Building Roads to Justice in Syria

A smoke filled street with damaged cars and buildings
Syrians take part in a rescue operation following an airstrike on a residential area by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus, Syria, on February 25, 2017. © Qusay Nour/Anadolu/Getty

In early 2020, a regional court in the German city of Koblenz will open the trial of two Syrian men, identified by federal prosecutors as Anwar R. and Eyad A. Both are former officials in Syria’s state security service, the General Intelligence Directorate, and they are accused of crimes against humanity—specifically of overseeing and perpetrating systematic torture, rape, and murder of GID detainees from Damascus and the surrounding region.

The trial will be the first of any senior official from the government of Bashar al-Assad for atrocities committed during Syria’s brutal civil war. There have been several cases in European courts against members of Islamic State and other factions.

But what does criminal accountability mean in Syria after more than eight years of war? Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, tortured, and displaced, and the Assad regime has committed most of the atrocities. With Russian support, it has strengthened its grip on power, and its atrocities are ongoing.

In such bleak circumstances, the Open Society Justice Initiative has taken its cues from Syrian partner organizations, who insist that criminal accountability is valuable for many reasons. Individual trials can provide a measure of justice for those most affected. They can reveal court-tested truths about the war that will outlast tides of propaganda. Trials draw attention to ongoing atrocities, such as the plight of detainees still held in government torture centers, and could create pressure for the release of detainees, access by the International Committee of the Red Cross, or deterrence of further abuses. Complicit western companies that have violated sanctions can be identified and punished, and others deterred. Foreign financiers of reconstruction could insist that perpetrators identified through trials be barred from lucrative rebuilding contracts. Exposure of their crimes might also sideline Syrian perpetrators from participating in future transition or post-transition governments.

However, Syria-related prosecutions in Europe, including the forthcoming trial in Germany, are possible under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Any country whose domestic legislation allows prosecution of crimes under international conventions banning torture, mass killings, war crimes, and other atrocities can act on Syria atrocities.The rationale for accountability is strong, but its path is currently narrow. Russia and China have blocked UN Security Council referral of the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court. For the same reason, today any Security Council-mandated tribunal like those for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia is politically inconceivable.

The German trial results from a remarkable effort by an array of Syrian and international civil society groups to enable this kind of prosecution against senior Assad regime officials.  

The case of Anwar R is possible because Syrian NGOs including the Syrian Archive, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research have provided crucial information, as have international NGOs including the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). These groups have submitted dossiers of incriminating documents seized on the ground in Syria during the conflict, along with photos, and witness statements from survivors of the GID’s vicious torture centers.

The Open Society Justice Initiative, in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations’ Middle East and North Africa Program and its Human Rights Initiative, has been working to support this case-building effort for three years now. This started with efforts to promote cooperation among the NGOs involved, build the capacity of Syrian partners, and support Syrian women and women’s organizations to engage in the male-dominated accountability space.

The Justice Initiative has assisted in preparing and submitting to prosecutors over a dozen case dossiers targeting high-level officials. In the case against Anwar R. our lawyers are also supporting and representing victims to ensure they have a voice at the trial once it opens, and working to ensure that the broader Syrian community is aware of the trial.

Beyond these targeted investigations, the Justice Initiative has also been working with partners to pursue justice for two of the most heinous features of the conduct of the Syrian conflict by the Assad government and its allies—the repeated use of chemical weapons, and repeated attacks deliberately targeting hospitals and medical personnel.

Our work on chemical weapons has included taking action, together with Syrian Archive and TRIAL International, to investigate the failure of European Union sanctions to prevent the export to Syria of chemicals that can be used to create chemical weapons. We are also working to expose the operations of Syria’s chemical weapons research and production program, and building cases that seek to establish individual criminal responsibility for specific attacks.

Similarly, we are working with Physicians for Human Rights and Syrian Archive to comprehensively document Syrian attacks on hospitals and medical personnel, and to support potential universal jurisdiction prosecutions of those responsible for these crimes.

The Justice Initiative’s work supporting accountability extends beyond our own case-building. We also aim to support accountability initiatives led by others. With the support of other Open Society programs, the Justice Initiative is partnering with Syrian Archive and Security Force Monitor to establish the chains of command of the Syrian military and special forces, who are responsible for numerous international crimes. We also support and provide information to the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) on Syria and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Investigation and Identification Team (OPCW-IIT).

There is much more to be done. At the Justice Initiative, we are continuing to support international advocacy to strengthen the fledgling IIIM set up by the UN General Assembly in 2016 to systematically collect and organize evidence for future prosecutions. With our partners, we are exploring how to improve Syrians’ access to information about accountability processes, including their promise and limits. For the longer term, we are exploring how more comprehensive criminal accountability could become feasible. Throughout all of our work for greater justice in Syria, we strive to follow and support the Syrian victims and activists working to build a new Syria on a foundation of accountability.  

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