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Lloyd Axworthy (MARTIN MEJIA/AP)
Lloyd Axworthy (MARTIN MEJIA/AP)

Lloyd Axworthy

Refer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the International Criminal Court Add to ...

As promised, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Moammar Gadhafi as well as his two closest lieutenants for alleged crimes against humanity. Now a similar investigation needs to take place on the deadly actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations Security Council should now direct the ICC to investigate whether Mr. al-Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity as a result of his government's violent crackdown against civilians peacefully calling for democratic reform. These Syrians are seeking exactly what the people in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya want: elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to the authoritarian regime.

Earlier this month, I was at a meeting of former foreign ministers in The Hague. While there, conversations were abuzz with the escalating situation in Syria and the growing threat of an international humanitarian crisis that would occur with the increasing number of refugees fleeing to Turkey. Of primary concern at the meeting was that international institutions, most notably the United Nations, have demonstrated themselves slow to respond as well as to evolve. It's vital to remember that we have more tools at our disposal than just the NATO-type intervention that's taking place in Libya and that appropriate usage of the ICC is just such an example.

Mr. al-Assad's recent commitment to a dialogue summit with an unspecified group of citizens doesn't show much promise, but a referral by the Security Council to the ICC may encourage him to carry out genuine reforms that he has pledged but has yet to follow through on. Actions, not words, will influence any ICC decisions. At the moment, Syria is facing a stalemate between a growing opposition and thinly spread and violently inclined security forces.

Mr. al-Assad has had nearly four months to demonstrate a willingness to allow for political reform and to participate in shaping it; instead, he has chosen transgressions against his own people instead of peaceful resolution. By the international norms that allowed for the creation of the ICC as well the "responsibility to protect," this type of action by a ruler against his people is considered criminal.

It's not within the international community's jurisdiction to dictate the fate of any one state, but it's everyone's responsibility to uphold global norms. Initiating an ICC investigation in Syria now would create a powerful incentive for Mr. al-Assad to refrain from further repression and to participate in a dialogue toward greater democratization. The ICC has previously shown its ability to influence official behaviour in those who are being investigated as well as those who surround them.

The matter has already been referred to the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, but since Syria hasn't ratified the Rome Statute, the ICC will require a referral by the Security Council. To date, international action against Syria has primarily taken the form of independently determined sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union, and a more unified effort is clearly past due. Political delays within the Security Council lend no benefit to those who are tortured or murdered by Syria's security forces.

Mr. al-Assad must realize that violent repression is not working. The protests against him appear to be more organized and unified in purpose. Let's use the ICC to reinforce this message. The people of Syria have expressed their wishes, and it's time for the regime to listen.

Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign affairs minister, is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.

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