Several countries, including Sweden, Germany, France and Finland, are investigating or prosecuting alleged perpetrators of grave crimes in Syria in the first attempts to seek justice for victims of the conflict which is now in its sixth year.
The efforts under way in Europe follow a double-veto by Russia and China of a UN Security Council resolution backed by more than 60 countries in May 2014 that would have referred the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court.
At a UN panel discussion Tuesday entitled “First Cracks in the Syrian Impunity Wall,” supporters and several opponents of the legal actions in Europe sparred over the search for justice in Syria.
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Liechtenstein’s UN Ambassador Christian Wenaweser, one of the moderators, said the European efforts should be expanded and accountability must be part of Syrian peace talks and a solution to the war.
“But in addition, much more effort will be needed to address the unspeakable crimes and atrocities that have been and continue to be committed in Syria,” Wenaweser said.
Qatar’s UN Ambassador Alya Al-Thani, the other moderator, said prosecutions in Europe will not only prevent total impunity but “are also providing some measure of justice for victims who have nowhere else to turn.”
“Qatar is keen to be part of this mechanism,” she said. “The constitution of Qatar allows prosecution for terrorist crimes, regardless of where they were committed and the nationality of the victim and the accused.”
Fadel Abdul Ghani, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said his organization has collected thousands of files on alleged crimes and has five cases ready to be submitted to tribunals.
Abdul Ghani said 90 per cent of the alleged crimes were committed by the Syrian regime.
Iranian diplomat Mohammad Hassani, whose country is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, disputed the 90 per cent figure, accused Abdul Ghani of “baseless lies … and fabrications,” and strongly criticized his “one-sided approach.”
“In our view the fight in Syria is the fight against terrorists,” he said, and accountability should also take into account countries supporting, funding and arming “these terrorist groups in Syria.”
Russian diplomat Sergey Leonidchenko, whose country is also a close Syrian ally, said the Security Council’s referral of the uprising that ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the ICC in 2011 produced only a quick case against Gadhafi and nothing else for five years- so Russia’s veto of an ICC referral of Syria “was quite understandable in this situation.”
Among the countries seeking justice for Syrians, Sweden’s UN Ambassador Olof Skoog pointed to a law that entered into force July 1, 2014, allowing Swedish courts to exercise universal jurisdiction for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and “there is no statute of limitation for these crimes.”
While investigations have been very difficult, he said, there have been convictions in two cases, both with video evidence. In one, a member of the Free Syrian Army was convicted of aggravated assault and war crimes for beating and tying up a prisoner from the same rebel group, and in the other two men who executed two people were tried and convicted of terrorism, he said.
France’s deputy UN Ambassador Alexis Lamek said that “in France more than 350 court proceedings in relation with Syria have been opened in the anti-terrorist courts since 2014.”
He said French judicial authorities are also looking at possible criminal charges stemming from the archive of more than 10,000 photos of bodies of imprisoned Syrian rebels and dissidents taken by a Syrian military photographer who defected and now goes by the pseudonym Caesar.