By Stephen J. Rapp, the former United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues appointed by former president Barack Obama. He is currently a global prevention fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Each year, Canada accepts thousands of refugees. Fleeing the world’s worst atrocities, they have often been subjected to horrific violence committed by perpetrators who have never been—and may never be—held to account.
As Canada prepares to lead the G7 summit this week, it’s time to address this justice deficit by putting action to secure accountability at the top of the G7 agenda.
From Syria to Myanmar, Ukraine to Yemen, the failure to uphold once central tenets of international law is undermining the fabric of post-Second World War order.
Without accountability, there is no deterrence. Without deterrence, warring parties commit more heinous atrocities. The repercussions are disastrous.
Whether it is the growing exodus of refugees from war-torn states or the terrorist threat posed by ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL, and Islamic State), we are all affected by the proliferation of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the failure to hold those responsible to account. The G7 offers a platform to address this failure through concrete steps to end impunity.
As a former international prosecutor, I know the critical importance of accountability both for victims and for sustainable solutions to conflicts. I also know that with political will and leadership by countries like Canada, justice is possible.
It is difficult to achieve in crises such as in Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar, which are not signatories to the Rome Statute and thus fall outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). But it is precisely these conflicts that are unraveling hard-fought international norms, and driving instability, terrorism, and refugee crises.
The ICC is not the only route to justice. Where it is blocked, the international community should put in place alternative means to establish truth and prosecute crimes. With political will, there are options both nationally and internationally that could lead to charges against major perpetrators and help deter further mass atrocities.
Canada can redress the imbalance at June’s G7 summit by pushing its partners to commit to specific proposals to secure accountability in at least three of the worst conflicts.
In doing so, Canada will follow the 2013 precedent of the United Kingdom that moved the prevention of sexual violence in conflict to the top of the agenda—an initiative that has helped strengthen investigative capacity across the globe. Given its long and recognized leadership on international justice, Canada is perfectly placed to progress accountability for mass atrocities at the global level.
This will first require action for accountability in Syria, where there has been total impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity including forced disappearance, torture and murder in detention, targeting of hospitals and humanitarian actors, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the use of chemical weapons. The evidence is the clearest that I have seen during two decades as a prosecutor; it’s probably the most conclusive case material since the Nuremberg trials. Yet none of the leaders responsible for atrocities in Syria has been brought to justice.
G7 leaders should agree to pursue a Special Tribunal for Syria, adopted by most UN member states in the General Assembly. Designed to prosecute high-level perpetrators, such a tribunal could deter atrocities in Syria or elsewhere. Most importantly, it would bring Syrian victims one step closer to the justice they deserve and demonstrate unequivocally that international commitments to justice and accountability translate into action.
Second, in Myanmar, state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of Rohingya has contributed to the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. One million Rohingya are stateless, with many suffering harrowing conditions in makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
A sustainable solution for the Rohingya’s plight requires a long-term accountability process, in which those responsible for overseeing their expulsion are held to account.
But before any such process can begin, evidence of atrocity crimes must be collected, processed, and protected. Taking its cue from Syria’s International Impartial and Independent Mechanism, the G7 should agree to an IIIM-type mechanism for Myanmar, to gather and analyze evidence and build trial-ready cases. This is a lengthy process: not starting now will only delay justice for victims.
Finally, in South Sudan, despite the warring parties’ August 2015 signed agreement, the African Union Hybrid Court for South Sudan is not yet established. There has been no significant progress in investigating and prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since December 2013.
As a result, these atrocities continue, and now more than four million people have been driven from their homes. The G7 could use its collective bargaining power and strong relationships with the African Union and South Sudan to kickstart the hybrid court and to show that there will be justice for the massive crimes committed against the people of South Sudan.
None of these steps is easy. But whether they are pursued depends entirely on political will. Canada has an opportunity with the G7 to create that will and begin the process of re-establishing respect for international laws and norms.
Furthermore, until the truth is established in trials, and major perpetrators are held to account, victims will not believe that they can safely return to their homes and violent extremists will continue to recruit followers. Effective action requires leadership, which Canada should exercise at the G7 summit.