Germany and Sweden are the first European countries to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by individuals in the Syrian Civil War. Their efforts as well as challenges are highlighted in a recently released report by Human Rights Watch titled "’These are the Crimes we are Fleeing’ - Justice for Syria in Swedish and German Courts”.
The effective impunity of atrocities committed in the Syrian conflict is a result of lacking mandate by the International Criminal Court. Since the country is not a party to the ICC, either a voluntary acceptance of the Syrian government or a UN Security Council resolution is needed in order for the ICC to be able to exercise jurisdiction. However, it is both unlikely that Syrian authorities give their consent to the ICC and that a Security Council resolution will pass due to a Russian and Chinese veto in 2014.
Therefore, ways to seek justice are limited. The so-called “principle of universal jurisdiction” enables national courts to prosecute certain grave atrocities, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, even if they were not committed in the state’s territory and even if neither the victim nor the suspect are national citizens. According to Amnesty International, “163 of the 193 UN Member States can exercise universal jurisdiction over one or more crimes under international law, either as such crimes or as ordinary crimes under national law.” The principle of universal jurisdiction is playing an increasingly important role in the international community’s fight against the impunity of the horrendous war crimes that have taken place on Syrian territory over the last six years.
However, German and Swedish courts are facing numerous difficulties investigating these crimes. Not only is there a lack of access to crime scenes in Syria due to the ongoing civil war, but investigations are further hindered as victims are often not aware of the possibility to seek justice in Sweden or Germany and many of them fear or distrust government officials. As a result, only a small number of cases are being taken to court, prosecuting mostly low-level members of terrorist and non-state armed groups opposed to the government.
“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.”
Convicting people for grave international crimes in Syria promotes a powerful message that atrocities must not go unpunished and that there are ways for victims so seek justice. Human Rights Watch encourages Sweden and Germany to find means to overcome the difficulties they are facing in hopes that it will inspire other European countries to follow their example.