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Justice for war criminals

April 28, 2012

ONE way or another, the question of when and how to intervene in foreign conflicts has been the hot topic of international affairs for more than half a century now — as this country knows better than most, having been directly involved in cooling hot spots since Lester Pearson invented peacekeeping and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his solution to the Suez Crisis in 1956.

It is thus … profoundly disturbing to Canadians that the dilemma is as far from resolution today as ever, as two [recent] coincidental news stories … demonstrate. In one, the Liberian ex-warlord Charles Taylor was found guilty of crimes against humanity for his central role in a gruesome civil war in which an estimated 50,000 died and many others were raped, mutilated or forced to fight as soldiers. In the other, France called for the United Nations to consider direct intervention in the civil war in Syria following repeated evidence that the government of President Bashar Assad is flouting a ceasefire deal….

In the one case, a government leader guilty of murderous behaviour toward his own people has been brought to justice, but 10 years too late to save a single potential victim, and only when peaceful legal process had him extradited from his refuge in a nearby country. In the other, a government leader continues to roll up the body count … and the only way the international community has to bring him to an international court is assembling the UN Security Council votes and military assets necessary [to] break his grip on power.

Indeed, what has happened to Taylor — even if it is far from the justice his victims might propose — is an impediment to sorting out Assad, rather than the deterrence the law ought to be to criminals. Right now, Assad clings to power at all costs and hazards because he has no safe way to surrender. He knows his enemies are likely to give him and his family very rough treatment if they win. And now he has an indication of what the outside world would eventually do if he were lucky enough to avoid the sordid demise that fate had in store for fallen Libyan dictator [Muammar Qadhafi] last year.

Some might argue that rapid, timely, effective outside intervention is the answer to the challenge posed by the Liberian and Syrian stories. The air strikes that proved effective in aiding rebels in Libya seem to back that approach. The trouble is that each conflict is unique, and for every case such as Libya’s, there are three in which military intervention costs many lives…. In the end, the British jail awaiting Taylor in many cases may be the best the international community can accomplish as a disincentive to war crimes….  — (April 27)