Syracuse University Magazine

142A1521.jpgDavid Crane L’80 (right) discusses the Syrian Accountability Project’s report with Professor Ken Harper, director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement. The center hosted a symposium on Syria in October.

Calling Evil to Task

Syria is the tragedy of our time, and David M. Crane L’80 doesn’t intend to let it stand. The College of Law professor of practice heads the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP) at SU, a global effort by activists, NGOs, students, and others to document war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Syrian conflict. 

Crane is a tough-minded prosecutor who knows what he’s up against. From 2002 to 2005, he was founding chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international war crimes tribunal, where he prosecuted those who bore the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during the country’s civil war in the 1990s. Among those he indicted was Liberian President Charles Taylor, the first sitting African head of state to be held accountable in this way. 

The project produces non-partisan analysis of open-source materials and catalogs the information relative to applicable bodies of law—like the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and Syrian Penal Law. The SAP gets its information from open, clandestine, and walk-in sources worldwide, regionally, and within Syria itself. 

In March, the project released Looking Through the Window Darkly, a report focused on rape and sexual violence in Syria, the majority of which goes unreported. The document was authored by former SAP executive director Peter Levrant L’16, along with other collaborators. “This caused a conversation internationally about gender crimes being perpetrated in Syria,” says Crane, who has been involved in international humanitarian law for decades through his work with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The paper highlighted 142 incidents affecting at least 483 women and girls (estimates run as high as 50,000 victims overall). The majority of rapes occurred while the victim was detained or imprisoned; rapes during home raids and abductions were also reported. Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the UN secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, spoke on campus when the report was released. “We have to break the culture of silence and denial,” she said. 

The SAP’s crime base matrix houses one of the more significant databases in the world of atrocity in Syria. The goal is to create a “trial package” for a future prosecutor; Crane has been working with the Syrians and the international community on the various options to bring justice for the Syrian people for over five years. “We have created a statutory template for a domestic, regional, or international court,” he says. “We have developed the jurisprudence, and rules of procedure of evidence, to hold tyrants and thugs and their henchmen accountable. In time, we can create a justice mechanism for the people of Syria, if there is a political will to do so.”

Current SAP executive director Zachary Lucas L’17 heads a team of 20 SU law students who research crimes and incidents, document them in narrative form, and attribute them to violations of laws. “The Syrian Accountability Project is something I can do in law school to help people who have no voice,” Lucas says. “By sharing their story and making sure they are not forgotten, we give them that voice.”

With a voice comes hope. Bangura spoke about two young girls who escaped imprisonment; one now wants to become a doctor, the other a teacher. “The only way you can defeat ISIS is to get an education, and prove to them they didn’t break your spirit,” she told them.

That outcome suits Crane just fine. “My drive is to seek justice for the oppressed,” he says. “The horror of the atrocities I have seen has given me a righteous fury to face down the beast of impunity that nibbles on the edge of civilization.” —John Martin


“In time, we can create a justice mechanism for the people of Syria, if there is a political will to do so.”