. Syria proves that stability built on cynicism and expediency is not stability at all.
Photograph, of Uhuru Kenyatta, by Ben Curtis/AP.