The Flaws in International Justice

April 6, 2012 Topic: Human RightsInternational Institutions Region: Syria Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Flaws in International Justice

Sometimes it seems that hawks have so overwhelmed the liberal internationalist camp that there is little room left for another of their mainstays: tribunals for international justice. But a recent New York Times op-ed shows that advocates of robust international institutions are still around--and want to bring their theoretical models to the crisis in Syria.

This week George Soros aide Aryeh Neier argues for a "tribunal to deal with the crimes against humanity that are taking place in Syria." Neier's innovation is that such a court will gain legitimacy through being established not by Western powers, but by the Arab League, with "Arab judges, Arab prosecutors, Arab investigators and Arab defense attorneys and conduct[ing] its proceedings in Arabic." 

Neier concedes that the court would still have significant Western influence, quoting Secretary Clinton as committing to "support and train Syrian citizens working to document atrocities, identify perpetrators, and safeguard evidence for future investigations and prosecutions." And despite Syria not being a party to the International Criminal Court, he recommends that the Arab League use the ICC treaty as a template for defining the new court's scope.

So much for trying to create a homegrown tribunal.

As for Neier's argument that international courts create an incentive for dictators to stop atrocities, even his own fellow liberals suggest that he ignores key evidence to the contrary. Foreign Policy's "multilateralist" David Bosco writes that "Despite a weak evidentiary record, key supporters of international justice persistently make deterrence claims. I don't understand why. As they would certainly acknowledge, justice is a worthy end in itself."

But if Neier and Bosco are interested in more than justice as blood vengeance, they should consider whether creating a tribunal will actually result in the least bloody outcome for the country concerned. Dictators like Assad will be far less likely to relinquish control when they know that a grueling tribunal (and possible execution) awaits them. Instead, under threat of trial they can be expected to dig in their heels and continue the kind of killing that Neier denounces in the first place.

Neier's failure to think through any negative implications of creating an Arab tribunal make his plan seriously flawed.