Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on Sunday called on the United Nations to pursue Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for war crimes.
“I… hope that we will pursue Assad for war crimes,” Menedez said on NBC’s Meet The Press, addressing comments United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made on Friday. By using chemical weapons against his own people, Ban said, Assad had “carried out many crimes against humanity.”
Menendez offered strong support to that line of inquiry on Sunday. “The comments of Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations are very significant — he’s very reserved most of the time — the comments that [Assad] has committed crimes against humanity is something I’d like to see pursued.”
Both members of Congress and the American People have struggled with the devastating situation in Syria, maintaining resistance to President Obama’s call for targeted military strikes there, while also wanting to intervene in the ongoing civil war that has left over 100,000 dead and millions seeking refuge.
But trying Assad for war crimes in the International Criminal Court provides an avenue for rebuke that does not require any military involvement.
War crimes charges have not yet been part of the conversation around what to do with Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But, last year, then-Sec. of State Hillary Clinton characterized Assad’s military actions against his own people as befitting of war criminal charges.
Syria has not ratified the statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which means that in order for Assad to be tried for war crimes there, the case would need to be referred from the UN’s Security Council. Russia, a strong ally of Assad, sits on the Security Council. As part of the deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria, Russia has explicitly requested guarantees that Assad would not be referred to the ICC. But even if Assad is sent there, Syria’s non-participation in the ICC could make for a messy, complicated, and potentially unsuccessful trial.
Use of chemical weapons is just one of the crimes committed in the bloody Syrian civil war that would qualify as a war crime. A damning UN report released earlier this week found that both the Assad regime and the rebels have used tactics including massive killings, kidnappings, the threat of sexual violence, and even forcing prisoners to suck their own blood off the floor.