What Can Be Done? Ambassador Stephen Rapp on Justice in Syria

“Nasty, brutish, and short.”

In a recent lecture by Ambassador Stephen Rapp, hosted by the Human Rights Program, he borrowed from Thomas Hobbes’ famous line to describe life in a world without justice. His presentation kicked off a lecture series about the ongoing Syrian crisis.

Ambassador Rapp

Saying that Ambassador Rapp has an extensive resume is an understatement: he served as Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes in the Office of Global Criminal Justice, a position which brought him around the globe to address a wide span of conflicts during his 2009-2015 term. His legal experience includes positions in the International Criminal Court and the International Tribunal for Rwanda, where he helped prosecute the first conviction for a member of the media in inciting genocide. Currently, he holds positions with the Hague Institute for Global Justice and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

In the lecture, Ambassador Rapp laid out the historical framework of human rights justice efforts. The talk began with an overview of the Nuremberg trials, which set a key precedent in international efforts to prosecute human rights violations by focusing on top-level perpetrators. He emphasized the importance of documentation in this legal process, and explained that during his visits with refugees and internally displaced persons, many affected individuals emphasized their desire to aid and support this documentation process. The importance of evidence has become well-known to many who experienced the Syrian conflict, showcasing the influence of international efforts in prosecuting violations.

In perhaps the most emotional segment of the lecture, Ambassador Rapp explained his personal experiences collecting evidence. He discussed the Caesar photos, a collection of tens of thousands of images depicting individuals killed by the Syrian regime, smuggled out of the nation by an informant (who is referred to by the pseudonym “Caesar”). Ambassador Rapp highlighted the importance of these images in documenting the crimes of Assad’s regime, but he spoke passionately of the suffering those pictured had experienced before their death.

Following this story, Ambassador shifted from the necessity of this collection to the central question to which they speak to: what can be done in Syria, or in the face of other human atrocity? Unfortunately, as one could assume, there is no simple answer to this vital question. Ambassador Rapp again, emphasized the role of the international community in collecting evidence and lending political support to such initiatives, particularly with an eye towards future criminal proceedings.

Perhaps most crucially, he discussed the changing face of justice. There is no longer a necessity of “perfect” judicial proof. In the early days of human rights prosecution, evidence had to be utterly obvious, such as a video of a top-level perpetrator personally ordering mass executions, or a photo of an individual in the act of killing. But now, evidence can be more nuanced and expands to include individuals ranked lower in the hierarchy of responsibility. The ability of the law to respond to a more reasonable standard of proof allows for more effective prosecution, a step which Ambassador Rapp highlighted as a success.

He ended the lecture on a caveat; “There is no such thing as perfect justice.” The law is messy and imperfect, and even after a lecture based largely on justice through the courts, he emphasized that this should not always be the desired outcome. Rather, reconciliation within a community, outside of legal truth and punishment, is often a more laudable goal. Ambassador Rapp spoke highly of the gacaca courts, a form of community-based justice following the genocide in Rwanda. This process had a focus on reconciliation – perpetrators who repented and apologized for their crimes received lighter sentencing. And while most of the lecture focused on traditional justice responses, Ambassador Rapp conveyed a sense of optimism regarding this focus on forgiveness.


Brooke Chambers is a PhD student in the University of Minnesota’s Sociology Department. She is broadly interested in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, bystander dynamics, and understandings of policy and transitional justice in response to genocide and mass atrocity.

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