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Assad can't hide.

There can be no question that if President Bashar Al Assad of Syria falls, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will want to try him for war crimes.

The long arm of international law will reach him wherever he flees. As great heavyweight boxer Joe Louis said: "You can run, but you can't hide".

In the last couple of years, war criminals Ratko Mladic (Serbia), Bernard Munyagishari (Rwanda) and Charles Taylor (Liberia) have been captured, in addition to the UN Security Council's decision to ask the ICC's chief prosecutor to try the late Muammar Gadaffi.

Not since the Nuremberg trials of Nazis has the public's interest been so aroused on how to punish the bad guys. There are no bad women!

The change of mood was summed up by former East Timorese resistance leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, who said: "In this day and age, you can't kill tens of thousands of people, destroy a whole country and then just get fired".

In 1987, political scientists Stephen Haggard and Beth Simmons expressed the then prevailing view in academia that the study of international law was moribund.

Sixteen years later, in the wake of the Pinochet affair and the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, these notions underwent sea-change.

The media began to treat war crimes as serious issues for the first time since the Nuremberg trials.

Doubters, not least the US, have come round to seeing that an ICC arrest and prosecution is a sharp weapon in the quest for furthering democracy, limiting war and furthering the pursuit of human rights.

President George W Bush, during his last couple of years in office, moved from his hostility to the ICC to co-operation.

Under Barack Obama, the US has become a public enthusiast, persuading the Security Council to ask the ICC to prosecute Gadaffi. If he wins a second term, there is a good chance that the US will formally join the ICC.

In 1992, I argued for an international criminal court to deal with war crimes. I received but one letter- from a law professor at University of California who said he had had the same idea and written about it in academic journals, but no one in the government was responsive and the idea was dead in the water.

Then the war in ex-Yugoslavia shook up everyone's complacency and a war crimes court was established. It was the precursor of the ICC, a mark of how things can change once rights activists seize a cause.

Once confined to old issues such as piracy, the slave trade and attacks on planes, the notion of universal jurisdiction has blossomed into a tool that enables the prosecution of war crimes at the ICC.

President Richard Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, understanding its significance, argued in an article in Foreign Affairs that carried to its logical conclusion, it will turn traditional notions of statecraft and the making of foreign policy on their head.

Many consider Kissinger a war criminal. French and Chilean magistrates have announced they want to interview him. Christopher Hitchens wrote a book on his alleged war crimes in Vietnam and Chile.

He and Nixon authorised attacks in Vietnam - using napalm against innocent women and children, and the bombing of neutral, adjacent Cambodia.

This is worse than what Assad is doing or Mladic and the Congolese warlords have done. Unfortunately, the ICC can't deal with cases that took place before it was created.

Meanwhile, its reach and confidence is growing. At some point would-be war criminals will get the message that there is no impunity. The penny hasn't dropped yet, but I'm convinced before long it will.


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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Aug 19, 2012
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