International court sidelined so far despite Syrian horrors

AMSTERDAM Fri Jun 7, 2013 1:52pm EDT

Two female members of the Syrian community in The Netherlands carry their national flag as they arrive to demonstrate in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) offices in The Hague June 7, 2011. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Two female members of the Syrian community in The Netherlands carry their national flag as they arrive to demonstrate in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) offices in The Hague June 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Kooren

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court could have its hand full if it ever investigates Syria's civil war - the alleged killing of hundreds of civilians by government shelling of Homs last year may well constitute a war crime or crime against humanity.

So too might allegations, reported by Human Rights Watch, of detainees being subjected to sexual assault in prison, of children being shot in their homes and on the streets, and of schools being used as detention centers.

If those alleged crimes have been blamed on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, ICC investigators might also look at the other side in the conflict - the rebels.

There is, for example, the notorious video of a Syrian rebel commander cutting out the organ of a slain soldier and biting into it - something that could easily be seen as an act designed to inspire terror, which might also constitute a war crime.

Whether such horrors will ever make it to the ICC, set up 10 years ago to prosecute those accused of the worst war crimes ranging from genocide to torture, remains unclear.

The court must wait for a referral from the United Nations Security Council before it can act in Syria, since the country never signed the Rome Statute that underpins the court, but that is something that Russia and China have so far blocked.

Were it to be called on, however, even countries like Britain and France could come under scrutiny if they armed Syrian rebels, as they have suggested they might.

"If you were providing arms to a group that could use them for both lawful and unlawful purposes, you could become an aider and abetter," said Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the University of Melbourne.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS MAY BE CRIME

In theory, at least, political expediency should not prevent an investigation under any circumstances.

According a report by the court's prosecutor: "Factors such as geographical or regional balance are not relevant criteria for a determination that a situation warrants investigation."

U.N. investigators identified a host of human rights violations that have taken place in Syria so far this year, including 17 attacks that could qualify as massacres.

They also found instances of hostage-taking - as well as of sexual violations and violations of children's rights, two areas that have led to ICC charges elsewhere in the past.

Even the use of chemical weapons - something not specifically banned by the Rome Statute - could count as a crime if it caused disproportionate harm to civilians.

"In many ways, the Rome Statute is one of the strongest anti-WMD (weapons of mass destruction) treaties ever signed," said William Pace, convener of the Coalition for the ICC, a campaigning organization.

Anyone can make submissions about alleged crimes to the court's prosecutor. There is an e-mail address for submissions on the court's website and it received 382 such submissions in the first nine months of 2012, although it does not say which countries are involved.

Human rights organizations are passing their public findings regarding Syria to the court, although few believe it is doing much more for now than filing them away for possible future use.

"I would be surprised if they're devoting any substantial resources to it, because they don't have the resources," said Heller.

With an annual budget of less than 30 million euros, the prosecutor's office is already under pressure dealing with difficult cases, including that against Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, charged with crimes against humanity.

Their case against former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo has just suffered a set-back after judges told the prosecutors they needed stronger evidence.

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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