Four years ago a shrine named Mar Elian in Syria near the town of al-Qaryatain was bulldozed by Islamic State. It had existed since the sixth century, and was a site of devotion for Christians as well as locals. It was one of many crimes of ISIS that stretch from Iraq to Syria and beyond. Yet few have been prosecuted for these crimes, and there have been no war crimes trials charging senior or mid-level ISIS members with the systematic genocide and destruction that they wrought on communities throughout the Middle East.
In almost every other example of genocide since the Holocaust, trials have been held or at least countries have sought to prosecute criminals from the regimes involved. This includes the Nuremberg trials (November 1945 to October 1946), the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (established 1997), the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations in Darfur (2005).
There have been no war crimes trials charging ISIS leaders with the genocide and destruction they wrought.
However imperfect some of these tribunals and UN-linked attempts have been, they place a clear stamp of international condemnation on the crimes involved and the perpetrators who have been detained.
In fact, the ICC and various special courts such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone have gone after war criminals involved in conflicts from the Congo to West Africa. So where are the war crimes indictments for ISIS members? Where are the charges of crimes against humanity? Where is the Nuremberg of today? Victims of ISIS, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, have pleaded again and again for trials and justice. Yet despite lip service across Europe and in the US, there have been no trials.
This is not because there are a lack of suspects. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the main partner of the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria, have detained more than 10,000 suspected ISIS fighters. According to a lead inspector-general report at the Pentagon, there are 2,000 foreign ISIS suspects held in eastern Syria. Of these, at least 800 hold European country citizenships, and some 450 of those are thought to hold French citizenship. There are 1,200 from other countries around the world. These are what remains of the 50,000 ISIS volunteers who came from all over the world, including 5,000 from Europe. There are also tens of thousands of wives and children of the fighters held in Al-Hol camp. Some of them are fanatic supporters. Some of the adult women are thought to have committed war crimes, such as one German woman who was put on trial for her involvement in murdering a five-year-old Yazidi girl.
The acts that ISIS committed were of the most horrid nature. They burned people to death, beheaded them, sold young girls into slavery to be mass raped, tortured people, committed genocide, buried the murdered in mass graves, and systematically destroyed the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.
ISIS continues its campaign of global genocide outside the Middle East.
ISIS continues its campaign of global genocide today, aimed at Sri Lankan Christians, Afghan Shi'ites and other groups that it views as sub-human. These crimes aren't that difficult to investigate, surely no more difficult than Rwanda, Cambodia or the crimes of German Nazis and their collaborators.
But where are the trials and the catharsis that is needed to show that ISIS crimes will not go unpunished, and to send a message that the world cares about what happened? Instead of putting their citizens on trial or helping to form an international tribunal, most European states have sought to pretend they know nothing of the crimes of those who went to Syria and Iraq. The UK has stripped its ISIS members of citizenship. These include some of the worst alleged criminals, such as those who murdered journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley. Yet members of the "Beatles," the squad allegedly responsible for many of these horrid crimes, are relaxing in detention in eastern Syria, with every country throwing up its hands and refusing responsibility.
Almost a dozen countries have used, or are considering using, aspects of universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes in the past. Yet only ISIS seems to escape this jurisdiction. Countries do not prosecute their own citizens, they seem opposed to Iraq or Syria prosecuting them, the SDF do not want to prosecute them, and these countries don't even want to help refugees like the Yazidis who fled to Germany receive justice.
Do Western governments fear putting ISIS members on trial who might scream about Islam?
Even though there is a preponderance of evidence against some individuals, there is a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach. It is a kind of conspiracy of silence. Is this because countries have jettisoned morality and decency, or because they are afraid of putting an ISIS member on trial who might shout and scream about his extremist view of religion on the stand? Are they so afraid of putting ISIS members in prison that they prefer the poorest areas in the Middle East shoulder the burden? Why is eastern Syria a dumping ground for thousands of foreign ISIS members and tens of thousands of ISIS supporters? Don't wealthy countries have a responsibility to stop their citizens from modern day colonial-style Nazi crimes? Have they learned nothing since 1945?
In Syria, the shrine of Mar Elian may recover, even if no one will be prosecuted for harming it.
"Here's hoping the town's physical and social fabric can be restored as well," writes Alberto Fernandez, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Restoring what ISIS harmed is an important message, like trying to restore the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban in the 1990s. The question is whether we have learned the lessons of the ISIS war if we do not prosecute the war criminals.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.