Hope for Justice in Syria from an Unlikely Source

by David Tolbert*

An independent mechanism established by the UNGA is working towards abolishing the reign of criminal impunity in Syria.

UNGA

The Emir of Qatar, the country that led the efforts to establish the Mechanism alongside Liechtenstein, addressed the UNGA in September 2016 ©Reuters

Six years into the carnage in Syria, atrocious crimes run rampant, with savage abuses committed against all groups in the devastated country, and the murderous regime, abetted by powerful allies, is still in power.

The United Nations Security Council remains in a deadlock and unable to take any steps towards ensuring accountability for the massive crimes, with the International Criminal Court left on the sidelines.

However, amid the terrible loss of life, hope that the slow wheels of justice will finally be put in motion emerged recently from an unlikely source – the UN General Assembly.

In December 2016, the UNGA, led by Liechtenstein and Qatarestablished an “Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation of serious crimes committed in Syria since March 2011”.

With this step the UNGA, usually associated with administrative and budgetary matters, has asserted itself in a highly welcome if unusual manner, signaling the deep frustration with the failure of other UN organs and the great powers to stop the killing in Syria.

The move also demonstrates that small states can galvanise the international community around issues of global significance and catalyse a collective response.

The term “Mechanism” indicates that the powers of this newly established body will not mirror those of a court or a commission of inquiry.

Instead, the focus of its mission will be to collect and analyse evidence, which could then be available for courts or tribunals in the future to prosecute these massive crimes. Continue reading

Prosecutions of Syrian War Crimes

A man inspects a damaged house after an airstrike on al-Yadouda village, in Deraa Governorate, Syria February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

A man inspects a damaged house after an airstrike on al-Yadouda village, in Deraa Governorate, Syria February 15, 2017. ©REUTERS

On Thursday, the United Nations announced that a new body is being set up to prepare prosecutions of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to name a judge or prosecutor as its head this month.

While the independent panel, which is officially called the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in [Syria] since March 2011, is not able to prosecute individuals itself, it will collect and preserve evidence and prepare files for future prosecutions which states or international courts can use.

In December, the UN General Assembly voted to establish the mechanism. The United Nations aims to recruit 40-60 experts in investigations, prosecutions, the military, and forensics.

A UN Commission of Inquiry has already been collecting evidence since 2011. It has issued 20 reports accusing the Assad government, rebel forces and Islamic State of mass killings, rapes, disappearances and recruiting child soldiers.

Also on Thursday in a landmark ruling, a Swedish Court sentenced a Syrian man to life imprisonment for violating international humanitarian law through his participation in the execution style-murder of seven men in Syria in 2012. Under Swedish law, courts can try Swedish citizens as well as other nationals for crimes committed abroad.

Other European countries have similarly started investigations and prosecutions against people accused of committing serious crimes in Syria. The cases are based on the principle of universal jurisdiction and are possible because of the arrival in Europe of both victims and suspects as refugees.

Amnesty International reported last week the Syrian government executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture at a military jail.

UK Against an International Inquiry in Yemen

Air strike on Sanaa ©Reuters

Air strike on Sanaa ©Reuters

The United Kingdom (UK) is accused by several human rights organizations to have blocked a joint European Union (EU) proposal to establish an independent international inquiry into the war in Yemen. Instead, the EU submission that was submitted on Friday 23 September to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asks the UN body to dispatch a mission “with assistance from relevant experts, to monitor and report on the situation … in Yemen”.

The proposal, which was submitted by Slovakia on behalf of the EU, was initiated by the Netherlands in an effort to bring together a European coalition requiring an inquiry to be set up and to examine civilian deaths in Yemen. According to the OHCHR, 3,980 civilians have been killed and 6,909 injured between 26 March 2015 and 22 September 2016. In a press release published on the same day, the OHCHR has expressed its will to see an international inquiry being set up: “In the light of the high civilian casualty numbers and the terrible suffering of the civilian population, we urge all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, including their obligation to respect the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. We reiterate our call for the setting up of an international and independent investigative body.”

