Press release

Justice Initiative Joins Syrian Groups in Filing First Criminal Complaint on Behalf of Sarin Attack Victims

October 06, 2020
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NEW YORK—On Monday, a group of non-governmental organizations including the Justice Initiative, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and Syrian Archive filed a criminal complaint on behalf of chemical weapons attack victims to the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor. The complaint includes evidence from the most detailed investigations to date into the sarin attacks on Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun that took place in 2013 and 2017. The dossier includes new information and investigative leads, and shows that the Syrian government carried out the attacks.

Together, the two attacks killed more than 1,400 people, including many children, and are among the Syrian conflict’s deadliest chemical weapons attacks. Both attacks coincided with strikes on nearby medical facilities, which severely impeded the emergency medical response. By gathering evidence and identifying witnesses able to provide testimony to prosecutors, the complainants aim to advance the eventual arrest and prosecution of Syrian officials responsible for the attacks.

“Our years-long investigation on behalf of victims compiles extensive evidence indicating that senior Syrian government officials are responsible for the Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun sarin attacks as part of a widespread and deliberate pattern of targeting opposition-held areas with chemical weapons since 2012,” said Hadi al Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive. “Now is the time for competent European prosecutors to jointly investigate Syria’s chemical weapons program and issue arrest warrants for the Syrian officials responsible.”

Throughout the decade-long conflict, the Syrian government has used chemical weapons as part of a broader pattern of deliberate and widespread attacks against civilians in opposition-held areas. While most chemical weapons used during the conflict have been improvised chlorine munitions, the deployment of sarin munitions emerged from an extensive government-sponsored research, development, production and storage program. The Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), a Syrian government agency, has played a central role in this program.

“It is not reasonable that the international community is dealing with the grave crime of chemical weapons use with the disregard that we are witnessing today. The lack of concrete action to hold the Syrian government accountable puts at stake not only Syrians’ rights, but the rights of all of humanity,” said Mazen Darwish, director general and founder of SCM. “Syria is a test of the world’s resolve to hold war criminals accountable, and failure is not an option. That’s why international efforts must unite to prevent impunity for these crimes and to ensure that they do not recur.”

Some states, including Germany, Sweden, and Norway, have extraterritorial jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. As a result, prosecutors in these countries can conduct investigations into these serious crimes even when suspects are not present in their territory and neither the victims nor perpetrators are citizens of the investigating country.

“International cooperation will be the key to successful efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Steve Kostas, a senior legal officer at the Justice Initiative. “States with evidence on Syria’s chemical weapons program and chemical attacks should provide that information to states with the jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the Syrian commanders and officials responsible.”

In July, the executive council of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), condemned the use of banned sarin and chlorine munitions by the Syrian government. The next meeting of the OPCW’s full membership, the Conference of States Parties, will begin late November, and could lead to a collective response from member states to Syria’s violation of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

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