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The Victim in the Security Council

June 5, 2014

On May 22, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power asked Qusai Zakariya of Syria to stand up in the gallery of the United Nations Security Council. Ambassador Power was in the midst of arguing for a draft resolution to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. She had to justify a resolution that some – including Ambassador Power herself in the past – had suggested could undermine a peace deal, and that was doomed to be vetoed by China and Russia. (Others have commented on the speech and the U.S. strategy, here and here.) Mr. Zakariya, a victim of a chemical attack, would be part of that justification.

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Several scholars have written about how different actors make assertions about victims of international crimes in order to promote their aims or authority. Among others, Kendall and Nouwen argue that “the Victims” is an abstract category that justifies international criminal justice and displaces the voices of actual victims; Sagan has claimed that African war criminals and victims are discursive subjects integral to the project of cosmopolitan liberal justice; and Dixon and I argued that victims are central to claims about legal, expert and moral authority. So it is interesting to look closely at the rhetorical deployment of Mr. Zakariya.

Ambassador Power has a longstanding activist bent toward preventing or punishing those responsible for mass atrocities, and picks up those themes here. She references the need to hold perpetrators of mass violence accountable, and notes the unfairness of ICC action in eight African countries but not Syria. She speaks of thousands of Syrian torture victims. In her finale she calls for retribution by citing the ancient Greek philosopher Solon, who apparently claimed “Those who are not wronged, no less than those who are wronged, must exert themselves to punish the wrongdoers.” But the largest section of her speech referred to Mr. Zakariya and other victims. Here is an excerpt:

A judicial process does more than hold perpetrators accountable. It also allows victims to speak. The vetoes today have prevented the victims of atrocities from testifying at The Hague for now. But nonetheless it is important for us here today to hear the kind of testimony we might have heard if Russia and China had not raised their hands to oppose accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Because of the vetoes just cast, one of Assad’s victims, Qusai Zakariya, will not soon be called to testify before the International Criminal Court. But Qusai’s story of life in Moadamiya during the siege, as hard as it is to hear, must be heard. Qusai Zakariya is here with us today, and I’d like to ask him to stand.

Today I will tell Qusai’s story, as he told it to us. Qusai’s home, Moadamiya, just outside of Damascus, was one of the Assad regime’s prime targets. During the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks, Quasi ran out to the street and tried to help his neighbors. He quickly lost his ability to breathe. His eyes afire, Qusai’s heart stopped and he was left for dead until a friend stumbled upon him and realized he had again begun breathing. Qusai recounts his bewilderment as he watched neighbors suffocate, friends panic, and families perish. He remembers the face of a 13 year old boy just a few feet from his home. He describes the boy as “so innocent.” He recalls, “He had done nothing.” Yet the expression on this 13 year old’s face was the most terrifying thing Qusai has ever seen, as white foam streamed from his mouth and death crept in.

Power goes on to mention other stories that Mr. Zakariya could tell of victims’ suffering, though it’s not clear if he had any direct knowledge of these cases. She continues:

Qusai’s account of his experiences in Moadamiya deserves to be heard. It deserves to be examined by an independent court. And if crimes are proven, those responsible deserve to be held accountable. The vetoes cast today prevent that from happening.

Several comments can be made about this speech. First, Ambassador Power evokes these victims to stoke an audience’s moral indignation, the feeling that ‘something must be done.’ Mr. Zakariya’s physical presence is intended to make Power’s audience feel outraged but also uncomfortable and guilty. Not only is he present, watching the ineffectual diplomats, but Power notes that in the U.S. he walks past restaurants and “notices the small leftovers we leave on our plates,” provoking memories of “his neighbors’ desperation to get a small piece of rotten bread.” This line may strike one as bathetic, but it is undoubtedly legitimate to remind people engaged in the slow games of high politics about the stark, moment-by-moment suffering of those caught in conflict.

Second, she seeks to harness this moral indignation and guilt to a particular policy response. But the grounds for doing so are somewhat unclear. It’s not hard to imagine how these stories could be repurposed to support increased humanitarian aid, better enforcement of chemical weapon bans, or children’s rights, for instance. Ambassador Power suggests that the ICC can “allow victims to speak,” but it’s note clear that international criminal trials provide victims with significant opportunities to speak in ways that heal or otherwise benefit them. (For an excellent review of some of this literature, and a call for better empirical study, see this policy review by Impunity Watch). Moreover, while one presumes that Mr. Zakariya supports the ICC’s intervention in Syria (he does not have the standing to directly voice this preference in the UNSC), it’s not obvious that he is representative of Syrian victims in general.

Third, while Power’s argument was made in the UNSC chamber, it was clearly not intended to sway the minds of the Russian or Chinese representatives. David Kaye has described her speech as “harsh and theatrical”, but it may be an appeal to other audiences: civil society advocates of international human rights, Syrian victims themselves who may feel ignored by powerful states, and to individuals who want a more moralistic and less strategic American foreign policy. She may also be defending her position to members of the American government that are unenthusiastic about the ICC. Indeed, in reading her speech, I was reminded of a passage from the memoir of David Scheffer, the former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. Reflecting on resistance from colleagues to strong government support for international criminal justice, he writes:

Often, while listening to senior officials sitting comfortably in the White House Situation Room explain why other national priorities trumped atrocities and the pursuit of war criminals, I wanted … [the] mutilated bodies and missing souls of girls, boys, women and men of Bosnia, Rwanda, eastern Congo, and Sierra Leone to file silently through that wood-paneled room and remind policy-makers of the fate of ordinary human beings (2).

Mr. Zakariya is one of these embodied representatives of victims. It would be fascinating to learn his own views on the ICC’s possible role in Syria and on his rhetorical deployment in a U.S. diplomatic initiative. Things can become more complicated when we allow victims to speak on their own terms.

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