Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 2 of 2)

National Prosecutions based on Universal Jurisdiction: the cases of Germany, Sweden, and “France”

Last June, Germany’s chief prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, head of Syria’s powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate, and one of Syria’s most senior military officials. This move comes as a 2017 Human Rights Watch report mentioned [p.36] that, so far, very few members of the Assad government had been the subject of judicial proceedings in Europe based on universal jurisdiction.

At the time these charges (based on command responsibility) were filed with Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, Patrick Kroker (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, hereinafter “ECCHR”) commented that this moment was“historical”, adding: “That this arrest warrant has been signed off by the highest criminal court in Germany shows that they deem the evidence presented to the prosecutor is strong enough to merit urgent suspicion of his involvement.”

N.N., a Syrian activist present at the side-event held today mentioned in Part 1 of my post, underlined several times the importance of these arrest warrants. Until their issuance, he said, many Syrians never would have thought that high-level representatives of the Syrian regime would have charges laid against them. For many this is a great sign of hope, a demonstration that we are “not only listening to stories but also doing something about it.” He mentioned this point in part as an answer to a participant at the event who wondered what it could mean to the people still in Syria to see prosecutions happening in Europe, but not in Syria or before the ICC.

Mr. Patrick Kroker, Legal Advisor& Project Lead for Syria at the ECCHR (Berlin) explained the work done by his organization to initiate prosecutions in Germany linked to the Syrian conflict. With regard to Germany, the progress over the past few years has been spectacular: 11 cases have been brought to trial. As well, three were brought to trial in Sweden, one in Switzerland, and another in Austria (for an excellent overview of proceedings linked to Syria, see the Amnesty International page “Justice for Syria” here).

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Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 1 of 2)

Credit: Lynsey Addario

As of July 2018, more than 500 000 people had been killed as a result of the conflict in Syria, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. With the UN Special Envoy for Syria having recently resigned, signs of hope seem dire for many Syrians and their supporters, there and abroad.

A side-event held today, on Day 3 of the 17th Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the International Criminal Court, brought distinguished panelists together to discuss the role of prosecutions held in Europe through universal jurisdiction for international crimes, using Syria as an example. More than only about accountability, the resounding message about these prosecutions was that their role was to give out and to inspire the people to be strong, fight for justice and, maybe, eventually, be able to move on.

Earlier this week, during a keynote address at a reception held before the launch of the ASP, Ms.Catherine Marchi-Uhel aptly said that the ICC is the center piece of the international justice system. However, she also reminded the audience that the role of the international jurisdiction as a springboard for national prosecutions is often overlooked.

Yet, despite the hopes, symbolism and assistance to the rebuilding of judicial institutions that national prosecutions can bring (as I mentioned in my previous blog post on Quid Justitiae in the context of the present ASP), the political context may simply not allow it and, in the case of Syria, there is obviously no need to elaborate on why prosecutions at the national level are not possible.

In the case of Syria, one of the worst situations since World War II, as Ms Marchi-Uhel underlined, the pathway to the ICC is blocked, as a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution to refer the case to the ICC was vetoed in 2014. With the ICC option gridlocked, Marchi-Uhel said that the international community needed to be creative to find new strategies to supplement the Rome Statue system: there was a need to think outside the international justice box. This is why, in 2016, the UNGA decided to create the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) to collect and analyse evidence of international crimes committed in Syria (see the IIIM official website here). Not a court or tribunal, it is “a building block for comprehensive justice” and can “turn limitations into opportunities”. This was definitely a smart move, as the call for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres did not seem to have resonated any more than previous attempts made through the UNSC.

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