Last week, the German court in Koblenz began hearing evidence for the trial against two former Syrian state officials, Anwar R. and Eyad A. The two men came to Germany seeking asylum, after having defected from the Syrian government. Anwar R. was charged with torture, murder, rape, and sexual assault, while Eyad A. was charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
The Syrian civil war has remained largely unsolvable from a peace-keeping perspective, and largely untouchable from a legal perspective. Yet, Germany is trying one of the most meaningful criminal cases in the international community in recent years. This comes at a time when local court systems around the world are shutting down, reducing the number of cases heard, or adapting to online forums. Despite a global pandemic, some of the victims of the Syrian civil war are going to have their day in court.
The step to prosecute Syrian state officials is monumental because no other court system has successfully brought such a case to trial. Attempts to try Syrian state officials in other courts have primarily been thwarted, for example Russia and China voted to block United Nations referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Spain’s court dismissed the criminal case against Syrian state officials for lack of jurisdiction. While there has been some notable successes, such as the conviction of a “low-level” soldier in Sweden for war crimes, high ranking officials in the Syrian government have evaded prosecution.
Germany’s progress poses a greater question regarding the future of international crimes: Will they be primarily tried in international courts and tribunals, or will they be “outsourced” to domestic courts? German action in the Syrian case suggests that the future of international criminal prosecution will be in the hands of individual states, who step up when international organisations and courts do not. Additionally, a pattern has emerged among the individual states who are attempting to try cases connected to the Syrian civil war. The pattern indicates that states who experience an influx of refugees and asylum seekers may be the ones best suited for prosecution of international crimes committed on foreign soil. Germany had more access to witnesses and more support for this prosecution in part because of the number of witnesses that are now living within their borders.
To properly prepare for the outsourcing of international crimes committed in other countries, states must consider a few key things. Continue reading