Professor Michael A. Newton, who developed and teaches Vanderbilt’s International Practice Lab, was among the panel members chosen this fall to develop a blueprint for a war crimes tribunal to investigate crimes committed in the Syrian civil war and hold the perpetrators responsible for their actions. The document drafted by Newton and other members of the panel, who included former international tribunal prosecutors, tribunal judges and other leading academics, provides a preliminary framework for bringing war criminals to justice.
The panel released its draft “Statute for a Syrian Extraordinary Tribunal to Prosecute Atrocity Crimes” on October 3 in a presentation to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. One purpose of the proposed statute’s public release, according to Newton, was to prevent future atrocities by putting Syrians on all sides of the conflict on notice that they could be held accountable for wartime atrocities.
Students in Newton’s International Practice Lab worked on the draft statute. “A concurrent resolution on a Syrian war crimes tribunal project was introduced based in large measure on our work,” Newton said.
Newton emphasized that the tribunal would need to be implemented by the Syrian people after the conflict is resolved and the situation in the country stabilizes. In testimony submitted to Congress in October, in which he was asked to address the political obstacles to establishing a justice system in Syria, Newton stated that a “sea change in domestic politics” would be required before a credible tribunal could be established by the Syrian government, stating:
“Authentic justice is not achieved on the wings of vengeance or in pursuit of a politicized vendetta. The judicial functions inherent in adjudicating war crimes must be independent and impartial in order to have any colorable claim of legitimacy. Judgments must in the end be grounded firmly in regularized law and procedures that are manifestly founded on fundamental fairness and equality of arms between the Office of the Prosecutor and the rights of the defendant. That is why the official policy of Syria must align itself with the goals of the accountability mechanism. Phrased another way, even if there existed a strong political will to create and to fund an international or internationalized tribunal inside Syria, a completely credible and effective justice system cannot be superimposed onto a recalcitrant regime.”
Newton was also called in as an outside expert by the U.S. State Department to evaluate the mechanisms currently in place for documenting crimes committed both by the Syrian government and by Syrian opposition forces. “This documentation will be crucial to prosecuting atrocities,” Newton said. Practice Lab students also provided analyses at the request of the Syrian Commission on Justice and Accountability aimed at helping Syrian opposition officials prepare to restore the rule of law in liberated areas of Syria.
Newton discussed the conflict in Syria and the effect of the War Powers Resolution, humanitarian intervention and treaty law on the civil war in a talk at the law school on September 13. In his talk, Newton noted that understanding Syria’s history and the roots of the current conflict were essential in planning ways to prevent atrocities in the present and help the country establish the rule of law after the conflict ends. “Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers,” Newton said.