Perspective — September 12, 2013, 7:51 am

On the Enemy as Criminal

Why can’t we indict Bashar al-Assad at the International Criminal Court?

International Criminal Court, The Hague. ©© M.M. R. (Flickr)

International Criminal Court, The Hague. ©© M.M. R. (Flickr)

In his address to a war-weary American public Tuesday night, President Obama sought to justify military action against the Syrian government through conventional appeals to our national interest and security. But bound up with these appeals, Obama continues to offer a loftier and more remarkable reason to bomb — as punishment for Assad’s violation of an international legal norm. And while the president also expressed hope for a diplomatic solution, his insistence that Assad’s actions constitute a breach of international law should also give us pause. If Assad is, as the president argues, guilty of crimes against humanity, how can we accept a diplomatic solution? Murderers, after all, do not typically escape prosecution by promising to behave from now on. On the other hand, should the diplomatic solution fail, is it proper to use an act of war to deliver what is, in essence, a legal punishment? Don’t we have courts for that purpose?

For all his talk about Assad’s violations of international law, Obama notably never mentioned the idea of a juridical response. The International Criminal Court, a permanent institution in the Hague meant to supplant the kind of ad-hoc tribunal used at Nuremberg to try prominent Nazis after the Second World War, has been up and running since 2002. Now with more than 120 member states, and with jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the ICC would appear perfectly designed to weigh the allegations against Assad. Indeed, on Thursday the leader of the Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idris, asked for just that to happen: “We call upon the international community,” he said, “not only to withdraw the chemical weapons that were the tool of the crime, but to hold accountable those who committed the crime in front of the International Criminal Court.”

Were it only that simple. An institution born of compromise between the aspirations of jurists and the concerns of diplomats, the ICC has limited power over nations such as Syria, which has refused to join the court and so may abuse its citizens free from the nettlesome meddling of an international prosecutor. Technically, the ICC could gain jurisdiction over Assad’s crimes in the form of a referral from the United Nations Security Council, but that won’t happen, since both Russian and China enjoy veto power over any council resolution referring Assad to the ICC.

And Russian opposition is only half the story. Like Syria, the United States is not a state party to the ICC. What’s more, in 2002 Congress passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act; known colloquially as the “Hague Invasion Act,” it authorizes the use of military force to “protect American military personnel and officials from “prosecution by an international criminal court to which the United States is not a party.” While Obama has replaced Bush’s efforts to actively undermine the ICC with a policy of cooperation, he could never push to refer a case to a court to whose jurisdiction we refuse submit and whom we reserve the right to militarily attack. Nor would the ICC provide an ideal, or even adequate, solution to the exceptionally thorny Assad problem, assuming these obstructions could be surmounted. ICC investigations move ploddingly, and pundits like to insist that international indictments make reprobate heads of state less likely to accept a negotiated settlement.

But it bears noting: in seeking to use war as a response to crime, Obama himself strays onto legally contested terrain. Here we need only to recall his vexed use of predator drones in the targeted killing of terror suspects, a deeply controversial policy that bears more than a family resemblance to the president’s argument for using force against Syria. In both cases, death from above takes the place of arrest, indictment, and trial. So while we may hope for a diplomatic solution, we should note that Obama’s forceful appeal to legal principle in his call for military action against Assad is of a piece with a larger American trend of using military might as judge, jury, and executioner.

Share
Single Page

More from Lawrence Douglas:

From the October 2013 issue

A Kangaroo in Obama’s Court

Will the Guantánamo tribunal execute a man we tortured?

From the March 2012 issue

Ivan the Recumbent, or Demjanjuk in Munich

Enduring the “last great Nazi war-crimes trial”

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • allanHR

    There is another very obvious reason: war criminal George W. Bush.

  • dassa0069

    Also Cheney and Rumsfeld.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
 Jessica Bruder on the end of retirement, Mary Gordon on the new Vatican, Laura Kipnis on narcissism, and more
Article
The End of Retirement·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“For those riding the economy’s outermost edge, adaptation may now mean giving up what full-time RV dwellers call ‘stick houses’ to hit the road and seek work.”
Photograph (detail) © Max Whittaker
Post
God Lives on Lemon Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Bethel was Oz-like for me. I mean that with all the awe, utter hopefulness, and mythic fear with which Dorothy and her friends had approached that magical city.”
Photograph (detail) ©© Clemens v. Vogelson (Flickr)
Article
The Octopus and Its Grandchildren·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Stanford University’s origins and vision
“The pervasive fantasy that Silicon Valley doesn’t need the government obscures the role of that government in funding much of the research that built it.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
World Cup Boom and Bust·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m not giving a dime to FIFA. You know they’re not paying taxes on any of this?”
Photograph © The author

Chance that an American believes Ramadan is the Jewish day of atonement:

1 in 10

Mathematicians discovered the existence of a pseudoprime that is the sum of 10,333,229,505 known primes and contains roughly 295 billion digits but cannot be represented precisely because the mathematician who found it lacks sufficient RAM.

On the eve of Independence Day in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko delivered a speech in Belarusian instead of Russian for the first time in 20 years, disproving rumors that he can no longer speak the language.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today