The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has advanced a bill that could be a small but meaningful step toward justice in the long and brutal Syrian conflict.
The Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 – a bipartisan bill introduced in April – would reinvigorate US support for justice in Syria after years of unchecked atrocities.
Human Rights Watch has documented grave laws-of-war violations by all sides to the conflict, including the use of chemical weapons, aerial bombing targeting civilians, siege warfare against civilians, and indiscriminate car bombings, mortar shelling, and rocket attacks in residential areas. Impunity for war crimes continues to fuel abuses in Syria.
Democrat Senator Ben Cardin, who co-sponsored the bill with Republican Senator Marco Rubio, said the proposal aims to “make it clear to all who are participating in atrocities in Syria that they will be held accountable for their activities.” Rubio, who notably pressed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing on Russian war crimes in Aleppo, said that passage of the bill by the committee last week was “another step towards accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against innocent civilians.”
The US has supported several initiatives on justice in Syria, including the establishment of a mechanism through the United Nations General Assembly to investigate and collect evidence of abuses. There have also been several resolutions introduced in Congress that highlight Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe.
This new bill requests the State Department to report on how the US is promoting accountability in Syria, which could help integrate justice for war crimes into US policy. The committee adopted amendments to the bill to ensure that US support for justice is comprehensive, better balanced, and more impartial than when originally introduced. However, it still does not cover forces of all warring parties. To ensure meaningful and credible justice, it is crucial that investigations and prosecutions address all serious crimes committed in Syria regardless of the alleged perpetrators.
The bill, which still needs to pass the full Senate and the House to become law, offers a boost for justice in Syria, and sends an important signal that for the US, accountability is a bipartisan issue. Congress should ensure that the State Department works diligently to support impartial justice any way it can.