Are European prosecutions the answer to on-going impunity in Syria?

08 March 2016 by Stephanie van den Berg, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Parallel to calls for the establishment of an international tribunal to address alleged war crimes committed in Syria [IJT-169], many European countries say they have stepped up screening procedures to weed out possible war criminals amid the influx of Syrian refugees. The Netherlands, which has been somewhat of a pioneer in this regard, last week announced that in 2015 they denied asylum to 10 Syrian nationals because they are suspected of committing war crimes. But past experience points to a wide gap between identifying potential perpetrators and actually bringing them to justice.

Refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos in September 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Ben White - CAFOD)
Image caption: 
Refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos in September 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Ben White - CAFOD)

While prosecution in Syria or by an international tribunal seems far off, NGOs and other stakeholders are increasingly looking towards national prosecutions in asylum countries to end the prevailing sense of impunity for President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged atrocities.

“We believe that pushing for national prosecutions of Syrian suspects who come as asylum seekers is very important. Right now it’s the only kind of accountability we have. Other avenues, like a referral to the International Criminal Court, which we prefer, or setting up a Syria tribunal, are blocked,” Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, told IJT.

The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has been working to gather prosecution-ready case files and has over a million pages of documents. It operates as a kind of office of the prosecutor in exile for a prospective Syria tribunal. But it also shares information with national prosecutors in the EU.

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