(Brussels) - Catherine Ashton's mandate is to provide leadership on foreign policy and human rights. She has failed, however, to ensure a collective EU voice for bringing the crimes in Syria before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
On 10 December, as the EU receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, EU foreign ministers meeting back in Brussels should decide to move beyond vague references to “accountability” for crimes in Syria and make clear that they support a UN Security Council (UNSC) referral of the situation to the ICC.
The world has watched as the violence in Syria has dramatically escalated. Tens of thousands of people have died; children have been slaughtered; over a million people have been internally displaced; and, thousands more have sought refuge from the violence in neighboring countries. In response to grave abuses on both sides, the UN high commissioner for human rights has repeatedly called on the UNSC to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.
The European Parliament has done likewise. On 7 December, a group of cross party MEPs called on Ashton to ensure that the 10 December meeting would conclude that “the EU and all its 27 Member States will join the Swiss-initiated global effort that seeks the referral of the violence in Syria by the UNSC to the ICC.”
MEPs further urged Ashton “to personally engage in building a large and inclusive international coalition to impel all permanent members of the UNSC to support such a referral.”
Twenty-six EU member states have individually indicated their support for a referral of the Syrian situation to the ICC – all but Sweden. Ashton herself has said publicly that the “atrocities cannot go unpunished” and that those responsible for serious crimes in Syria should be held accountable.
Yet she has not pushed EU foreign ministers to reach a common position. Without that, the EU has no authority to rally other states around the world to support an ICC referral. Indeed, a comprehensive and global coalition of states is what is needed to press Russia and other members of the Security Council to act.
An ICC referral will send a strong message to perpetrators on all sides of the Syrian conflict that war crimes and crimes against humanity will not be tolerated and that attempts to stay in power or obtain power by committing war crimes will not be successful.
While an ICC referral is no panacea, the record from other conflicts such as those in the Balkans confirms that indictments of senior political, military and rebel leaders can actually strengthen peace efforts by delegitimising and marginalising those who stand in the way of the conflict's resolution.
Unsealing the arrest warrant for the former Liberian president Charles Taylor at the opening of talks to end the Liberian civil war was ultimately viewed as helpful in moving negotiations forward. By the same token, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, the failure to hold those responsible for the most serious crimes to account has fuelled further abuses.
Some contend that a referral to the ICC would prevent President Bashar al-Assad and other senior officials from leaving power, and leaving Syria, for fear of prosecution.
But with or without an ICC referral, they will not have many places to go. Many countries have “universal jurisdiction” laws that could trigger national prosecutions against individuals responsible for serious crimes.
Ashton and the 27 EU foreign ministers should stop talking vaguely about justice for crimes in Syria and articulate an EU common position that clearly and unequivocally calls for an ICC referral.
They should engage the entire EU framework to connect with like-minded countries around the world, including the 121 that have ratified the ICC Statute, to press the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.
Continued failure to make a case for an EU position is an embarrassment to the EU, to its stated commitment to both the ICC and to justice for serious crimes, and is an inexcusable affront to the victims of the horrendous crimes being committed in Syria.
Lotte Leicht is EU director at Human Rights Watch