For Now, No War Crimes Charges Against Syrian Regime

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says Bashar Assad has committed crimes against humanity, given his attacks on civilians. The U.S., Britain and France say a U.N. report on the use of chemical weapons that killed more than a thousand people proves that Assad's regime was responsible. So far, though, only a few voices are calling for war crimes tribunals.

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Syria's chemical weapons are very far from being removed, but authorities say they've made a start. Secretary of State John Kerry says he's pleased with the pace of what has happened so far.

Last night, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon laid out a plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons program by the end of next June.

But even if all the chemical weapons went, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would remain, and that leaves many questions about how to resolve Syria's lengthening civil war.

Assad is accused of using chemical weapons in August to kill more than 1,400 people. President Obama labeled that attack a crime against humanity. And that also leaves the question of whether Assad will ever face war crimes charges.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Less than two weeks ago, the U.N. Security Council approved - by a unanimous vote - a resolution calling on Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Some Security Council members - including France and Great Britain, but not the U.S. - want a language in the resolution calling for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to look into possible war crimes. That section was taken out. Instead, the final text merely says that those responsible for any use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.

So why was a war crimes reference taken out? Here's Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a recent interview with NPR.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: It's not a big secret the feelings that Russia and China have about the International Criminal Court.

BOWMAN: Meaning both countries - Security Council members - would likely have vetoed a resolution that included any hint of a war crimes prosecution. Russian officials said prosecuting Assad was ill-timed and counterproductive and would not end the civil war. China, meanwhile, has reservations about international interference in a state's internal affairs.

And then there's the U.S.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: I think that the United States would want to see Assad ultimately be designated a war criminal.

BOWMAN: That's Senator Robert Menendez. He's chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and an advocate of a war crimes trial. But he said the U.S. had to get what it could in the face of a Russian veto threat.

MENENDEZ: And in that clash, the art of the possible, which was eliminating the chemical weapons, became a reality.

BOWMAN: So, for now, the United States is not pushing for prosecution, but is taking some early steps to be ready, in case.

Again, Samantha Power from that recent interview.

POWER: We are, as a government, pursuing accountability of all kinds, supporting the gathering of evidence, supporting the commission of inquiry, supporting a range of measures that will insure when the day comes where Assad is in the dock, that the evidence will be there in order to ensure meaningful criminal accountability.

BOWMAN: There are different routes to getting Assad in the criminal dock.

Stephen Rapp is the State Department's ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. He told Yahoo News that the Obama administration prefers to work with Syrians and the international community to create a special court for Syrian war crimes.

STEPHEN RAPP: Enormous crimes have been committed that can be traced directly to the highest levels of the Syrian regime.

BOWMAN: Similar courts were created in the 1990s for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Creating such a special court for Syria would still need approval from the Security Council, including Russia and China.

Both countries have permitted such courts in the past, in part because the nations that create special courts get to write the rules.

Kathryn Ammon is a law professor at the University of Georgia.

KATHY AMMON: They get much more say about who are the judges on that court, what crimes they can pursue and what defendants they can pursue. If it goes to the International Criminal Court, that's a fully impartial and independent court, and powerful states have much less control over what it does.

BOWMAN: When and if war crimes are investigated in Syria remains uncertain, because right now, those powerful states are focused on destroying those chemical weapons.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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