Friday, 16 December 2016

My op-ed for The Telegraph on the failure of international justice in Syria in comparison to Bosnia

The Telegraph




Opinion

Hoping to prosecute the butchers of Aleppo is a sad fig leaf for the West's failure to intervene in Syria

JOHN SLINGER    

15 DECEMBER 2016 • 4:33PM

The nightmare in Aleppo has coincided with the trial of former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic in The Hague reaching its concluding arguments. Given that the UK and other Western countries are collecting evidence for possible future prosecutions for war crimes in Syria, including through the use of drones and satellites as the BBC reported yesterday, we should consider what scope exists for international justice in that country.

A comparison with the 1992-1995 Bosnia conflict shows up the devastating extent of our non-intervention in Syria. Many reading this will remember watching in horror as Western powers appeared to hide behind the buck-passing "civil war" descriptor while ethnic cleansing and genocide raged. "Srebrenica" and "Sarajevo" became emblazoned in our minds as examples of humanity's failure to act, much as "Aleppo" has today. Yet relative to Syria, Bosnia saw a massive degree of military intervention by the West. European powers led UNPROFOR'sdeployment of 38,000 personnel, including ground troops, at the beginning of the conflict, with a UN mandate to protect “safe havens” and “no-fly zones”. Contrast this with our public declaration that we would never use ground troops in Syria and the desperate pleas from our MPs for even minimal airdrops in this week’s emergency debate.

Bosnia benefited from US leadership, albeit belated. As the Bosnian Serbs continued their brutal actions, the Americans, frustrated at Europe’s failure on their own "doorstep", intervened decisively by leading a huge NATO air campaign to end the war. The resulting 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement set in train a comprehensive international effort towards reconstruction and the minimisation of inter-ethnic conflict through structures such as the Office of the High Representative.

The Syrian war has seen the opposite approach from the Obama administration: resistance to arming the moderate rebels; a training programme cancelled after $500 million was reportedly spent training “four or five rebels”; refusal to use air power long before Russia deployed advanced air defences, prompting Senator John McCain to tell Radio 4 in 2012 that "If we can’t defeat the air defences of a third rate power, then I have a great apology to extend to the taxpayers of my state.” Most shamefully of all, it drew and then erased its own red line on the use of chemical weapons in 2013.

The prosecution of the likes of Mladic at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the former Yugoslavia flowed from the concerted, if imperfect, Western-led, international efforts to rebuild the affected countries following a decisive military intervention and peace process. The suggestion now from Western leaders of bringing international criminal prosecutions over Syria is mere clutching at straws by those desperate to do at least something in an arena they’ve already withdrawn from. There is no guarantee that prosecutions would occur within a post-conflict Syria, given the likely influence of Assad’s allies. But even in the best-case scenario, the evidence from other ICTs is not heartening.

A quarter of a century after the horrendous crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Rwanda, only a tiny fraction of perpetrators have been prosecuted, let alone convicted. In Rwanda, only 93 people have been indicted, of whom only 62 have been convicted by the ICT, for a genocide which killed one million. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the figures are similar, with 82 sentenced of the 154 accused to date. Noble principles stand behind these tribunals, whose staff are undoubtedly doing the best they can in difficult circumstances. However, foot soldiers or leaders engaged in war crimes are unlikely to be deterred by these conviction rates.

The most important lesson from Bosnia is that decisive intervention, backed up by long-term political and economic support for the countries concerned, can succeed in ending seemingly intractable conflicts. In Syria, the West's ability to influence events was never a matter of military or economic power, but of political will. Only after we showed that we had very little of this through our inaction did the Russians, Iranians and others assert themselves, to devastating effect.

Because of the reality on the ground and the Trump administration's likely desire to strike a deal with Russia over Syria, there is at present no realistic scope for military intervention by the West. We abdicated our responsibilities and other actors filled the vacuum. Throughout the West, politicians of all parties are examining their consciences: Ed Miliband and many Labour MPs for failing to give the Prime Minister sufficient support for military action in the crucial 2013 vote, and leading members of the Cabinet in the last Parliament for not arguing more forcefully for a robust response.

Opponents of intervention such as Jeremy Corbyn often cling to concepts like international justice and human rights as an alternative. It is patently clear that these concepts are not worth the paper they're written on if they're not enforced. Now, it seems that our politicians generally are reduced to issuing vague threats to prosecute today’s war criminals, instead of preventing their crimes from occurring. That's an absurd fig leaf that magnifies rather than masks our collective weakness.

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant who has worked on Middle East politics

Online at The Telegraph here.

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