Protesters, with photos of victims killed in chemical attacks in Iraq, gather outside the district courthouse in The Hague on November 21, 2005, as the trial opens against Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat. The court convicted Van Anraat of complicity in war crimes for having supplied Saddam Hussein with chemicals that were used in attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s, and sentenced him to 17 years in prison.

(The Hague) - Governments wanting to limit impunity for the most serious international crimes should look to the examples of three European countries showing leadership in this area, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Specialized war crimes units composed of police, prosecutors, and immigration officials have the means to bring those responsible for atrocity crimes worldwide to justice and to ensure that war criminals don’t find safe haven when they flee their own country.

The 109-page report, "The Long Arm of Justice: Lessons from Specialized War Crimes Units in France, Germany, and the Netherlands," examines the inner workings of war crimes units in the three countries and highlights key lessons learned. Since justice is often elusive where the crimes occurred, national courts in these three states and elsewhere are more frequently applying the longstanding principle of “universal jurisdiction” to prosecute suspects accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, regardless of where the crimes were committed and the victim’s and accused’s nationality.

“Universal jurisdiction is an essential safety net for victims who have nowhere else to turn,” said Leslie Haskell, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Specialized war crimes units are the driving force of these cases – sending a powerful message to human rights abusers that impunity for crimes along with a ticket to a comfortable exile are becoming relics of the past.”

National courts in countries where crimes have been committed may be unable to provide justice due to the destruction of judicial infrastructure, inadequate laws, and resources. States may also be unwilling to pursue justice where senior government officials are implicated in the crimes. International criminal tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, may be able to provide redress but cannot meet the full demands of justice due to restrictions on their jurisdiction and limited resources. Universal jurisdiction, powered by these specialized units, has therefore become an important backstop to bring to justice those responsible for grave international crimes.

Based on interviews with prosecutors, investigative judges, police investigators, immigration officials, defense and victims’ lawyers, government officials, human rights activists, academics, and trial observers in each of the three countries, the report assesses the war crimes units’ successes and continued challenges. The Netherlands has the most longstanding and robust war crimes unit, which can serve as a good model for governments considering the creation of similar entities, Human Rights Watch said. The report also discusses trials in each country, including the recent completion of first trials by war crimes units in France and Germany.

France has the largest number of cases pending, with more than two dozen targeting Rwandan nationals accused of involvement in the 1994 genocide. It also has ground-breaking investigations into two French companies that sold surveillance equipment to Libya and Syria that was allegedly used to monitor government opponents, leading to their arrest and torture.

Investigating grave international crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction is particularly challenging because the crimes occurred abroad and often on a large-scale many years before. The evidence may be scattered across various countries. Two of the most significant achievements of specialized war crimes units have been innovative investigative techniques and the ability of police and prosecutors to carry out investigations abroad, including in countries where crimes have been committed.

“Investigating and prosecuting génocidaires and war criminals from faraway countries can be daunting for police and prosecutors used to handling domestic crimes,” Haskell said. “Concentrating expertise in specialized war crimes units that bring together the necessary staff, experience, and resources is key to overcoming these challenges.”

Police and prosecutors in the war crimes units have learned to address the many practical difficulties of these cases, including finding credible victims and witnesses, using interpreters and other experts, and securing cooperation from foreign judicial authorities. Human Rights Watch found that war crimes unit staff have improved their investigative techniques through trial and error, gaining valuable experience that can be put to use in future cases.

Human Rights Watch also identified areas in which improvements are needed, including avoiding unnecessary reliance on foreign authorities during investigations abroad and strengthening protection for victims and witnesses. Since documentary and forensic evidence is often hard to find, much of the evidence in these cases is testimony from victims and witnesses, many of whom still live in the country where the crimes occurred. They and their families often face serious risks by cooperating with judicial processes. Police and prosecutors in the three countries said that witness protection has been a major concern in nearly all cases.

In Germany, prosecutors have initiated broad preliminary investigations into crimes in several conflict countries, including Syria, even without suspects in their sights. These “structural investigations” are aimed at gathering information about crimes and identifying potential victims and witnesses in Germany who may be useful for future accountability efforts in the country or elsewhere. Since late 2013, the German immigration service has asked Syrian asylum seekers to complete a form stating whether they have witnessed any war crimes and whether they can name those responsible.

“Specialized war crimes units have learned that it’s easier to collect evidence soon after crimes have been committed than years later, and Syria provides the perfect opportunity to put this lesson into practice,” Haskell said. “National authorities should authorize gathering all evidence of grave international crimes available in their country, including from refugees, so that it may be used later for criminal prosecutions.”

Political will is a necessary prerequisite to establishing war crimes units. It is also essential to their success given the political sensitivities and diplomatic tensions often raised by these cases, especially if high-ranking foreign officials are the subject of investigations.

In the Netherlands, strong political support for fighting impunity has led to the creation of a special unit within the immigration service to screen asylum seekers arriving in the country to ensure that those suspected of committing grave international crimes abroad do not obtain refugee status in the country. If immigration officials suspect a person has committed a grave international crime, they alert prosecutors and share relevant information so that criminal investigations can be considered.

Cooperation between these units is another key element of the war crimes units’ success. The European Union has created a network that brings together representatives from most of the EU’s 28 member states and a few observer states twice a year to discuss legal and practical issues around their work and to share information on specific cases. The initiative has had impressive results and has inspired a similar effort by the African Union and other cooperation mechanisms within the EU.

“The EU Genocide Network has significantly strengthened international cooperation and could do even more if Brussels-based institutions provide stronger political backing and additional resources,” Haskell said. “EU countries have the potential to be at forefront of universal jurisdiction and to lead efforts to ensure accountability for appalling crimes being committed in Syria, the Central African Republic, and other conflict zones.”