Is it Time for ICC in Syria?

There is a growing chorus urging the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes in Syria.  Today in Geneva, the top UN Human Rights official, Navi Pillay, called for an ICC intervention in Syria.   Meanwhile, a group of 22 NGOs active in the Arab world are calling on the Arab League, which meets tomorrow, to press for an ICC to investigation.

Because Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, the only way that ICC would have jurisdiction in Syria is through a Security Council resolution referring the Syria situation to the ICC. Needless to say, this requires overcoming a Russian and Chinese veto.

Russia and China are not intrinsically opposed to the ICC. Both countries abstained the two previous times that the Security Council referred a situation to the ICC (Sudan in 2006, and Libya in 2011) permitting the resolutions to pass and opening up the leaders of those countries to international criminal prosecution.

Rather, the big obstacle to an ICC referral is the political support that Russia is giving the Assad regime. Much of the diplomatic maneuvering right now is aimed at raising the international costs to backing the Assad regime. The Human Rights Council will likely overwhelmingly pass a resolution condemning Syria, which will be a symbolic demonstration of Syria’s international isolation. Meanwhile, should the Arab League request the Security Council to refer the Syria to the ICC, Russia and China will find it much more difficult to block this resolution–after all, it is what Syria’s neighbors want. If Russia and China want to maintain their relationship with other countries in the region, they would be advised to follow the Arab League’s lead.

This all leads to a big decision for Moscow that would have profound consequences inside Syria. The moment that Russia abstains from a Security Council resolution granting the ICC jurisdiction to investigate in Syria is the moment that Damascus loses its last redoubt of international support.