- By David BoscoDavid Bosco is a Foreign Policy contributing editor and assistant professor at American University's School of International Service. He is at work on a book about the International Criminal Court's first decade.
A notable feature of the international response to Syria has been the limited discussion of employing the tools of international justice, namely the International Criminal Court (ICC). Because Syria is not an ICC member, granting the court jurisdiction would require the UN Security Council to act, as it did in Libya and Sudan. Activist groups such as Human Rights Watch have supported a referral, and the UN’s top human rights official called for an ICC investigation, but diplomacy on the justice issue has been subdued.
This no doubt reflects the current impossibility of persauding Russia and China to accept an ICC investigation. But my sense is that it reflects something else as well: a Western reconsideration of the benefits of deploying international justice in the midst of conflict. Both the Libya and the Sudan referrals resulted in indictments for the respective head of state and senior ministers. And in both cases, the benefits have been murky, while the costs in terms of diplomatic flexibility have been significant. With the possibility of exile for Assad still circulating, I don’t sense that the West is eager to foreclose any options.
There’s nothing in this more cautious approach that is necessarily destructive of the push for international accountability. Once the Syria conflict has played out, the Council or, conceivably, the Arab League can initiate processes for investigating and meteing out punishment. What this staggered approach does undermine is the notion that justice must be a tool for managing ongoing conflict.
I’ve never understood why so many international justice advocates and human rights professionals are fiercely attached to the vision of justice as a tool for managing conflict in the first place. It’s as if justice for its own sake is not enough; it must also be shown that pursuing justice always has salutary political and policy consequences: that it always deters atrocities and never backs indictees into a bloody corner; that it "delegitimizes" those indicted and never impedes diplomatic resolutions. These claims are all but unverifiable empirically. They are more expressions of faith than analysis. What’s more, they are oddly consequentialist positions for folks who pride themselves on principled activism.
More: Astute reader Don Kraus points to another reason that the United States might be wary of referring Syria to the ICC. "The US will be reluctant to pursue this option because a Syrian referral would include the Golan Heights, which would put territory under Israeli control within the Court’s jurisdiction."
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| The Cable |