While the United Nations Security Council seems unable to reach any agreement on referring the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court or to set up a special tribunal on the ICTY and ICTR models, European courts have started prosecuting Syrian war crimes.
A grieving man in front of a destroyed mosque in Taftanaz after government forces attacked the town on April 3 and 4. ©2012 Robert King/Polaris
Prosecutions find legal basis in the genocide legislations adopted by most European countries and providing their courts international jurisdiction. About 15 European states have established units dedicated to investigating and prosecuting war and genocide crimes. Over the past decade, authorities in Europe have launched 1,607 international war crimes cases in domestic jurisdictions, including cases on torture, murder, rape, crimes against humanity and genocide, while another 1,339 are ongoing, according to the European Union judicial cooperation agency Eurojust.
In order to build evidence, European authorities are seeking testimony from some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Middle East violence, through screening of migrants’ phones or invitations at arrival to testify. The challenge is to identify perpetrators, who may be European citizens who have joined Islamic State – more than 4,000 European citizens are estimated to have left to fight in Syria, of whom around a third have since returned home – others may be militants who have traveled to Europe from Syria or to Europe last year. “You may have lots of victims or witnesses in one place, but you can’t move with a prosecution until you have a perpetrator in your jurisdiction,” said Matevz Pezdirc of the European Union’s Genocide Network.
With both witnesses and perpetrators on their territory, European prosecutors have already brought some cases. A German citizen is on trial for war crimes after Facebook posts showed him posing alongside decapitated heads. Last year, Swedish courts convicted a Syrian on the basis of a video showing him torturing a fellow combatant.
John Kerry delivering his statement on IS on 17 March 2016
United States Secretary of State John Kerry today officially determined the Islamic State group (IS) is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite groups in Iraq and Syria. His statement meets a congressional deadline for a decision that was long expected. Though the declaration is not related to any obligation of the United States (US) to take further action against IS or to any prosecution against members of this group.
On 14 March, the US House of Representatives passed by 393 to 0 a non-binding resolution that declared that “the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against Christians, Yezidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” Continue reading
As the war in Syria entered its fifth year, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on Tuesday called for the establishment of an ad-hoc tribunal to prosecute both sides to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of mass crimes committed in Syria.
Members of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria ©Martial Trezzini / EPA
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, addressed the Human Rights Council in Geneva warning that the Syrian civil war had intensified in its destructive scale as combatants used aerial and ground weapons “indiscriminately and disproportionately” and committed an alarming number of human rights violations.
The Commission of Inquiry reiterated the Commission’s dedication to find a path to justice through a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, it held that ensuring accountability was a process rather than a single action and that impunity had lasted for too long. Continue reading
High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Today, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, addressed the Human Rights Council. Amongst the issues he addressed in his lengthy speech, the High Commissioner lashed out at the Islamist Takfiri group who recently murdered US journalist James Foley and hundreds of other defenceless victims in Iraq and Syria.
The massacres, beheadings, rape and torture attributed to the group “reveal only what a Takfiri state would look like, should this movement actually try to govern in the future,” said Zeid, the first Muslim and Arab to serve as UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.
For him, the jihadist militants who have seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria are intent upon creating “a house of blood”.
Zaid’s speech to the UN’s 47-member council came a week after it held an emergency session on the jihadists, deciding to send a fact-finding mission to Iraq to document the extent of their abuses.
If you wish to read the Commissioner’s full speech, click here.
Yesterday, Priyanka Motaparthy, a researcher in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), published a report documenting on the recruitment and use of children by armed groups in Syria. The 31-page report entitled “Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die” recounts the experiences of 25 children and former child soldiers in Syria’s armed conflict. Priyanka Motaparthy interviewed children who fought with the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front coalition, and the extremist groups ISIS and Jabaht al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, as well as the military and police forces in Kurdish-controlled areas.
The investigation reveals that non-state armed groups in Syria have used children as young as 15 to fight in battles, sometimes recruiting them under the guise of offering education, and as young as 14 in support roles. Extremist Islamist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) have specifically recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.
“Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities” is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Syria in 2003, bans government forces and non-state armed groups from recruiting and using children, defined as anyone under 18, as fighters and in other support roles. Continue reading
UN Security Council (c) UN/Evan Schneider
Today, at 10h00 New York time, the UN Security Council voted on a draft resolution introduced by France to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The resolution failed to pass when Russia and China, permanent members of the Council, vetoed the resolution.
Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, in her statement following the vote criticised Russia and China for impeding access to justice for the
Syrian people. She also emphasised the importance of holding Russia and China to account:
“While there may be no ICC accountability today, there should be accountability for those members of this Council that have prevented
The US agreed to support the resolution after ensuring that Israel would be protected from prosecution before the Court in relation to its occupation of Golan Heights in Syria. Responding to criticisms that the resolution was biased, Power said:
“I agree. [The resolution] was biased in favour of establishing facts, tilted in favour of establishing peace.”
The veto has been called an “endorsement of impunity” by the Lithuanian representative and “disgraceful” by the United Kingdom.
The result is unlikely to come as a surprise following the statement made yesterday by Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, who called the resolution:
“simply a publicity stunt which will have a detrimental effect, unfortunately, on our joint efforts in trying to resolve politically the crisis in Syria.”
Today’s vote marked the fourth veto of the Syrian situation in the last three years.
Since Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, the Court may only exercise its jurisdiction over the situation if Syria were to accept the jurisdiction of the Court by way of an Article 12(3) declaration or the Security Council were to refer the situation to it.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) yesterday examined photographs of about 11,000 Syrians said to have been tortured, starved and killed by the Syrian government’s forces.
Tramline bruises are produced by blows with rod-like objects, the report explains. ©Carter-Ruck and Co.
Most of the photographs were collected by a Syrian military police photographer, code-named Caesar, who smuggled them out on flash drives when he defected and joined an anti-Assad opposition group. “Caesar”, a crime scene photographer for the Syrian military police, was assigned in 2001 to photograph corpses at a military hospital that received bodies from three detention centres in the Damascus suburbs. In his testimony, the photographer described a highly bureaucratic system:
“The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar’s function being to photograph the corpses… There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse,” the report said. “The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out.” Continue reading