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Syrian Government Blocks Aid To Starving Residents Of Madaya


The horrific conditions in the Syrian town of Madaya have gotten attention from all over the world. Still, people there are starving to death. A U.N. aid convoy was finally allowed into the town last month, but it wasn't enough. Doctors Without Borders says 16 more people have recently died of starvation in Madaya. Secretary of State John Kerry says that's because the Syrian government has surrounded the town and is not allowing enough aid in. Antigovernment rebels have also besieged towns in Syria. Here's Kerry.


JOHN KERRY: People are dying. Children are suffering not as a result of an accident of war but as the consequence of an intentional tactic. Surrender or starve. And that tactic is directly contrary to the law of war.

MCEVERS: We asked Beth Van Schaack about that claim. She's a law professor and consults the U.S. government on war crimes. She says even though intentional starvation is a war crime, there haven't been many prosecutions for that crime.

BETH VAN SCHAACK: There's not much precedent that I have been able to find. We do have a lot of precedent governing sieges following World War II. There were some prosecutions, and coming out of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, there were prosecutions of various sieges but not specifically with respect to starvation itself.

MCEVERS: So it sounds like if someone were to eventually make a case for starvation as a war crime being committed in Syria, it wouldn't be easy.

VAN SCHAACK: It would not be easy. I mean, the charge itself exists. There's not good precedent, as we've discussed. The real challenge is that there is not now a court that has jurisdiction over this crime. Obviously there's no international court dedicated to Syria as we had with respect to the war in the former Yugoslavia.


VAN SCHAACK: Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. It has not ratified the ICC statute. So the only way that the situation in Syria could get before the International Criminal Court would be by way of a referral of the Security Council.


VAN SCHAACK: Russia has vetoed all resolutions with any form of sanction against the Syrian government.


VAN SCHAACK: So at the moment, we're at a standstill.

MCEVERS: There are other alleged war crimes being committed in Syria. What are they, and how could those be prosecuted?

VAN SCHAACK: Well, the most obvious war crime is the deliberate attacking of civilians and civilian objects. The laws of armed conflict are premised on this principle of distinction which says that while combatants may be targeted, military objectives may be targeted, civilians are supposed to be spared, to the degree possible, the harms of war. And yet, what we see in Syria is that all sides have targeted civilians, but the Assad regime has been particularly brutal.

MCEVERS: Knowing that Russia will continue to veto any referral to the International Criminal Court, if I were a dictator, I guess I would continue committing these crimes because I would know that, at this point, no one can prosecute me for it.

VAN SCHAACK: It's often been said that the arc of justice is a long one, and what we've seen with respect to other brutal dictatorial regimes is that while you may escape justice in the short-term, eventually, it will often catch up with you. So there may be a time when the geopolitics have changed and the ICC can exercise jurisdiction again. Syria, if there's a new regime, could ratify the ICC statute and could make its jurisdiction retrospective. So there are many ways in which members of this regime and others who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria could eventually find justice.

MCEVERS: Is the Syria conflict different than others with regard to the flouting of international law?

VAN SCHAACK: In the past, we've seen conflicts that have been somewhat more clean in the sense of having two sides.


VAN SCHAACK: Obviously the situation in Syria is much more complicated. There are multiple non-state actor armed groups. The emergence of ISIL, the Islamic State, on the scene...


VAN SCHAACK: ...Has complicated things. ISIL, of course, has absolutely no motivation whatsoever to adhere to the laws of war...


VAN SCHAACK: ...Although they're bound by the same rules by virtual of customary international law and the fact that every state of the world now has signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions. Obviously, we've seen other situations of mass atrocity. The genocide in Rwanda immediately comes to mind. But it is true that this particular full-scale armed conflict does challenge the laws of war.

MCEVERS: Well, Beth Van Schaack, visiting professor of law at Stanford University, thank you very much.

VAN SCHAACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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