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Why war crimes go unpunished

With more than 40 armed conflicts taking place around the world, keeping war crimes in check is a constant source of concern for the United Nations and independent human rights monitors. Even when investigative groups confirm war crimes have taken place, action against offenders isn’t exactly swift. For instance, there is mounting evidence implicating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of war crimes in Yemen’s civil war. The same can be said of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government, yet both regimes continue to rule with impunity, facing occasional if diminished diplomatic backlash.


Though the International Criminal Court (ICC) has standing to try the world’s worst human rights violations, the court often falls short of that mandate when the accused is a head of state, in part because turning a war crime accusation into a full-fledged trial is a process fraught with jurisdiction limits and uncooperative states.

Elizabeth Evenson, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice program, says jurisdiction limits create “a double standard in terms of which victims can access justice and which perpetrators are more likely to be brought to justice.”

Because countries like the U.S., China and Russia have not signed onto the ICC, they are not subject to its rulings. As a result, more often than not, the ICC has come down on smaller, developing countries, leaving the world’s superpowers untouched.

Although powerful members of the UN Security Council can open a case, they more commonly use their power to provide cover for allied accused heads of states — the most recent and notable example being Russia’s consistent vetoing of security council resolutions targeting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.