Criminal Responsibility for the COVID-19 Pandemic in Syria

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Roger Lu Phillips is the Legal Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) where he leads the organization’s efforts in support of Universal Jurisdiction prosecutions of Syrian war crimes as well as the organization’s data analysis and documentation teams. He is an Adjunct Lecturer in international criminal law at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. Previously, he served as a UN legal officer at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He is a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law and a member of the D.C. and Colorado Bars.

Layla Abi-Falah holds a juris doctorate degree with a concentration in International Law and a B.A. in International Relations with a concentration in Human Rights in the Middle East & Africa from the College of William & Mary. Layla has had the privilege of working on human rights issues across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe, working most recently as a legal consultant, fellow, and intern for Roads of Success, SJAC, the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, and the USAID Jordan CITIES Project.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Syrian
government has bombed healthcare facilities, attacked healthcare
workers, and diverted humanitarian medical aid. These attacks not only
decimated hospitals and led to numerous fatalities, but they also crippled
Syrian healthcare capacity, leaving the country entirely unprepared to
address the COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts now estimate that an
unmitigated COVID-19 outbreak in Idlib, the last redoubt of the
opposition, could result in the deaths of up to one hundred thousand
persons—a situation that would not have arisen but for the Syrian
government’s campaign of violence against healthcare.

The Syrian government’s attacks on health facilities are well-
documented and were condemned in a series of reports issued by
United Nations entities, journalists, and non-governmental organizations.
But the death and suffering caused by these attacks is not fully
encompassed by reference to direct casualties alone. Thousands of
Syrians have been deprived of routine medical treatment for acute
illnesses as well as communicable diseases as a result of a deliberate
strategy of eradicating access to healthcare. This Article examines
whether individuals may be held criminally liable for the Syrian government’s campaign of violence against healthcare, which has led to
the death and suffering of the Syrian people through injuries and
illnesses, including COVID-19. By examining the concept of dolus
, the Article concludes that the Syrian government’s acts and
omissions in furtherance of a policy to attack healthcare constitute
numerous crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder
and extermination.

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