Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Francois Tanguay-Renaud


Taking the war in Syria as a case study, this dissertation proposes an account of criminal accountability that merits the language that is expressed by calls for criminal accountability, even where physical punishment is not possible. Syria is, of course, a society that is in the midst of ongoing conflict one where almost every party on the battlefield is committing atrocity crimes against civilians. In response, and importantly while the conflict continues, the international community, the United Nations, and the Syrian diaspora have made calls for holding war criminals accountable. But, what are values of these calls if there is a lack of institutional criminal accountability to punish perpetrators. The Syrian government, who is reportedly involved in atrocity crimes against its citizens, controls domestic criminal institutions in Syria. Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and there seems to be no international will to refer crimes committed during the conflict in Syria to it. This dissertation poses the question: given the significant unlikelihood of institutional criminal punishment, are there justifications for calls for criminal accountability in the midst of the ongoing Syrian war? The philosophy of criminal law provides several justifications as to why criminal justice institutions, in stable societies hold perpetrators to account and punish them. I suggest that calls for criminal accountability are important because they express willingness to punish. Calls are not punishment, but they aim to deliver the same values that punishment delivers. Therefore, the values that calls for criminal accountability express stem from the values of the criminal justice system itself, including those values stemming from fact-finding and trials. This dissertation advocates for calls that aim to create the possibility of punishment. The language that has been expressed by these calls for criminal accountability has value to societies in general, and to victims in particular. The values of calls might not be as important as the values of punishment but calls express willingness to hold criminals accountable. The Syrian case triggers some critical questions for international criminal law and policy. It challenges some established norms and doctrines, showing their inability to find solutions to cases where civilians are suffering heinous crimes, and where neither the law nor the international community has been able to act. This dissertation proposes that, even when there is no possibility of holding perpetrators accountable during ongoing conflicts, there is still value in the messages that such calls for criminal accountability express. It as well argues that using the language of criminal accountability is much stronger than using the language of human rights. Criminal law generates punitive responses as opposed to undefined responses that calls for human right violations generate. In the absence of a criminal justice system that has the ability, willingness, and authority to call perpetrators to account, it is our humanity that justifies such calls.


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