Ongoing Syrian conflict prompts calls for use of International Criminal Court

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Canada has not joined the call by Switzerland and 56 other countries for the UN Security Council to refer war crimes in the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC is a court of last resort that tries individuals accused in issues of international concern such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute (the treaty that established which crimes fall within the ICC’s jurisdiction as well as the procedures that signing countries must abide by), and therefore cannot be brought to the ICC unless it is referred by the UN Security Council.

In the conflict that has persisted for nearly two years, more than 60 000 people have died and nearly 600 000 have fled Syria for surrounding countries, causing a humanitarian crisis in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Canada has contributed a total of $22 million to support refugee facilities in Syria’s neighbouring countries and has imposed increasingly severe economic sanctions against Syrian individuals and companies. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has made repeated calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and cease the violence.

“That’s where Canada’s involvement is pretty much staying right now: humanitarian aid and rhetorical measures and not much beyond that,” says UVic Humanities professor and expert in Middle Eastern history and politics Andrew Wender. “And I think one of the things with the ICC issue is that it would have ratcheted up Canadian diplomatic involvement to one level above. Ratcheting it up to an actual possible prosecution at the International Criminal Court is definitely going up a level from simply providing humanitarian aid to refugees outside the borders of the country.”

UN-led intervention has been blocked by continual veto votes from Security Council members Russia and China; this has raised questions about the extent to which the international community can take meaningful action.

“Many of the commentators are saying that there is very little that can actually be done to bring this to a close,” says Wender. “It’s just something that grinds on and on, and if anything is the case, it is that outside military intervention from Western countries would only make the problem worse, and I have to say that I agree with that.”

According to a 23-year-old Canadian woman who lives in Damascus and asked not to be named, some Syrians believe that international intervention would infringe on Syria’s sovereignty. She recounts a conversation between three of her Syrian friends.

“We don’t want any foreign intervention, because we don’t want what happened to Iraq to happen to us. And we believe that Syrians can solve this problem by themselves, because Syrians don’t want foreigners to interfere unless [those Syrians] don’t care about their sovereignty.”

She says most people are against both the government and the rebel groups, adding that everyone is suffering from fuel shortages and regular power cuts.

Minister Baird has encouraged a Syrian-led resolution and puts Canada on the side of the Syrian people. According to the department of foreign affairs, human rights are central to Canada’s international policies.

Some commentators question Canada’s notable absence from the Swiss-led ICC request, but using international justice laws at the ICC is only one form of intervention to protect human rights. Other intervention methods include diplomatic negotiations, direct military intervention, establishing a no-fly zone and providing humanitarian aid for refugees.

Concerned with the potential loss of control over chemical weapons in Syria, Minister Baird has said Canada is “taking concrete actions to prepare for the worst” and announced a $1.5-million contribution of protective equipment for Jordanian armed forces to prepare for the use of chemical weapons.

“We have a staff meeting once a month to discuss who might be planning on leaving the country,” says the 23-year-old Canadian, who plans on staying in Damascus with her Syrian husband.

For Canadians in Syria, it is increasingly difficult to leave. Many airlines have suspended flights departing from Syria, and a voluntary evacuation from the Canadian embassy ended on Jan. 14 and has not been extended. There are around 1 550 Canadians formally registered with the embassy as being in Syria, and an estimated 5 000 Canadians are unregistered in Syria. The Canadian embassy in Syria has closed, and the nearest Canadian embassy services are in Lebanon.

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