News reports in the past few months have shown forces loyal to the Assad regime using tanks, APC's, and artillery as tools to suppress dissent. Mixed up in the fighting between government troops and opposition fighters are the normal group of non-combatants. No-one should be surprised that a tyrant like Assad has no qualms about erasing entire city blocks to destroy opposition, no matter the collateral damage to civilians.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested that leaders of the Syrian government and military should be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
I'm sure the threat of being drug into a courtroom at the Hague is making Assad consider pulling back his T-72's and unloading his BM-21's. He must be up to all hours of the night staring off into the distance in fear over the possibility that he might have to get a lawyer.
The war crimes trials in Nuremberg and elsewhere after World War II set a precedent that those who do not follow the law of war when dealing with civilians and non-combatants can expect punishment after the war is over. The hope seemed to be that the example of watching war criminals go to prison or the gallows would encourage future combatants to make sure they don't slaughter civilians or be overly harsh to POW's.
So, how's that worked for us?
In my lifetime alone, we've seen mass extermination of civilians in Cambodia, man-made mass starvation in Africa and North Korea, the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Iraq, the massacre of combatants and non-combatants during uprisings in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and other Mid-East countries, use of rape and concentration camps to ethnically cleanse civilian populations in the Balkans, and the slaughter of thousands of peaceful protesters in China.
Does anyone actually think that the possibility of being drug into court even occurred to the politicians and soldiers who carried out these attrocities? I doubt it.
What went through their minds was probably something along the lines of "These people are an obstacle to me. I need them to stop being an obstacle. What is the easiest way for me to remove that obstacle?". They didn't consider the humanity or value of the people they were hurting. They sometimes tried to cover up their crimes, but that was done more to avoid publicity, not prosecution.
So what deters criminals? In my humble opinion, the only thing that successfully convinces people who want to rape and pillage their way to power or to keep power is force. Naked, brutal, swift, and accurate application of massive force administered in the most public and sticky way available.
We kept Saddam Hussein from bombing Kurds and Shiite Arab civilians by flying CAP over his country for a decade. We stopped the war in the Balkans by putting tanks and soldiers between the combatants and promising to kick the first bastard who raised a hand directly in the teeth. When we sat on the sidelines and moaned about the injustice of it all, millions of people in North Korea starved to death because their political masters refuse to change their methods and Tiananmin Square got depopulated with tanks and machine guns.
Yes, dictators who kill their own people can end up in court, either at the hands of their own people like Hussein or at the Hague like Milosevic, but that happened years after the crimes. People like that really don't care about what happens in a decade. They concentrate on keeping power until next year, and they're willing to do what's necessary, no matter the cost, to keep it.
If you want to either prevent or stop the unjust killing of civilians and other non-combatants, you have to apply force, and be willing to keep applying it until the offender stops and gives up the means to start back up.
The same is true for any criminal. When was the last time you heard about someone saying "I stopped robbing liquor stores because I was worried about going back to prison?" or "I was going to break into that house and rape the woman who lives there, but that's a long stretch in the big house, and I don't want to do that."?
No, you don't. What you hear is "I don't go to Virginia to rob people, they have guns.", or "I saw the group of guys coming at me, so I put my hand on my gun and made eye contact with them and they changed direction and left.".
Thugs, either those in charge of armies or those walking our streets, don't respect or fear being brought into court. Thugs respect and fear force, and if you want to make them stop, you have to be willing to apply it.