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Syria is a perfect opportunity for SA to put the fairness of the International Criminal Court to the test, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - Last week Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim said the world should wait for UN weapons inspectors to complete their investigation of the suspected August 21 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, outside Damascus, before taking any action.
Ebrahim said even though the mandate of the inspectors was only to establish if chemical weapons had been used and not who had used them, the evidence they discovered might suggest who had been responsible anyway.
He was right but perhaps not in the way he intended.
On Monday the inspectors reported that the nerve gas sarin had been used in the Ghouta attack, which killed about 1 400 people.
They went further by calculating the trajectory of the rockets based on evidence such as the impact of the damage.
They did not draw conclusions, but Human Rights Watch did.
It plotted the trajectories of the rockets back from various impact points and found they converged on a known military base of the Syrian government’s Republican Guard 104th Brigade.
Bashar al-Assad’s ally, Russia, which claims it was his rebel enemies who fired the sarin to frame him and draw the US into the war, accused the inspectors of political bias.
The inspectors have not, though, totally exonerated the rebels. They have not yet investigated other earlier suspected chemical weapons attacks. If they ever do, they might find the rebels perpetrated some.
Nevertheless, their evidence pointing to Assad’s responsibility for the worst attack on August 21, has underscored how lightly he has got off the hook by merely placing his chemical weapons stockpile under international inspection.
This is the deal the US and Russia struck to avoid a US military strike. In the absence of military action to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again, the only chance of holding him – and perhaps the rebels – accountable is for the UN Security Council to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This is the course of action being advocated by Human Rights Watch.
“To lock up the chemical weapons and not prosecute those who used them is an affront to the civilians who died,” said Richard Dicker, the organisation’s international justice director.
He said referring Syria to the ICC should not be an issue among the squabbling permanent five members of the Security Council because the resolution need not allocate blame to either side.
Nevertheless, it is likely that Russia would oppose that measure because Assad’s government seems likely to be indicted, whatever happens to the rebels.
And South Africa? From the start of the conflict it has tracked the position of its ally, Russia.
When South Africa was on the Security Council in 2011, it opposed even the mildest of resolutions condemning Assad for brutally suppressing what were then peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.
South Africa is no longer on the council, but it could still make its voice heard by supporting an ICC probe into the chemical weapons attacks and other atrocities committed by both sides in Syria.
It could use its alliance with Russia and China in the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa business communities bloc to persuade them not to veto an ICC investigation. President Jacob Zuma could do that next week at the UN General Assembly, when he meets his fellow Brics leaders.
South Africa is after all a founding signatory of the Rome Statute of the ICC and an advocate of international justice. Furthermore, it has joined fellow African governments in criticising the ICC for picking on Africa because all its cases so far have been against Africans.
Here is a perfect opportunity for South Africa to lend its weight to a proposal that would take the ICC out of its African laager and prove that it really is an international criminal court.
* Peter Fabricius is foreign editor of Independent Newspapers.