Some years ago, I was given an assignment by Vanity Fair to track down war criminals and former dictators who, despite being ousted from power, hadn’t yet seen justice. As I hunted down their villas on the French Riviera, one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, or in the cobbled side streets of Paris’s 16th arrondissement, I was reminded, not for the first time, that after war or upheaval, bad guys rarely face a timely reckoning.
Instead, they can live in luxury—like Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who had the run of enormous private properties in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before his death in the resort city in 2019, and whose cronies remain free. Some face a measure of justice, but much delayed, like Saddam Hussein, or die at the hands of their victims, like Muammar Qaddafi. A few manage to cling to power, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad falls into that final group. He is still fighting a decade-long civil war, but effectively, Assad has won, after orchestrating the murder, rape, torture, and chemical gassing of his own people. He will not face justice, at least not for now. The International Criminal Court has limited jurisdiction in Syria, because Damascus never signed its governing treaty.
This does not mean, however, that the international community should give up attempting to bring about justice. Mechanisms are in place to ensure that this pursuit can continue—such as Germany’s and France’s attempts at exercising what is known as universal jurisdiction, or a potential war-crimes investigation, in the U.K. against Assad’s wife, Asma, who is a British citizen.
And even if justice cannot be secured through these means, much else can still be done until it is. [Continue reading…]