Human rights lawyers are urging the International Criminal Court to open a preliminary investigation into alleged mass deportations by Syrian authorities, in an attempt to hold President Bashar Assad’s regime accountable for atrocities enacted during the country’s bloody civil war.
Lawyer Toby Cadman said Thursday that legal experts at the Guernica Centre for International Justice argue that a precedent set last year in a case involving the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar can be used to give the Hague-based court jurisdiction over at least part of the devastating Syrian conflict.
The ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Syria because the country is not a member of the court. That has meant that numerous allegations of atrocities committed during the conflict have not been prosecuted at the world’s first permanent criminal tribunal.
Cadman wants that to change.
He and other lawyers handed over a file to prosecutors this week arguing that the court could exercise jurisdiction over Syrian civilians forced into Jordan, which is a member of the court.
In a telephone interview, Cadman said the Rohingya case could be replicated for Syria.
Though Myanmar is not a member of the court, Bangladesh is. In a groundbreaking ruling last year, ICC judges said that because Muslim Rohingya people were driven from Myanmar into Bangladesh the court has jurisdiction.
“The same principle should apply to Syria and Jordan,” Cadman said.
Cadman said atrocities committed by government forces in Syria forced about a million civilians to flee into Jordan and the threat of more mistreatment if they return is preventing them from returning home.
The ICC is a court of last resort, which steps in only when national authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute alleged crimes.
In a written response, the ICC prosecutor’s office confirmed it had received the filing and said it will analyze the material.
“As soon as we reach a decision on the appropriate next step, we will inform the sender and provide reasons for our decision,” the office said.
The ICC and its chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda have faced criticism in recent years after a series of failed prosecutions. Prosecuting crimes in Syria could help restore faith in the court and its prosecutor, Cadman said.
“I think this is this is an opportunity for her to really establish the credibility of her office,” he said.