Documenting Charges Against the Assad Regime
The Syrian conflict has resulted in numerous atrocities committed by the Assad regime, which has led to the filing of charges against the regime and its members. Some of the most serious charges include the use of chemical weapons, torture, and enforced disappearance. Such allegations have been documented by various organizations, such as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and the Syrian Network of Human Rights (SNHR) which have all collected crucial evidence to support the prosecution of the regime.
The CIJA has meticulously documented the systemic nature of the Assad regime’s human rights violations and illegal policies in a comprehensive report outlining the regime’s “machinery of death.” Such evidence enables groups like ECCHR to file complaints in the EU, leading to the arrest and prosecution of numerous suspected war criminals linked to crimes in Syria.
SNHR’s Executive Director, Fadel Abdulghany, points out that documentation is key to holding the regime to account, noting that SNHR is among the groups making the Syrian conflict one of the most well-documented wars, “I haven’t found a similar organization in another conflict. We (SNHR) have solid documentation and those documentation efforts lead to building a case against Assad.”
International Efforts to Hold the Assad Regime Accountable
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is diligently pursuing legal action against the Assad regime for its crimes. Endowed with the authority to prosecute both individuals and states for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the ICJ has been actively investigating the situation in Syria. Notably, the United States and the United Kingdom have expressed support for the ICJ’s efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable.
US-based American Center for Levant Studies (ACLS), released a report highlighting the importance of prosecuting the Assad regime for its crimes emphasizing the urgency of holding the regime accountable, especially in the ICJ, citing it as a crucial moment for justice and accountability in Syria.
The Assad regime has been accused of torturing and forcibly disappearing thousands of people. These actions have been carried out in secret prisons run by the regime, where detainees have been subjected to severe sexual, physical, and psychological torture. Many of these detainees have never been seen again, and their families are left to search for answers.
Earlier this year Canada and the Netherlands opened a joint case against the Assad regime for the crime of torture. In 2022 the UK Special Representative for Syria, Jonathan Hargreaves affirmed, “The calls of the International Commission on Missing Persons (IMCP) to locate all those who are missing and to investigate the reasons and circumstances of their disappearance in Syria.” Asserting that, “accountability is an investment in peace.”
Among the most heinous crimes committed by the Assad regime is the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. These attacks have resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The regime has been accused of using chemical weapons, such as sarin gas, chlorine gas, and mustard gas, in various attacks. In November, France, a staunch proponent of legal action against the regime, issued arrest warrants for Assad and his brother as well as several other key figures in the regime for the 2013 Ghouta Chemical Attacks, which killed over a thousand civilians.
This year alone many EU states such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany have arrested and brought charges against those suspected of committing war crimes in Syria, ensuring that claims of asylum or flight to Europe are not a means of escaping justice. Charges in the ICJ as well as several active cases in the EU and monumental arrest warrants from France have made 2023 one of the more prolific years for the advancement of due process regarding justice for Syrians.
The US has also played an active role in utilizing the legal system to penalize and punish the Assad regime for its many crimes. In April of 2023, it was revealed that the FBI spent five years building a case against the Assad regime for war crimes involving the 2016 torture and murder of US Citizen and aid worker Layla Shweikani.
In 2019, following the disclosure of thousands of photographs and testimony of Syrian defector “Caesar,” who cataloged the massive torture and murder of Syrians by the regime, the Caesar Act was passed by the US Congress. The act is crucial in terms of international justice as it imposes sanctions on individuals and entities that support the Assad regime in Syria, particularly targeting those involved in human rights abuses.
By holding those responsible accountable and restricting their access to the global financial system, the act aims to deter further atrocities in the pursuit of retribution. The Caesar Act serves as a tool to pressure the Assad regime to engage in meaningful negotiations and potentially contribute to a political solution by weakening the regime’s ability to carry out human rights violations. It plays a significant role in promoting international justice and potentially influencing the resolution of the Syrian conflict by targeting the perpetrators of egregious human rights abuses.
The Impact of Accountability on Other Conflicts
The quest for justice in Syria is not only about holding the Assad regime accountable for its crimes but also about preventing similar violations in future conflicts. The accountability of the Assad regime can have a significant impact on other conflicts, such as the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza conflicts. By holding the Assad regime accountable, the international community can send a strong message that human rights violations will not be tolerated and that those responsible for breaking international law will face justice.
Discouraging other governments from committing similar atrocities, “is the aim of accountability,” says SNHR’s Abdulghany, “to prevent the continuity of crimes so they are not to be repeated.” When perpetrators of mass violence are held accountable, it sets a precedent that discourages other leaders from engaging in such actions. Which can establish a more stable and peaceful global environment, where governments are less likely to transgress or commit human rights abuses.
A Path to Healing and Closure
The legal process can provide healing and closure for families affected by the atrocities committed by holding the criminals accountable, the international community can provide a measure of justice and retribution for the victims and their families. This can help bring a sense of closure and healing to those who have suffered so much.
Seeing those responsible for the deaths and suffering of those they love can console families and bring solace. This can help them move forward and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the trauma. It is for this reason that the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression director Mazen Darwish called the French arrest warrants, “a new victory for the victims, their families and survivors.”
Substantive or Simply Symbolic?
Despite the many merits of the international justice system and the strides in building cases and charges against those like Assad, Putin and their regimes there remain valid concerns that the current mechanisms for bringing those in power to account are inadequate. Can countries like Russia and Israel that are powers in their own right or have influential backers really ever be brought to justice? Are actions against wealthy nations, or those with strong allies, merely symbolic in nature or can they result in substantial change and justice?
While some legal proceedings may result in mainly symbolic verdicts, others can have a substantive impact on the international community’s perception of the Assad regime and its actions, imposing more significant consequences like financial sanctions, asset seizures, or other measures aimed at denying the regime’s resources, capabilities, and sustainability. Abdulghany, posits on such legal actions that, “It means something, that’s for sure, based on that it’s more difficult now for countries to reconnect with Assad, and also I think it has affected his allies.”
A Catalyst for Positive Change
The quest for justice in holding the Assad regime accountable for its crimes in Syria is ongoing. The charges leveled against the regime are serious, and organizations such as the ECCHR, the CIJA, ICJ, and SNHR are working to hold the regime accountable. However, court proceedings alone are not enough to build a brighter future for Syria, “Legal actions against Assad need to be followed by political pressure,” says Abdulghany, “That means this regime cannot rule Syria. And the Syrian people deserve better governance. We therefore need more efforts towards political transition.”