Efforts to bring those responsible for atrocities in Syria before European courts are starting to bear fruit, notably in Swedish and German courts, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While various authorities in Europe have opened investigations of serious international crimes committed in Syria, Sweden and Germany are the first two countries that have prosecuted and convicted people for these crimes.
The 66-page report, “‘These Are the Crimes We Are Fleeing’: Justice for Syria in Swedish and German Courts,” outlines efforts in Sweden and Germany to investigate and prosecute people implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria. Drawing on interviews with 50 officials and practitioners working on these cases and 45 Syrian refugees in the two countries, Human Rights Watch documented the difficulties German and Swedish investigators and prosecutors face in taking up these types of cases, and the experience of refugees and asylum seekers with the authorities.
“With other avenues for justice currently blocked, criminal investigations in Europe are a beacon of hope for victims of crimes in Syria who have nowhere else to turn,” said Maria Elena Vignoli, Leonard H. Sandler fellow in the international justice program at Human Rights Watch. “As the first two countries to hold trials and convict people for atrocities in Syria, Sweden and Germany are putting war criminals on notice that they will have to pay for their crimes.”
Syrian refugees consistently stressed to Human Rights Watch the importance of bringing to justice those responsible for atrocities committed in Syria.“My brother was killed with 14 bullets by the regime,” said Samira, who lives in Sweden and lost several family members in the war. “All my family died. I saw five children being executed, I saw their heads being cut off. I couldn’t sleep for a week. […] It’s very important to have justice, which will let me feel that I’m human.”
Muhammad, an activist working on behalf of some Syrian victims in Germany, said of the Syrian government: “These people think that the political solution will come and they will be able to escape to Europe. I want them to feel haunted like they’ve haunted people all their life. We need to send a message of hope to victims and to send the message to criminals that they will not escape.”
On September 25, Sweden became the first country to convict a member of the Syrian army for crimes in Syria. The accused, identified through a photo in which he posed with his foot on the chest of a dead victim, was found guilty of violating the dignity of a dead body.
Both Sweden and Germany have elements in place to allow for the successful investigation and prosecution of grave crimes, including comprehensive laws, well-functioning specialized war crimes units, and previous experience with such cases. In addition, due to the large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees, previously unavailable victims, witnesses, material evidence, and even some suspects are now within the reach of the authorities in these countries.
Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch found that both Sweden and Germany are facing some difficulties.
“The standard challenges associated with pursuing these kinds of cases are compounded by an ongoing conflict in Syria, where there is no access to crime scenes,” Vignoli said. “Swedish and German authorities have to turn elsewhere for information, including from Syrian refugees, people doing similar work in other European countries, UN entities, and nongovernmental groups documenting atrocities in Syria.”
Human Rights Watch found that many Syrian asylum seekers and refugees are not aware of the systems in place to investigate and prosecute grave crimes in Syria, the possibility of their contributing to justice efforts in these countries, or the right of victims to participate in criminal proceedings.
Gathering relevant information from Syrian refugees and asylum seekers has also proved difficult due to their fear of possible retribution against loved ones back home, mistrust of police and government officials based on negative experiences in Syria, and feelings of abandonment by host countries and the international community.
Both Sweden and Germany have systems to protect victims and witnesses in criminal cases. Consistent with fair trial standards, both countries should explore options to increase protections in these cases for witnesses’ families in Syria, Human Rights Watch said.
Because of the difficulties involved, Human Rights Watch found only a small number of cases have been concluded, which do not represent the scale or nature of the abuses suffered by victims in Syria. Most cases have been against low-level members of non-state armed groups opposed to the Syrian government.
In Germany, the majority of cases are brought under terrorism charges rather than for grave international crimes. That could send the message that the authorities’ only focus is to combat domestic threats, Human Rights Watch said. Efforts to pursue terrorism charges should go hand in hand with efforts and resources to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Authorities in both countries are working to address some of these issues, although more needs to be done, Human Rights Watch said. Sweden and Germany should ensure that their war crimes units are adequately resourced and staffed, provide them with ongoing training, and consider new ways to work with Syrian refugees and asylum seekers on their territory through outreach and public information efforts.
“European countries should follow Sweden and Germany’s lead and work to expand these justice efforts for Syrians in Europe,” Vignoli said. “Overall, these cases are not enough on their own and highlight the need for a more comprehensive justice process to address the ongoing impunity in Syria.”
Published on HRW on October 3, 2017.
141 Syrian Civil Society Organisations Urge for Unhindered Humanitarian Access and Civilian Protection Across Syria
Amid ongoing indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Daraa, Raqqa and across Syria, and as Syrians under siege suffer their longest wait for humanitarian aid, Syrian civil society are calling on International Syria Support Group (ISSG) members to carry out airdrops to break the sieges and to ensure credible monitoring and enforcement of de-escalation efforts.
In a 23 June letter to Jan Egeland, ISSG Humanitarian Task Force Chair, 141 Syrian civil society organisations and humanitarian aid groups stressed the urgency of the humanitarian access situation in Syria, declared a red line by French President Emmanuel Macron, and urged the ISSG to exhaust credible alternatives for aid delivery, including airdrops, where land access remains blocked.
