National war crimes units rely too much on local counterparts, finds HRW report

24 September 2014 by Stephanie van den Berg

Despite successes, national war crimes units still rely too heavily on local counterparts, says a Human Rights Watch report comparing three EU members that use universal jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. For the 109-page report ‘The long arm of justice’, Leslie Haskell looked at how war crimes units in the Netherlands, Germany and France operated and what could be learnt from them. HRW chose the Netherlands for having the oldest and most robust unit, and France and Germany for having units less than five years old. 

While calling on countries wanting to establish their own war crimes units to emulate these nations, Haskell told IJT that work has yet to be done. “There is one issue that cuts across the board: the reliance on national authorities in the countries were the investigations are taking place,” she said. Though acknowledging the challenges of criminal investigations abroad, she expressed surprise to find that even in countries permitting independent foreign investigations on their territory, war crimes investigators “do not conduct their probes as independently as they should”. “For example, the Netherlands gives a list with the questions they will ask witnesses to the authorities ahead of time, while they are not obliged to do so,” Haskell explained.

Another general critique of national war crimes units by the report is the tendency to go after low- or mid-level perpetrators from a limited range of countries like Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, while neglecting more controversial cases involving the US, Israel and China.

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