On February 24th, 2021, the Court of Koblenz, Germany, set an important precedent regarding the persecution of those accused of war crimes. Defendant and former Syrian intelligence officer, Eyad A. was convicted to four years and a half imprisonment for being an accomplice to crimes against humanity for his role in the violations of the rights of protestors who were transported under his supervision to prisons where they were tortured and abused. Eyad A. will be followed by a colleague of his, Anwar R. A senior Syrian official who is directly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the murder of 48 people and the torture of approximately 4000 others. A verdict for Anwar is expected to arrive later this year.
Syria has been engulfed in a civil war for nearly a decade now, throughout which numerous militaristic factions have inflicted abuses seeking to gain the upper hand over their opponents by any means necessary. The Syrian government operating under the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad has been accused of abuses ranging all the way from unlawful imprisonments without trial, torture under custody, using live ammunition against peaceful protestors, and using chemical weapons in civilian areas.
Persecuting Syrian crimes has been particularly challenging in the UN Security Council owing to vetoes wielded by Russia and China regarding any attempt to bring accountability to the Syrian regime’s doorstep. Russia and China have sited Syrian sovereignty as reason for voting down resolutions targeting the Syrian regime. Russia particularly emphasized the lack of assurances against military interventions by unauthorized states in Syria. Therefore, the Security Council has not been able to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court. Furthermore, since Syria is still under Al-Assad’s control, and is backed by Russia and China, it is impossible to achieve justice there. Finally, the only institution the UN General Assembly managed to create in pursuit of accountability is the International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism for Syria, the mechanism, however, it is only tasked with collecting evidence and does not have any prosecutorial powers. The Amman Center for Human Rights Studies thus applauds German efforts to bring much needed accountability and justice to the situation in Syria using universal jurisdiction, which currently seems like the only path to accountability.
In principle, states only have criminal jurisdiction over their territory, their nationals or their interests. However, after the horrors of the Second World War, the concept of universal jurisdiction emerged. Thanks to this principle, states which enact universal jurisdiction legislations have competence over international crimes (war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide) even if the crime was committed outside its territory, by and against an individual who does not possess the country’s nationality. Universal jurisdiction is controversial, and little by little states have reduced the extent of their competences, by limiting cases to permanent residents, for example.
In recent years, there has been a surge of universal jurisdiction cases, especially against the Syrian regime. For example, as of today there are cases involving Syrian in Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Cases concern regime officials, such as Bashar Al-Assad’s uncle, Rifaat Al-Assad, rebels, Islamic States militants but also European firms who took profit of the war. Non-Europeans states also make us of universal jurisdiction, although its less common. For example, in 2018, an Argentinian prosecutor opened an investigation into the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman for his role in the ongoing war in Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The growing number of refugees currently in the West calling for justice has put pressure on states to open universal jurisdiction investigation. In the case of Eyad A. and Anwar R., the case was initiated by a Syrian refugee who recognised Anwar R., the man who tortured him while in detention, in a refugee center in Berlin.
The conviction of Eyad A. is a great first step for justice in Syria, but it is only a first step. In Koblenz, victims are still waiting for the verdict of Anwar R., who is seen as the “bigger fish” compared to Eyad A. Elsewhere, other victims are also waiting. For example, although the war in Yemen has been described as one of the worst in decades, the only investigation into it is in Argentina. Egyptian President Abdullah Al-Sisi’s oppressive regime has also been immune to universal jurisdiction so far.
The Center therefore calls on all states which have the legal arsenal to prosecute international criminals to follow Germany’s example and to use universal jurisdiction to bring justice to victims.