POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
An article in the New York Times on October 6, 2015 on the conflict in Syria states that the conflict “has left 250,000 people dead and displaced half the country’s population since it started in 2011.”
This horrifying statement is contained in a dependent clause in a sentence in the sixth paragraph of an article on Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict. This placement unfortunately may reflect that the massive human suffering in Syria is becoming an afterthought to the quarrels among world powers regarding Syria.
What is happening to the people of Syria is difficult for most people to imagine. Americans will remember that thousands of their fellow citizens were displaced from their homes when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Most of these have returned home, but many have been unable to do so because what were their homes no longer exists.
The forced evacuation of a city like New Orleans is a frightening event. The present writer was one of those who experienced it. On the morning before the hurricane struck, I learned from radio reports that Katrina was not veering off, would hit the city in about 24 hours with great destruction, and all should evacuate. Not having a car, I stuffed some things in a kit bag, left my apartment in the Uptown District, and started walking toward downtown – not knowing where in particular I was going or what was going to happen to me. I managed to make my way to the Superdome, where about 25,000 others and I took shelter in harsh conditions for five days, before being evacuated.
The difficulties that my fellow refugees and I experienced at that time were as nothing compared to the terror and extreme hardships now being experienced by the people of Syria. We were evacuating our city, not our country. And our displacement was caused by a natural disaster, whose effects, for the most part, were temporary. It is a very different thing to be forced to flee not only your home, but also your country, because vicious people are more than willing to kill you and your family because of your political sympathies or because of your religious beliefs or because you just happen to be in the way.
The horrendous numbers of dead and displaced in Syria strongly support a conclusion that such massive suffering could not have happened without the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by participants in the conflict. Whether there will ever be investigation or prosecution of such crimes by the International Criminal Court is far from clear. The U.N. Security Council has authority under the ICC’s Statute and Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to refer the Syrian situation to the ICC, but such referral is unlikely because of the veto power of one or more of the Council’s permanent members.
The Preamble of the ICC’s Statute articulates its ratifiers’ “[d]etermin[ation] to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators” of “grave crimes [that] threaten the peace, security and well being of the world.” It seems that regarding what is happening in Syria, this goal will remain for the moment a mere aspiration, and, as the quarrel among world powers intensifies, the suffering of the Syrian people will remain an afterthought.
Andrew E. Kramer & Anne Barnard, Russian Soldiers Join Syria Fight, N.Y. Times, Oct. 6, 2015, at A1 (Oct. 5, 2015 online version).