Russian war crimes in Aleppo and Syria: Civilized nations must impose sectorial sanctions now

Given the gravity of Russian violations of international humanitarian law, by a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, civilized nations should undertake two specific actions:

First, they should impose heavy sectorial sanctions against Russia for its support and commission of war crimes in Syria.

Second, they should jointly commit to bringing to justice those who engaged in the commission of these war crimes.

Violations and Reaffirmations of Fundamental Legal Norms

The only thing worse than the commission of a heinous crime is to do nothing about it.

The effectiveness of legal norms, including international legal norms, does not ultimately depend on whether or not they are violated, but rather on the response of the community to the norm’s violation.

The prohibition of the illegal use of force is not dead because one or another country violates the prohibition. The norm loses its viability and deterrent force only when the community ceases to take notice of violations and fails to act to uphold the norm by taking vigorous action to reaffirm its existence and importance, and to sanction those who violate it.

In a domestic context, legal norms prohibiting murder may be strong and enforced, or wither and lose effectiveness when the community, represented by the state, ceases to investigate and seek to sanction those who commit such crimes.

Impunity results, as the consequences of violating the norm decrease to near zero.

To be sure, there always remains the possibility that the community might at some point in the future reaffirm the norm and sanction its violation. This is particularly true in the case of war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which there is no statute of limitations.

Russian War Crimes in Syria

These principles apply directly to what is going on in Syria in general, and in Aleppo in particular.

For years, Russia has given support to Bashar al-Assad in his commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. Under international law, Russia is therefore complicit in and responsible for the commission of these crimes.

See “REPRISE–Syria: Russia and Iran complicit under International Law in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” The Trenchant Observer (updated September 26, 2016)

More recently, Russia itself has directly committed war crimes in Syria, including the intentional and targeted bombing of the U.N. Red Crescent humanitarian aid convoy in northern Syria on September 19, 2016.

See “BREAKING NEWS — U.S. says very high likelihood Russia bombed humanitarian aid convoy in Syria,” The Trenchant Observer, September 20, 2016.

In coordinated actions with the Syrian military, Russia continues to support or directly engage in the bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, medical personnel, and water facilities, in Aleppo and elsewhere.

A number of nations condemned these war crimes at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on September 25.

See “At last they speak the truth: U.S., U.K., and France accuse Russia of war crimes in Syria,” The Trenchant Observer, September 25, 2016. This articles contains links to the Security Council press release and the video webcast of the meeting.

After Words of Condemnation, Actions Are Required

Now civilized nations must back up those words of condemnation with actions.

They must reaffirm their support of international humanitarian law (also known as the law of armed conflict or the law of war) through actions.

Given the gravity of Russian violations of international humanitarian law, by a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, civilized nations should undertake two specific actions:

First, they should impose heavy sectorial sanctions against Russia for its support and commission of war crimes in Syria.

Second, they should jointly commit to bringing to justice those who engaged in the commission of these war crimes.

As the Nuremberg trials and cases from Chile, Argentina, the former Yugoslavia, and other countries show, international crimes need to be sanctioned, whenever and wherever that may be possible. It may take 30 years. Or longer.

Current and potential authors of international crimes need to be forcefully reminded that the international norms they are violating still have force, are still and even increasingly supported by the international community of states, and will be enforced in the future by national courts in different countries and by institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

Whatever the violations, it is vital for the future that international humanitarian law norms be reaffirmed by the community of civilized nations, and that current violations by Russia, in particular, be vigorously sanctioned.

The Trenchant Observer

 

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.