I posted earlier about a new bipartisan bill to advance accountability in Syria: the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 (current status is here). Two additional pieces of legislation are now floating around Capitol Hill that are concerned with promoting international justice for Syria. Both deserve our support.

First, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act.  This bill, which passed the House on May 17,  (current status is here), announces that:

It is the policy of the United States that all diplomatic and coercive economic means should be utilized to compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to immediately halt the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people and to support an immediate transition to a democratic government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors.

The bill would impose a series of new sanctions that could be lifted by the president in the event that abuses cease, there are credible negotiations underway, or a peace agreement has been reached. Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Impose additional financial and immigration sanctions on persons doing various forms of business with the government of Syria (including the provision of financial, material, or technological support).
  • Impose arms and other embargoes on the government of Syria, including a ban on technologies related to chemical or biological weapons.
  • Amend the Syria Human Rights Accountability Act of 2012 to impose additional sanctions on persons who are responsible for, or complicit in, human rights abuses committed against citizens of Syria; on transactions on goods and technologies that are likely to be used to commit human rights abuses in Syria; and on persons who hinder humanitarian access in Syria.
  • Commission a report to Congress on whether or not a long list of named regime officials—including Bashar al-Assad—fall within the new sanctions regimes.
  • Mandate an evaluation of existing assistance program in Syria by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
  • Direct the submission of a report assessing the effectiveness, risks, and operational requirements of establishing a multilateral no-fly zone over part or all of Syria.
  • Authorize the provision of funds to support entities that are conducting criminal investigations, building Syrian investigative capacity, supporting prosecutions in national courts, collecting evidence and preserving the chain of evidence for eventual prosecution against those who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria, including the aiding or abetting of such crimes by foreign governments and organizations. (Although, once again, no additional funds are appropriated).
  • Allow for various waivers of sanctions for humanitarian assistance and where it is vital to the United States’ national security interests.

As a novel carrot-stick component, the legislation would also allow the president to suspend sanctions if he certifies that the Government of Syria has ended military attacks and human rights abuses (including abusive detentions) against the Syrian people, if there are credible internationally-recognized peace negotiations underway, or if an international agreement has been concluded to end hostilities in Syria. 

This bill, sponsored by Rep. Eliot Engle (D-NY), is named after the pseudonym of the Syrian forensic photographer who had been with the Syrian military police.  When he defected, Caesar smuggled out of Syria a flash drive containing over 50,000 photos depicting detainees who had been starved and tortured to death within Syrian prisons, including children.  At least 6,700 individuals have been identified by groups such as the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees.  The photos have been authenticated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Human Rights Watch; they’ve also been displayed in Congress and are now at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Britain’s Channel 4 recently aired a documentary—Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad—on the photographs. A discussion with the filmmaker and former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen J. Rapp, can be found on the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The photographs have given rise to some accountability efforts in domestic courts. Most importantly, a Spanish court recently accepted jurisdiction in a case filed by Guernica37 International Justice Chambers—a new human rights law firm with offices in Madrid, London, and Washington D.C.—on behalf of a Spanish citizen who recognized her brother among the pictures of those murdered. Nine Syrian officials are named.  The judge assigned to the case, Judge Eloy Velasco, is the same investigating magistrate that dismissed the so-called “Bush 6” case involving abuses on Guantánamo.  Named in that case were former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Assistant AG Jay Bybee, former Deputy Assistant AG John Yoo, former DoD GC Willian J. Haynes II, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, and Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel, David S. Addington. (See my coverage here).  That suit was eventually dismissed on complementarity grounds (see here for background: US Accountability, Bush Six, Amicus Brief to Supreme Court, ECCHR-CCR, 2012-09-25).

The bill had been under consideration last year, but the White House apparently blocked it from getting a vote in the House of Representatives out of concern that it would jeopardize a fragile ceasefire that had been brokered by the U.S. and Russia.  Other supporters of the Bill include Ed Royce (R-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill).  The Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an umbrella organization of Syrian organizations promoting justice in Syria also helped to spearhead the legislation.

Second, is the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2017.  This bill—which also enjoys bipartisan support—would further entrench the imperative of atrocities prevention in U.S. foreign policy and give legislative a government-wide strategy of prevention and response.  In summary, it would:

  • Direct the president to establish a Mass Atrocity Task Force within the State Department to ensure that representatives from across the government adequately coordinate policies around mass atrocities.
  • Train foreign service officers to recognize the indicators and risk factors of genocide so as to enhance our early warning capabilities and better implement conflict and atrocities prevention policies.
  • Request the Director of National Intelligence to include in his or her annual Congressional testimony a review of atrocity risks around the world.
  • Create a Complex Crises Fund to enable the Department of State and USAID to respond more quickly in unforeseen and unfolding atrocities.
  • Require regular reports on U.S. efforts in atrocities prevention and response.

The Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (one of the many vacant seats in the Department), or an official of equivalent rank, would serve as the Chair of the Task Force.  The envisioned Task Force looks a lot like the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) in terms of membership, purpose, and activities. The APB has yet to meet under President Donald Trump, although the sub-APB has met at the working level. The bill also includes a number of findings identifying atrocities prevention and response as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

This second piece of proposed legislation—introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md) and Senator Todd Young (R-Ind)—enjoys bipartisan support and earned the praise of many civil society organizations. Three former Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes Issues—David Scheffer, Clint Williamson, and Stephen Rapp—have offered public support for the legislation. This legislation follows on the heels of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2016, which was introduced last year and contained many of the same components.

That bill was also introduced by Senator Cardin, who has emerged as one of Congress’s strongest voices on human rights and anti-corruption.  Senator Cardin also championed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017 (see my earlier coverage here).

Image: Street in San Francisco. Photo by Beth Van Schaack.