“In the face of the shameful state of humanitarian access, the UN and Member States must seek a step-change to ensure aid reaches those in most need, including through airdrops. We fully appreciate that airdrops are not the best means of delivering aid, but they will nonetheless save some lives and may create the leverage required to force the regime’s hand on land delivery. Nor should we hold out hope for regime consent in this endeavor: the regime that uses the Syrian people’s suffering for its political gain will never be a partner in delivering full relief and aid to those in need.”
Published on the Syrian Network for Human Rights on June 23, 2017.
The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites may amount to war crimes, a new resolution adopted by the UN Security Council says. Officials have warned of "cultural cleansing" in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
The UN Security Council on Friday passed a resolution strengthening the protection of global cultural heritage sites threatened by conflicts, saying perpetrators could be prosecuted for war crimes.
The resolution urges nations to increase efforts to preserve historic monuments and sites in conflict zones. The onset of the 21st century witnessed attacks against global heritage sites increase significantly, including the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and Timbuktu's ancient shrines in Mali.
Previous efforts by the Council to safeguard cultural heritage focused on the illicit trafficking of looted cultural relics to fund terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria, where the "Islamic State" militant group destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Roman ruins at Palmyra.
However, Friday's resolution called for further international cooperation in investigations and prosecutions of individuals and groups committing attacks against cultural heritage sites, monuments and relics.
The resolution affirmed that "directing unlawful attacks against sites and buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, or historic monuments may constitute, under certain circumstances and pursuant to international law, a war crime and that perpetrators of such attacks must be brought to justice."
UNESCO Director Irina Bokova described the resolution as "historic," saying it reflected the "recognition of the importance of cultural heritage for peace and security."
"Heritage is identity - it is belonging," Bokova told the Council after the resolution passed. "The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime - it has become a tactic of war, in a global strategy of cultural cleansing."
The resolution comes after the International Criminal Court in The Hague last year sentenced a Malian jihadist for the destruction of shrines and a mosque in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
On Monday, several countries, including France and Saudi Arabia, pledged $75.5 million for the protection of cultural heritage sites threatened by conflicts and terrorist attacks.
At the donor conference held in the Louvre museum in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said the destruction of cultural heritage added to the persecution of populations in conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
"[It's] the same objective: to break what was there before in order to kill hope afterwards, to eradicate human and cultural diversity," he said, vowing to raise $100 million for the protection of heritage sites by 2019.
This article was published on DW's website on March 25, 2017.
By Stephanie Nebehay
A new body is being set up at the United Nations in Geneva to prepare prosecutions of war crimes committed in Syria, U.N. officials and diplomats said on Thursday.
The General Assembly voted to establish the mechanism in December and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to name a judge or prosecutor as its head this month.
"We expect to start very, very shortly with just a handful of people," a U.N. human rights official told Reuters.
The team will "analyze information, organize and prepare files on the worst abuses that amount to international crimes - primarily war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide - and identify those responsible", she said.
While it would not be able to prosecute itself, the idea is to prepare files for future prosecution that states or the International Criminal Court in The Hague could use.
The focus on prosecutions means evidence collected since 2011 by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry may be sharpened into legal action.
The COI has issued 20 reports accusing the Assad government, rebel forces and Islamic State of mass killings, rapes, disappearances and recruiting child soldiers.
It too lacks a prosecutorial mandate, but has denounced a state policy amounting to "extermination", and has compiled a confidential list of suspects on all sides, kept in a safe.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International said last week the Syrian government executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture at a military jail. Syria denied the report, calling "devoid of truth".
A Swedish court on Thursday sentenced a former Syrian opposition fighter who now lives in Sweden to life in prison for war crimes.
A U.N. report in January put the start-up budget for the new team at $4-6 million. So far $1.8 million has been donated, the U.N. official said. Funding is voluntary, posing a major challenge.
The United Nations aims to recruit 40-60 experts in investigations, prosecutions, the military, and forensics, diplomats said.
"It's a very important step. It will not only allow court cases but also help us preserve evidence if there are cases in the future," a senior Western diplomat said.
Legal experts and activists welcomed the initiative.
"The focus is on collecting evidence and building criminal cases before the trail goes cold," said Andrew Clapham, professor of international law at Geneva's Graduate Institute.
Jeremie Smith of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies said the United Nations must lay the groundwork for prosecutions ahead of any "exodus" of perpetrators when the war ends.
"This is the only way to make sure criminals don't get away by fleeing the scene of the crime."
The new team will seek to establish command responsibility.
"This is mass collection of information on all sides with a view to prosecution in the future by the ICC (International Criminal Court), national courts or in some completely new international tribunal that would be created," Clapham said.
Many national courts could pursue suspects using its dossiers, he said. States that have joined the ICC could bring cases to the Hague court, without referral by the Security Council.
This article was published on Reuters' website on February 16, 2017.