Will The Law Stretch From Srebrenica To Saydnaya?

10/02/2017 16:30 GMT | Updated 11/02/2018 10:12 GMT

Let us pretend that Brexit isn't happening. Let us also pretend that the name Trump means nothing to you. And then let us focus on a tiny shaft of sunlight that cuts through the global gloom and serves to remind us that wrongs need not always last for ever.

Eight former Bosnian Serb police officers went on trial in Belgrade this week, charged with taking part in the massacre of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. It was the worst atrocity committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War -- and now, more than 20 years later, at least some of those alleged to have been responsible are facing justice.

Whatever the eventual verdicts, they will not bring back the dead. Just as the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946 did not bring back any of the six million victims of the Holocaust. But justice serves a purpose, even after two decades. For survivors, and for the relatives of those who died, it means being able to look at the killers and say to them: 'What you did will not go unpunished.'

The military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, Ratko Mladić, is currently awaiting a verdict at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Last year, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Radovan Karadžić, was sentenced to 40 years in jail after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. They have both faced justice, just as those eight former police officers are facing justice now in Belgrade.

I wonder if anyone in Damascus has noticed. Are there perhaps a few senior military officers, police officers -- who knows, perhaps people even closer to Bashar al-Assad -- wondering if one day, they, too, might find themselves facing justice?

According to Amnesty International, in one of the most shocking reports it has ever published, as many as 13,000 people have been hanged in a Syrian military prison over a five-year period since the start of the anti-government protests in 2011. Saydnaya prison is less than twenty miles from Damascus, and Amnesty says it believes that the abuses committed there 'have been authorised at the very highest levels of the Syrian government.'

The details in the Amnesty report are horrific. I do not intend to repeat them here, but you can read the report for yourself by clicking here. How credible are the accounts? Amnesty says it interviewed thirty-one former prisoners, four former prison officials or guards, three former judges, three doctors, four lawyers, and twenty-two people whose family members were believed to be detained at Saydnaya. To me, that sounds credible enough.

So here's what I'm getting at. One day - perhaps in twenty years' time, or perhaps much sooner than that - some of the people responsible for the obscenities taking place at Saydnaya will stand trial. Just as senior Nazis did at Nuremberg, and senior Khmer Rouge officials did in Cambodia.

Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.

Dictatorships never last for ever. Slobodan Milošević and his henchmen discovered that, as did Pol Pot and his band of Khmer Rouge murderers, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and countless others. Some despots die a natural death (Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong-il), others are overthrown and face trial for their crimes.

And that's where the law comes in. It might seem a bit of a stretch to link Brexit and Trump with the atrocities of Srebrenica and Saydnaya - but all are, or should be, challengeable in the law courts. Whether it's Gina Miller and her successful challenge to Theresa May's decision to bypass parliament on the way to triggering Article 50, or the US 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the case against Donald Trump's proposed immigration ban, or the Belgrade trial of the former Bosnian Serb police officers - as long as there are independent courts and courageous lawyers, there is hope for the victims of untrammelled executive power. (Which is why, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, governments attack them.)

A final thought - even incorrigible liberals like me need to remind ourselves sometimes that however miserable we might feel about Brexit or Trump, we face nothing a fraction as terrifying as what the Muslims of Srebrenica faced in 1995, or what the people of Syria have been facing for the past six years.

It helps to keep a sense of proportion.