Mapping War Crimes in Syria

59 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2016 Last revised: 16 Nov 2018

Date Written: March 29, 2016


This paper maps the range of war crimes being committed in Syria with reference to the applicable treaty and customary international law and prospects for prosecution. It begins by presenting the international legal framework employed to determine when an armed conflict began in Syria, how this conflict is classified under international law, and which multilateral treaties and customary rules are operative. This framework underlies the determination of which war crimes can be prosecuted, which tribunals might have jurisdiction, and which perpetrators may be made subject to indictment. The paper next focuses on some open legal and factual issues around certain war crimes that are particularly salient in the Syrian conflict but that have been under-theorized and rarely prosecuted. Along the way, it demonstrates that many of these war crimes could not be easily prosecuted before the ICC or under any domestic war crimes statutes that hew closely to the law-of-war treaties given the stark divergence between treaty law and customary international law when it comes to non-international armed conflicts in general and to the prosecutability of war crimes in such conflicts in particular. These observations offer support for proposals to develop an ad hoc tribunal dedicated to the Syrian conflict, as sketched out in the final section. All told, the paper demonstrates the continued utility of customary international law to ensure that courts can enforce evolutions in the law notwithstanding the tendency of treaties toward normative ossification.

Keywords: Syria, War Crimes, International Criminal Court, International Humanitarian Law, Crimes Against Humanity, Treaties, Customary International Law

JEL Classification: K14, K33, K42

Suggested Citation

Van Schaack, Beth, Mapping War Crimes in Syria (March 29, 2016). 92 Int'l L. Stud. 282 (2016); Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2748776. Available at SSRN: or

Beth Van Schaack (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305
United States
650 303 6832 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics