With many hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the violence in Syria, the focus—as it should be—has been on finding them safety, shelter and aid. But some governments are also looking to hold those responsible for the underlying mass murder and torture to account for their crimes. This requires an proactive approach, with appropriate laws to pursue suspects, skilled professionals to investigate these crimes and strong political will to support accountability efforts.
Germany is one such country. There, prosecutors have initiated broad preliminary investigations with respect to several crisis countries—including Syria and Libya. These "structural investigations" are aimed at cataloging grave international crimes committed in these countries and identifying potential victims and witnesses inside Germany who may be useful for future prosecutions in the country or elsewhere. Since late 2013, the German immigration service has been asking Syrian asylum seekers whether they have witnessed any war crimes and whether they can name those responsible.
Invoking what is known as universal jurisdiction, more and more courts of countries far from where some of the world's worst crimes—such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture—have been committed are stepping in to prosecute those responsible. For that to happen, countries need to adopt laws that give their courts jurisdiction. But having universal jurisdiction laws on the books is not enough to ensure that those responsible for these horrific deeds are brought to justice. A handful of countries have also created specialized war crimes units consisting of police, prosecutors and immigration officials to investigate and prosecute such crimes.
The first of these units came about in the Netherlands more than a decade ago after authorities realized that even as refugees from brutal crimes around the world arrived in the country seeking safe haven, so too were some of those responsible for the crimes. In some chilling cases, victims came face-to-face with their abusers.
Investigating and prosecuting grave international crimes is different than handling domestic criminal cases, even for serious crimes like murder or rape. These crimes often occurred on a massive scale years earlier in another country. Victims and witnesses may be dispersed throughout the country and in other countries, perhaps far away. Finding reliable evidence is difficult and usually requires investigations abroad—including in the country where the crimes originally took place. Professionals in national war crimes units know how to overcome these challenges and dig up the evidence needed for successful prosecutions.
A new Human Rights Watch report examines the inner workings of specialized war crimes units in France, Germany and the Netherlands, highlighting key lessons learned. One valuable lesson gleaned from the experience of these three countries is that war crimes units are not limited to going after war crimes suspects who are already in the country. Criminal justice authorities can also prepare for the possibility that new suspects will arrive on their soil.
The war crimes units in all three countries have come to realize that it is far easier to collect evidence soon after events transpire rather than decades later, when victims and witnesses may be scattered widely and other relevant evidence lost or destroyed. With the number of asylum seekers in the world at its highest level in nearly 70 years—many from conflict zones like Syria, where mass atrocities have been committed—authorities have an opportunity to collect information early on and begin investigations even before they have specific suspects in their sights.
In addition to Germany, a few other European governments are trying to collect testimony from asylum seekers and others on their territory that may be used for subsequent investigations and prosecutions. While these types of investigations may be costly, they can help ensure that their countries do not become safe havens and that those responsible for the worst crimes are prosecuted before national courts.
With the conflict still raging in Syria and no immediate prospect of trials there, universal jurisdiction may be victims' best chance for justice. More countries should create specialized war crimes units and empower them to gather information about grave international crimes that are available within their borders for use in future trials. As more countries join this effort, it may provide the first dent in impunity for Syria and extend the reach of justice for serious crimes being committed elsewhere.
Leslie Haskell is international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch and the author of a new report, "The Long Arm of Justice: Lessons from Specialized War Crimes Units in France, Germany, and the Netherlands." Haskell has been with Human Rights Watch since 2007, and has worked extensively in the field on the Rwandan genocide. Before joining Human Rights Watch, she worked as a lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. She also has experience as a criminal defense and civil litigation attorney in the US.