German prosecutors charged two men who were allegedly former Syrian intelligence officers with crimes against humanity last week. It is the first prosecution for torture by members of the government’s notorious security services. The case will be closely watched by those seeking justice for victims of international crimes committed since the Syrian war began in 2011.
International crimes are crimes that affect the international community as a whole. They include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
In a September report, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that Syrian government forces (backed by Russian warplanes) may have committed war crimes. He referred to two incidents in Idlib province earlier this year. The same report said that the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has killed civilians by indiscriminately firing rockets. Despite these findings, few alleged perpetrators have been prosecuted for crimes committed in the Syrian conflict.
Whereas justice mechanisms have often been introduced in the aftermath of ceasefires, some trials have also taken place while hostilities are ongoing, as happened in the former Yugoslavia, meaning that the international community does not need to wait for a formal end of the conflict in order to prosecute international crimes.
Despite efforts by to establish an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes in Syria, no ad hoc court or tribunal has been established so far.
War crimes prosecuted in national trials
there are a number of countries worldwide that have sought to pursue cases of international crimes via their own domestic courts. In February, the Swiss NGO TRIAL International reported that 149 cases were being investigated under universal jurisdiction in 15 countries.
In Sweden, Austria and Germany several cases have been initiated against alleged Syrian government officials. The principle of universal jurisdiction allows national jurisdictions to prosecute grave crimes committed outside their territory.
Sweden led the way by convicting a member of the Syrian military for war crimes in 2015. Human Rights Watch said it was the first war crimes conviction for a member of the Syrian military. And a criminal complaint was opened in Sweden in February against senior officials in the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
War crimes unit is investigating 25 cases in France
A 2018 report by the organization Eurojust documents a number of court cases brought in European countries against alleged Syrian war criminals that focus on violations of personal dignity and other forms of inhumane treatment.
JusticeInfo said in February that arrests have also been made in France where a specialised war crimes unit is investigating 25 cases of Syrian war crimes.
The recent case against two alleged former intelligence officers initiated in Germany is similarly being brought under the country’s universal jurisdiction law.
One of the suspects in the case, identified as Anwar R, is suspected of torturing approximately 4,000 people between 2011 and 2012.
The suspect was allegedly a high-ranking officer who directed operations at a prison where the detainees were subjected to “systematic and brutal torture”.
Torture is considered one of the most widely acknowledged international crimes and can be prosecuted as a war crime or a crime against humanity. The trial is expected to start in the city of Koblenz in Germany next year. It will be the first international trial that focuses on the widespread use of torture by Assad’s regime.
Olympia Bekou, professor at the University of Nottingham, welcomed proceedings before national courts but said they also had drawbacks.
“Justice closer to where the crimes have been committed offers distinct advantages, such as access to evidence and greater visibility of the process,” she said.
Syrian victims of war crimes interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Germany and Sweden have stressed the importance of bringing perpetrators to justice.
Since Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Syrian situation would have to be referred to the ICC by the UNSC, but attempts to do so have repeatedly been vetoed by Russia and China since 2014.
After failed attempts by the UN to refer the Syrian situation to the ICC, the UN General Assembly created the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) in 2016. The mandate of this body was to assist in the prosecution of the persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011.
The mandate explicitly states that the IIIM is not a court but merely a body that will assist with national and international investigations and prosecutions. The mechanism is still in an early stage of its work and has not yet had any significant achievements.
Evidence of international crimes, specifically torture, is currently also being collected by organisations such as the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
Many victims consider the trials a way of deterring similar crimes in the future and some victims living in Europe have been instrumental in providing evidence of war crimes to prosecutors.