Accounting for war crimes

A Canadian government colleague Sean Fraser commented yesterday on LinkedIn in relation to the targeting of hospitals in Syria: 'Rather sad that the international community is so silent in the face of blatant war crimes. One of the legacies of the Assad regime appears to be shattering a rules based international system and demonstrating that phrases such as never again and no peace without justice are empty slogans'. I feel Sean's frustration. Back in 2011 the first project we undertook in Syria was to support the documentation of human rights violations with my very good friend Dr William Wiley. Much has been written about the work of what is now the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) and for those interested The New Yorker wrote a good review that provides much of the background (

When Bill and I set out to train and support Syrian investigators to bring back from Syria (by routes are various as they were hazardous) contemporaneous documentation with a view to supporting the prosecution of all those responsible for war crimes in Syria, the purpose was clear. We wanted to ensure accountability for all those responsible for gross violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Almost seven years on, the evidence, and not YouTube videos or hearsay, but painstakingly-collected documentary evidence and insider testimony, has been assembled. And this collection and analysis has been paid for by the very international community Sean bemoans. There is no fog of war here - there is individual criminal responsibility and linkage evidence between the crime base (what happened) and those who ordered it or who participated in it as part of a joint criminal enterprise.

Despite this, hospitals still get bombed and war crimes continue to be committed on all sides of the conflict. And this brings us to a further lesson on working in conflict and instability. Moral outrage is not enough. The right thing is often not done even when the effort is taken to gather the evidence. International norms, rights and rules are frequently trampled under the feet of expediency, pragmatism and realpolitik. That is tough to accept, but it is a fact and something I have seen over and over again. It should not stop us fighting for what is right and battling for the institutionalisation of International Humanitarian Law, but we are going to face those who posit a dichotomy of peace vs. justice for some time to come. For what it is worth my own view is that the former is not possible without the latter.

Alistair Harris, CEO, ARK


Dom Spiers