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  • Writer's pictureToby Cadman

An Unwavering Thirst for Justice

The one thing that I have always admired in my Syrian friends and colleagues is that their thirst for justice is much stronger than their thirst for revenge. I am not sure, as a human being, as a father and as a husband, that I could be as forgiving. If I had witnessed the devastation of my country, the brutal murder of members of my family, the destruction of my home and community, would I be as forgiving, probably not. It is therefore a testament to the Syrians that I know that their commitment to document crimes, professionally and sincerely, for holding those persons accountable one day in a court of law, outweighs an otherwise insatiable desire for blood.

However, what happens when the world has forgotten you? What happens when the world fails to stop the bloodshed? What happens when the very institutions created seventy year ago to combat impunity and punish acts of aggression are powerless? What then? Do we celebrate the targeted killing of a man who was truly monstrous? Do we support a course of conduct that has been described as effectively  using war crimes to combat war criminals? No, I do not think we do.  It would appear that that is precisely what is being proposed when one speaks of disproportionate military attacks and destruction of cultural monuments. 

The killing of Qasem Soleimani is unlikely to be considered justified under international law. Furthermore, it is unlikely to bring an end to the conflict in Syria nor will it bring stability to Iraq. It may very. well increase hostilities and instability in region. In the same way that the death of Saddam Hussain did not bring peace and stability to Iraq and the death of Muammar al-Gaddafi has not brought in a new era of democratic freedoms to Libya, neither will the death of Soleimani bring an end to the conflict in Syria.

States that choose aggression as a way of resolving conflict and fail to hold accountable those accused of atrocities must recognise that the cycle of violence will continue and will become entrenched. It is the very absence of the rule of law, of human rights and democratic freedoms that conflict continues; it feeds on instability.

It is unlikely that many of those Syrians I know will shed a tear over the death of a man who is responsible for orchestrating a campaign of violence against innocent civilians. Neither will I shed a solitary tear, although I do fear for what may come.

I would have liked to have seen Soleimani captured and dragged in handcuffs before a court and to stand trial before an independent and impartial tribunal of law to face justice for his crimes. I would have liked to have seen the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried for their crimes and I still hope to see Bashar al Assad and his evil machinery stand trial. That may be a distant and slightly naïve aspiration, but it is one that I hold close to my heart. The moment we give up hope is the moment we are truly doomed as a human race. The moment we stop fighting for justice and for the rights of victims is the moment we are truly lost.

However, it is hard to fault those that applaud the actions of the Trump Administration in targeting Soleimani or indeed any other senior political or military leader that bears criminal responsibility for such atrocities particularly in the absence of any meaningful accountability mechanism and in the face of such failure by our own political leaders to bring an end to the conflict. Nevertheless, this brings us to the proposed strategy of Winston Churchill in February 1945 following the death of more than six million Jews in the holocaust and countless other civilian and military casualties as part of a global conflict. It was Churchill’s proposal to take the Nazi leaders, line them up against a wall and summarily execute them without trial. For, in his mind, and he is not alone in this theory, such war criminals who refused to consider the human rights of their victims deserve no greater fate than immediate death. This is, as the famed U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Justice Robert Jackson, proclaimed, a stated poisoned chalice. In Justice Jackson’s words:

“We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today, is the record upon which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task, that this trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspiration to do justice.”

Ironically, it was U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Russian Premier, Joseph Stalin, that opted for trials. Roosevelt felt the U.S. public would demand proper trials and Stalin saw the excellent propaganda value.

Earlier this year I visited the Nuremberg Tribunal and sat in Courtroom 600 where the most famous trials took place. I was consumed with what the Judges, Prosecutors, Lawyers and to some extent the defendants must have felt. History in the making. Making the world a better place, a safer place, through the administration of justice. What we have witnessed the last few days is unlikely to make the world a better place and it is unlikely to make it safer place. A man who dedicated his military career to committing acts of atrocities and is almost certainly a man without feeling and without remorse is gone. Again, I will not shed a tear. He chose his place in life. But I must ask, what will follow him? Who will take his place? That is what truly worries me. The conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Myanmar are not committed by individuals. They are committed by the state machinery. Assad and Soleimani are not solely responsible for more than half a million deaths and the forcible displacement of 10 million civilians. They are parts of a machinery that include the army, military intelligence and militant groups connected to the Syrian, Russian and Iranian State. That does not disappear overnight.

There can be no peace without justice. No reconciliation without accountability. Impunity feeds on blood and violence. Cycles of violence and hatred continues unless there is democracy and the rule of law. Let us hope that reason sees the way and lights a better path for us all and our children to live in peace and stability and that the unwavering thirst for justice must continue to overpower an otherwise insatiable desire for blood and revenge.

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