By Arab News
By Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
Two University of Amsterdam researchers have meticulously documented one of Syria’s worst atrocities: The mass execution in 2013 of scores of men, women and children in the Tadhamun neighborhood just a short distance away from Damascus city center. The recently published documentation provides compelling evidence of a war crime.
Professor Ugur Umit Ungor and Annsar Shahhoud, from the university’s Holocaust and Genocide Center, worked for years to get incontrovertible evidence, including video and direct evidence from some of the perpetrators of the massacre.
The newly released evidence represents an important addition to previously documented cases of gross breaches of international law in Syria, only a few of which have come under international scrutiny. It also bolsters growing multinational efforts to hold officials who engaged in gross human rights violations in Syria legally accountable for their actions at the International Criminal Court or in national courts.
There are many other examples from the 11-year-old Syrian war. Aaron Clements-Hunt is a genocide researcher, also based in Amsterdam, who specializes in the Syrian conflict, including the civilian experience of siege warfare in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, which is near Damascus. Besieged for five full years between 2013 and 2018, Douma’s civilian population was subjected to the longest siege in modern history, according to Clements-Hunt, who has documented atrocities committed during that time.
Several investigations have provided evidence of the frequent use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. They have also shown the routine use of indiscriminate weapons such as barrel bombs and ballistic missiles against civilian populations.
Evidence is mounting that these cases are not isolated, but part of a systematic policy. As a result, about 500,000 Syrians are believed to have perished in conflict and many more have been maimed for life. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 25 million have been driven out of their homes, becoming refugees in neighboring countries or displaced within Syria.
There is little chance that the Syrian government would ever prosecute these crimes. Just the opposite, in fact, as last week it issued a partial amnesty for crimes committed since 2011, which could encourage more violations.
Action at the national level is particularly important in Syria, as the country is not a party to the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that established the ICC. The court is mandated to try cases of war crimes, torture, rape, crimes against humanity and other “international crimes,” but the UN Security Council has repeatedly failed to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC prosecutor.
In January, a court in Germany convicted former Syrian intelligence officer Anwar Raslan of complicity in the torture of thousands of people between 2011 and 2012 in the Al-Khatib branch of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate in Damascus. The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz found him guilty of crimes against humanity for the perpetration of killings, torture, serious deprivation of liberty, rape, sexual assault and hostage-taking. Raslan was sentenced to life in prison. He was a supervisor of another officer, Eyad Al-Gharib, who had been convicted (also in Germany) in February 2021 of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Syria.
Germany is able to prosecute crimes committed outside its borders by virtue of its Code of Crimes Against International Law, which it adopted in 2002, allowing its courts to try such crimes even if they are committed in other countries and where neither the perpetrator nor the victim is a German national. Following customary international rules, the code also excludes a statute of limitations for these crimes.
These cases in Germany and similar ones elsewhere provide a good example of how national courts can fill accountability gaps for gross human rights violations, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, wherever they are committed. They should, of course, rely on fair and independent investigations and the trials should be carried out in line with international legal standards.
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria welcomed January’s verdict, emphasizing the need to achieve justice for victims and survivors. Three of the commission’s reports were read into evidence during the trial. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the commission’s chair, said that the court ruling represented “much-needed progress towards achieving justice for victims and survivors of war crimes in Syria — despite the fact that pathways to accountability remain curtailed in Syria and at the UN Security Council.”
Other UN officials also welcomed the verdict, which “provides a measure of justice for Syrian survivors who have waited so long to see the individuals responsible be brought to account for their crimes against humanity in a court of law,” according to UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten.
UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet called for greater efforts to “widen the net of accountability for all perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes that have characterized this brutal conflict.” And the UN Human Rights Office noted that there have been several other criminal and civil cases against former officials and members of non-state armed groups accused of such crimes in Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other jurisdictions.
Thus, impunity for these crimes should not have to be the rule. When national governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute them domestically, universal jurisdiction becomes a critical tool. The evidence of the Tadhamun massacre of 2013, so skillfully collected by the Amsterdam researchers, will help build the case for accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Syrian conflict. Accountability might encourage would-be perpetrators to think twice and prompt those already implicated to come clean and stop these brutal practices, as happened with a key executioner in that massacre.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1