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Faculty Fellow Analyzes Syria Justice and Accountability Mechanisms

May 21 2018

Handa Center Faculty Fellow Beth Van Schaackis currently a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University. During her fellowship, Van Schaack has been thinking creatively about how the international community can better design and implement responses to situations of mass violence, such as Syria, and societies emerging from episodes of bloodshed and authoritarianism.

The Syrian conflict is one of the most well-documented international crime bases in human history, and yet accountability has been largely elusive. In her CASBS book project, Van Schaack is exploring the legal impediments and diplomatic challenges that have enabled perpetrators of war crimes in the Syria crisis to act with impunity. Despite the fact that civil society groups and governments are collecting significant documentation and engaging in rigorous investigations to a criminal law standard, the ICC is unable to act in Syria because Russia has used its veto to block the referral and there is insufficient political will to establish an ad hoccriminal tribunal. Select national proceedings are currently the only option for accountability to date.  

Eight years into the war, there is no question that the international community has failed the civilian population in Syria. Nonetheless, Van Schaack is also focused on a few bright spots when it comes to the prospects of justice and accountability. Her research demonstrates that diplomats, lawyers, and policymakers—acting both within and without the United Nations—have created several innovative justice and accountability mechanisms that will eventually advance justice for crimes being committed in and in connection with the Syrian conflict.  These include new models of human rights documentation and investigation, many using new digital technologies, as well as new legal theories for providing justice for international crimes in domestic courts.  This forced creativity is advancing the accountability norm in new ways. 

Below is a brief Q & A we had with Van Schaack about her current work.

At a time when people are discouraged about the prospects for peace and justice in Syria you are seeing evidence of innovation around the imperative of accountability. What is possible?

The bright spots are around documentation and the preservation of potential evidence. Because of the digital revolution, we have more evidence than we have ever had from previous armed conflicts, which is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for justice. At the same time, this does present its own problems because we need to develop ways to identify the most compelling evidence and preserve it for future accountability exercises.  When it comes to institution building, there have been a plethora of proposals, but nothing has come to fruition yet given the current geopolitical context, especially given Russian opposition, and the lack of political will for hybrid accountability mechanisms. As a result, we are left with one-off prosecutions in domestic courts as opposed to a comprehensive architecture for justice, despite all the evidence.

You have a long history working on war crimes- how do you remain hopeful?

The pursuit of justice requires a long game.  There will always be impediments. But, if we look back at recent history, we see sparks of justice even in situations marked by entrenched impunity, such as El Salvador or Cambodia. I also gain energy from my clients and their quest for justice. Being a lawyer gives one a ready set of tools, not perfect but still useful, to respond to the commission of international crimes. 

How has your involvement with the Handa Center and Stanford more broadly informed your work?

The Handa Center is a hub for members of our community devoted to the promotion of human rights and justice. We can provide students with opportunities to engage domestically and internationally around human rights issues, build their professional networks through our faculty and guest speakers, and develop the intellectual capital to tackle today’s human rights challenges on and off campus. I have worked to help students contribute to legal cases, such as those being pursued by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco. As a world class university with multidisciplinary competencies, the Stanford community can respond to vexing international challenges, such as Syria and the resulting refugee crisis, in a comprehensive way.

Van Schaack will be teaching International Justice, Human Trafficking and Human Rights next year.  In her work and scholarship, she will bring to bear her extensive experience in prosecuting war crimes and familiarity with the diplomatic machinations around atrocities prevention and response. 

You can learn more about Syria justice and accountability by reading our event recap of the panel, "Technology, Syria, and Human Rights" and watching the video of our annual lecture, "Accountability for the Most Serious Crimes Committed in Syria."