The international investigation inquiry would have to review Saudi’s interventions in Yemen, as the armed coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, is accused of committing war crimes against civilians. UK Foreign Secretary General Boris Johnson has publicly rejected the need for such an inquiry or statements on any breach of international law. Responding to questions relating to a recent airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition which killed at least 19 civilians, including children, he replied that the UK was “using a very, very wide variety of information sources about what is happening to acquaint ourselves with the details”

But assertions from human rights organizations accuse the UK to protect its ally. Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “For 18 months now, UK arms have been central to the destruction of Yemen. The aid that is being given amounts to a small fraction of the damage that has been caused and pales in comparison to the £3.3bn worth of arms that have been licensed. Theresa May and Boris Johnson must end the arms sales and put a stop to the uncritical support that the UK provides for the Saudi regime.”

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, more than 70 “unlawful” coalition airstrikes – on homes, hospitals, markets, civilian factories and schools – some of which, they say, may amount to war crimes, and which have killed at least 913 civilians are documented. Human Rights Watch also claims that the Houthi armed group and forces allied to it, including those loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have committed numerous violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law.

ICTY: Goran Hadžić, Croatian-Serb War Crimes Defendant, Dies at 57

Goran HadžićGoran Hadžić, the former Croatian-Serb rebel leader, has died at the age of 57.

Hadžić was on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) over his role in the 1991-1995 Yugoslavia war.

Last April, the Trial Chamber ordered an indefinite halt to his trial, as he battled the advanced stages of terminal brain cancer.

His health significantly deteriorated in the last two months and he spent most of that time in the hospital where he died.

Hadžić was the last fugitive arrested by the ICTY.

He was accused of having participated in a Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE). It is alleged that the purpose of the JCE was the permanent forcible removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from a large part of the Republic of Croatia in order to make it part of a new Serb-dominated state.

The accusations included the murder of civilians taken from Vukovar hospital in 1991 in one of the conflict’s darkest episodes.

He was also charged with responsibility for the massacre of Croat civilians who were forced to walk into a minefield in the Croatian town of Lovas in October 1991.

His trial opened in October 2012 following his arrest in Serbia in 2011 after seven years on the run.

Investigators had tracked Hadžić down as he was trying to sell an early 20th-century painting by the Italian master Amedeo Modigliani valued at several million dollars.

ICC: Bemba sentenced to 18 years in prison

160621-bemba-sentence-10-1Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court (ICC) today sentenced Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to 18 years’ imprisonment for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.

In March the Chamber had found the former vice-president of the DRC guilty beyond reasonable doubt for the crimes of murder, rape and pillaging committed by militiamen under Bemba’s command.

For the crimes of rape the Chamber imposed 18 years of imprisonment while 16 years of imprisonment were imposed for the crimes of murder and pillaging. However, the Chamber decided that the sentences imposed shall run concurrently. Continue reading

Former Auschwitz Guard Convicted

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Mr. Reinhold Hanning at his trial ©AFP/Getty Images

Today, the Detmold Court in Germany sentenced Mr. Reinhold Hanning to five years in jail for his former role as a guard at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944. The 94-year-old was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people. Mr. Hannig had acnkowledged that he knew what was happening in the camp but that he did nothing to stop it.

During the trial, about a dozen Auschwitz survivors testified. Mr. Hanning told the court “I am ashamed that I saw injustice and never did anything about it and I apologise for my actions. I am very, very sorry.”

Until 2011, German prosecutors were required to provide evidence that defendants were directly involved in the killings. That changed with the conviction of John Demjanjuk, when a judge concluded that his activities as a camp worker in Nazi-occupied Poland amounted to complicity in mass murder.

Commission on Syria: ISIS Committing Genocide Against the Yazidis

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has today released a report establishing that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) is committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Yazidis. The report entitled “They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis” focuses on violations committed against Yazidis inside Syria, where thousands of women and girls are still being held captive and abused, often as slaves.

