The Caesar Bill: A Novel Approach to Human Rights Accountability in Syria

By Mai El-Sadany
Tuesday, August 30, 2016, 1:56 PM

In the more than five years since Syrian calls for self-determination first began, the world has witnessed the most egregious humanitarian crisis since World War II unfold. Over 400,000 people have been killed, 14 million people have been driven from their homes, and more than 50 percent of Syria’s critical infrastructure has been destroyed. At least 169 chemical weapons attacks and well over 35,956 barrel bombs have targeted civilians. More than 373 attacks on 265 separate medical facilities and at least 4,057 educational facility attacks have been documented by groups on the ground.

Complex and messy as it may be, without a more assertive and clear approach in Syria, the situation is likely to become even more intractable. To restore US credibility following President Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” in the aftermath of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, any successful policy must now also proactively incorporate accountability measures for perpetrators of human rights abuses. In July 2016, Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced a novel piece of legislation to impose new sanctions on Assad regime supporters, encourage political negotiations to halt the crisis, and lay the groundwork for the eventual prosecution of persons guilty of perpetrating war crimes in Syria.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Bill (HR 5732) is named after Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who bravely defected from the regime and smuggled 53,275 photographs documenting brutal snapshots of Assad’s crimes. Modeled after the Magnitsky Act—a trailblazing piece of legislation that imposed tailored sanctions on individuals responsible for gross human rights violations without harming everyday Russian citizens—the Caesar Bill similarly embraces and amplifies the evolving and necessary role that the United States and the international community must play in curbing impunity for war crimes.

The Caesar Bill places sanctions on anyone who does business with or provides financing to the Syrian government, including intelligence, security, and the Central Bank; provides aircrafts or spare parts to Syria’s airline; does business with transportation and telecom controlled by the Syrian government; and supports the Syrian energy industry. In order to protect their integral function, humanitarian organizations are exempt from such sanctions. Recognizing the complexities at issue, the bill allows the waiving of sanctions on a case-by-case bases and permits the suspension of sanctions when parties are involved in meaningful negotiation and violence has ceased. These measures will ensure that civilians are not harmed by the sanctions process and creates incentives for the regime to halt its violations and instead come to the negotiating table.

Beyond sanctions, the bill also enables a much-needed risk and feasibility assessment for proposals for the creation of no-fly zones or safe zones, and furthers oversight on the monitoring and evaluation of cross-border assistance. Recognizing that any international legal or hybrid tribunal prosecution could be a long way off, the bill institutes a reporting process to document the names of persons complicit in human rights violations, as well as support for entities gathering evidence for the eventual prosecution of those who committed or are committing war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.

When the Caesar Bill’s predecessor, the Magnitsky Act, was passed in late 2012, it was lauded by human rights activists for introducing a new human rights accountability tool that would reach well beyond the historical targets of sanctions. Describing that act, Australian jurist Geoffrey Robertson said that it presented “a way of getting at the Auschwitz train drivers, the apparatchiks, the people who make a little bit of money from human rights abuses and generally keep under the radar.” By way of example, rather than merely sanction or punish the persons ordering airstrikes in Syria, the Caesar Bill would also place sanctions on the individuals who flew the planes used in the airstrikes and the persons who sold the fuel for such planes to be flown in the first place.

Embracing the example set by the Magnitsky Act and the later Global Magnitsky Bill, the Caesar Bill reflects the next chapter in the evolution of human rights accountability. It holds accountable not only those individuals planning crimes at the highest level, but also those financing, handling logistics, and implementing said crimes, whether nationals of the country or not.

Haunted by the all-too recent memories of the Holocaust, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and many more, we often repeat the phrase “Never Again,” as a promise to ourselves, to victims, to our leaders and the global community, and finally, as a promise to the perpetrators of rights abuses.

The Caesar Bill makes just this promise. Demonstrating an unprecedented understanding of how abuses are committed and perpetrated in the present day, the bill expands the extent of accountability and curbs the source and root of human rights abuses.