Russia, China Should Not Veto Referral
May 13, 2014
With the death toll spiraling well past 150,000 in Syria and new atrocities every day, the Security Council has an urgent responsibility to act for justice.The Security Council should strip all sides of their sense of impunity and send a clear message that wanton slaughter could lead to a prison cell in The Hague.
Richard Dicker, international justice director

(New York) –The United Nations Security Council should urgently pass a new French-proposed resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said today. Russia and China should not veto the measure.

On May 12, 2014, France circulated a resolution to Security Council members that would give the ICC jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Syria. The war in Syria has been characterized by impunity for abuses by all fighting parties.

“With the death toll spiraling well past 150,000 in Syria and new atrocities every day, the Security Council has an urgent responsibility to act for justice,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council should strip all sides of their sense of impunity and send a clear message that wanton slaughter could lead to a prison cell in The Hague.”

A broad majority of the 15 Security Council members have publicly backed a role for the ICC in Syria: France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, South Korea, Chile, Lithuania, and Nigeria. A Security Council resolution requires nine affirmative votes to be adopted. Russia has in the past expressed objections to such a measure, on January 15, 2013, describing efforts to seek a referral as “ill-timed and counterproductive.” China has remained silent on the issue. Both countries, as permanent Security Council members, have the power to veto resolutions.

Security Council members and other countries that have repeatedly expressed concern over crimes in Syria should co-sponsor the resolution as an expression of support for justice for grave abuses, Human Rights Watch said. They should also caution Russia and China against vetoing a resolution on accountability for violations by all sides. Fifty-eight countries that jointly backed an ICC referral on January 14, 2013, are expected to issue an open letter calling on UN member countries to officially endorse the French draft resolution.

Over the last three years, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented abuses by government and pro-government forces and concluded that they have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. The government continues to carry out indiscriminate air and artillery attacks hitting civilian areas and to arbitrarily detain, torture, and extra-judicially execute civilians and combatants. Human Rights Watch has also documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by many non-state armed groups, including the use of car bombs to target civilians, indiscriminate use of mortars, kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial executions.

Neither Syrian authorities nor leaders of non-state armed groups have taken any meaningful steps to ensure credible accountability for past and ongoing grave human rights crimes. The failure to hold those responsible for these violations to account has only fueled further atrocities by all sides, Human Rights Watch said.

The latest report from the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry, published on March 5, 2014, found that all sides to the Syria conflict continued to commit serious crimes under international law and held that the Security Council was failing to take action to end the state of impunity. The commission, which has published seven in-depth reports since its establishment in August 2011, recommended that the Security Council give the ICC a mandate to investigate abuses in Syria.

Sixty-five countries around the world have already voiced their support for the court’s involvement in Syria. The UN high commissioner for human rights has also, on multiple occasions, recommended that the Security Council refer the situation to the ICC, most recently during a briefing with the Security Council on April 8, 2014.

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. As a result, the ICC can only obtain jurisdiction over crimes there if the Security Council refers the situation in Syria to the court. A referral would give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate grave abuses by all sides to the Syria conflict. The Security Council has made similar referrals twice, for the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005 and for Libya in 2011. Russia and China both supported the Libya referral in a unanimous Security Council vote.

The ICC is a permanent international court with a mandate to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity when national authorities are unable or unwilling to do so. The court was created to address exactly the type of situation that exists in Syria today, Human Rights Watch said.

The French-proposed resolution includes – as a concession to the United States, diplomats have reported – a provision that would exempt the nationals of non-ICC states parties from the court’s jurisdiction should they participate in operations in Syria mandated by the UN Security Council. The resolution would also impose the entire financial burden of a Syria investigation on ICC states parties, barring any UN funding for prosecutions that result from the Security Council referral. Human Rights Watch regrets both provisions, but believes the resolution as a whole would still advance the cause of justice in Syria.

“Russia and China have paralyzed the council for too long and need to respond to the demand for justice from Syrians as well as other countries around the world.” Dicker said. “After years of murder and mayhem in Syria, vetoing this resolution would be a slap in the face for countless victims that will come back to haunt Moscow and Beijing.”