Yazidi women in a refugee camp, August 2014

Yazidi women in a refugee camp, August 2014

“Genocide has occurred and is ongoing”, emphasised Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission. “ISIS has subjected every Yazidi woman, child or man that it has captured to the most horrific of atrocities.” ISIS sought – and continues to seek – to destroy the Yazidis in multiple ways, as envisaged by the 1948 Genocide Convention. “ISIS has sought to erase the Yazidis through killings; sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and forcible transfer causing serious bodily and mental harm; the infliction of conditions of life that bring about a slow death; the imposition of measures to prevent Yazidi children from being born, including forced conversion of adults, the separation of Yazidi men and women, and mental trauma; and the transfer of Yazidi children from their own families and placing them with ISIS fighters, thereby cutting them off from beliefs and practices of their own religious community”, the report says. Continue reading

National European Courts Prosecute Syrian War Crimes

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

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.

Bangladesh Executes Islamist Leader Nizami for War Crimes  

Motiur Rahman NIzami

Motiur Rahman NIzami

Just after midnight local time on Wednesday, Motiur Rahman NIzami, the 73-year old leader of the Jamaat-e-Islamy party, was hanged to death after having been convicted for war crimes during Bangladesh’s violent independence struggle from Pakistan in 1971, media report. His final plea against the death sentenced was rejected by the Supreme Court on 5 May.

Nizami was convicted by the controversial International Crimes Tribunal for genocide, rape and orchestrating the massacre of top intellectuals during the war.

Nizami is the fifth person to be sentenced to death by the war crimes tribunal since 2013, and the fourth executed Jamaat leader. Ali Ahsan, Mohammad Mojaheed, Abdul Quader Molla, and Mohammad Kamaruzzaman were all executed on similar charges. All those sentenced to death were opposition politicians.

According to Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division at the Human Rights Watch, the trial was neither free nor fair as the court was cutting corners on fair trial standards, Al Jazeera reports.

“For example, Nizami was allowed to have only four defence witnesses as a man fighting for his life. And the court did allow defence to challenge the inconsistencies in the testimonies of prosecution witnesses,” he told Al Jazeera from Bangkok.

At the beginning of last year, an independent report into the proceedings of the International Crimes Tribunal by Geoffrey Robertson QC concluded that the Tribunal’s proceedings fell seriously short of international standards. According to Robertson, although the Court was set up entirely properly for a legitimate objective, the Act establishing the Tribunal being drafted with the assistance of the International Commission of Jurists, the Tribunal is in practice ordering the execution of the governments’ main opponents.

Media report that the controversial execution raises fears of fresh political violence. In 2013, the convictions of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders by the tribunal triggered some of Bangladesh’s most deadly political violence in decades, with hundreds of people killed, mostly in clashes between Islamists and police. Jamaat-e-Islami reportedly called for a nationwide strike on Thursday in protest of the execution.

Switzerland: Arrests and Possible Extraditions of Two Kosovan War Crimes Suspects

Kosovo WarLast week, the Swiss authorities have arrested two Kosovans wanted by Serbia for suspected war crimes.

The men, whose identity was kept confidential, are suspected of committing war crimes as members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the 1998–99 war.

The first man is suspected of participating in armed attacks in 1998 against two villages situated in Kosovo.

Serbia accuses him of a range of crimes, including murder, rape and conducting illegal arrests.

The second man was arrested during a routine check in Geneva and is suspected of having killed a civilian in 1999.

The Serbian authorities have requested their extradition but both men have refused it.

Moreover, Kosovo insists that it should handle cases of suspected war crimes committed by Kosovan citizens, and not Serbia.

In that vein, the Kosovo Justice Minister sent a letter to his Swiss counterpart to object to any plans to extradite the men to Serbia.

The Swiss Justice Ministry confirmed that the Swiss Justice Minister had received a letter, and had responded, addressing his concerns.