US Official: Justice and Accountability in Asia 'Not Negotiable'

NEW YORK, December 4, 2012 — A U.S. official has stated that Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad should be held accountable for war crimes violations, in spite of arguments to let him off the hook in an effort to encourage him to relinquish power.

Speaking at Asia Society New York, Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp, head of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Criminal Justice, said that government accountability with respect to war crimes cannot be questioned and rulers accused of wartime violations must be held accountable for war crimes committed.

“There has to be accountability, and that’s the end of it,” said Rapp. “Our policy is that you try to convince them to surrender, you don’t give in, you don’t enable them to carry on their crimes — that’s just really off the table.”  But, Rapp warned, it’s “tough to do” in an international system lacking clear mechanisms for prosecuting violators.

The panel, coming a week after the release of the UN’s Internal Review Panel report on Sri Lanka, highlighted the challenges of holding political leadership accountable, while still moving forward with political and economic development

The UN was strongly criticized by the Internal Review Panel for inaction with respect to the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, and for caving to pressures from the Sri Lankan government not to appoint a senior official to the country to sort out possible war crimes and human rights violations.  

In spite of its self-criticism, the report also went on to criticize the Sri Lankan government, which in response, called the report "erroneous and unsubstantiated."

This is not the first time that the UN has accused the Sri Lankan government of complicity in committing war crimes during its decades-long civil war. Last year, a UN Human Rights Panel found “credible allegations” of “war crimes and crimes against humanity,” which Sri Lankan government officials called “baseless."

Former UN Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston, also sitting on the Asia Society panel, agreed with Rapp’s firm line with respect to accountability, but warned against the U.S. government’s own inability to recognize its own alleged violations with respect to torture.

Alston said, “It is important to remember our own huge resistance to taking any action under the new President Obama in relation to the allegations of torture and other violations said to have been taken by the previous government...It does highlight the fact that leaders are worried."

Alston has also investigated and criticized the U.S. government’s use of aerial drones for targeted killings of alleged militants.

With the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which has significant trade implications, the need to balance economic interests with the possibility of investigating allegations of domestic human rights abuses, as well as allegations of war crimes, is increasingly apparent.

In Obama’s recent trip to Cambodia, he kept quiet on human rights concerns in that country, alleging that the only reason for his trip was to participate in the East Asian Summit. This was in spite of requests from Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, to address the issue head-on. 

Still, the panel concluded that while political accountability and reconciliation processes are inexact, the fact that there are tribunals and other regional human rights and accountability mechanisms creates a favorable precedent for holding political leadership accountable. 

With respect to the recently adopted ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, for example, Alston said it would lead to the “blossoming of a human rights mechanism,” in spite of skepticism about its immediate utility as an enforcement mechanism. “You have to begin with the acceptance of the principles,” he said.

The panel concluded that in spite of flaws with respect to prosecuting war crimes and other human rights abuses, the larger international community’s efforts to live by their ideals is often increased, thereby supporting the creation of standards in Syria, Sri Lanka, and other conflict and post-conflict environments.

As Rapp said at the start of the discussion, “You can’t have peace without justice.”

Reported by Andrew Billo

Video: Highlights from the discussion (3 min., 42 sec.)

Related links:
Watch the complete program