European countries are invoking 'universal jurisdiction' to arrest those accused of crimes against humanity in the Syrian Civil War.
UNITED NATIONS — Germany arrested two men this week on charges of crimes against humanity for helping run a systematized torture regime to punish opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during Arab Spring protests in 2011 and 2012. French authorities carried out a similar arrest on Tuesday.
In both cases, the alleged crimes took place in Syria and both victims and the alleged perpetrators are Syrian. That makes delivering justice difficult, though not impossible, even after Russia vetoed a referral of Syrian crimes to international courts.
Beth van Schaack is a faculty fellow at Stanford University’s Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice.
“So the concept of universal jurisdiction says that any state in the world has the ability to prosecute international crimes, regardless of whether or not there’s any nexus to the particular state. So what Germany has done here is, working through a joint investigative team throughout Europe, [it] has opened an investigation into perpetrators that are potentially in Europe.”
Even when perpetrators are captured, universal jurisdiction cases are difficult to prosecute, since evidence of crimes is often hard to come by — if it exists at all — and witnesses can be even harder to locate.
But years of work by human rights groups and legal experts to document the crimes of the Syrian war as they happened gives prosecutors a shot.
“We’re in a better position when it comes to the Syrian conflict than we’ve ever been with respect to a conflict. It is now the most documented crime base in the history of the planet, really. We have evidence involving all perpetrators, all sides, that is now available for prosecutors, as long as they can get jurisdiction over those who are responsible.”
And that’s where the seven-year exodus of Syrians to Europe comes in handy.
“Germany is benefiting from the fact that it is playing host to a number of victims, because they will be serving now as witnesses to make these cases successful.”