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Seeking justice for the ongoing grave human rights abuses in Syria has proven largely elusive. Now the shield of impunity is beginning to crack.

Several countries, including Sweden, Germany, and France are in the process of investigating some individuals alleged to have committed grave crimes such as torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. Under the international law principle of universal jurisdiction, national courts can pursue these crimes regardless of where they were committed, the nationality of the victim or perpetrator.

A Syrian man carries his two girls as he walks across the rubble following a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of al-Kalasa in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 17, 2015.  © 2015 Getty

These investigations are made possible by the increasing numbers of Syrians who have fled the war and sought refuge in Europe. Previously unavailable victims, witnesses, evidence, and even suspects, are now within reach of authorities in some European countries. In many cases, authorities have been tipped to the identity of suspects by asylum seekers. European countries now have a unique opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to justice for grave abuses in places like Syria.

Sweden was the first country in Europe to try someone for war crimes in Syria in 2015. Prosecutors in France opened a preliminary inquiry on September 15, 2015, into the atrocities brought to light by the Caesar photographs and are currently investigating a French company for aiding and abetting torture by the Syrian regime. In Switzerland, the Attorney General opened a criminal investigation in August 2016 for war crimes in Syria.

On Thursday, October 20, 2016, a criminal court in Stuttgart, Germany, opened a trial for alleged war crimes committed in Syria. Suliman A.S., an alleged member of Jabhat al-Nusra, is accused of kidnapping a UN observer in Damascus in 2013.

While all these cases have shortcomings, given that other approaches like the International Criminal Court are currently blocked, they represent small but vital steps towards ending impunity for crimes committed in Syria.

“For the victims, the absence of justice [in Syria] means the continuation of the abuse they suffered. The suffering of the victim doesn’t end when they stop being tortured or are released,” said Mazen Darwish, a long-time human rights defender detained and tortured by the Syrian authorities. “I absolutely know that without justice, there can never be peace, and victims can never heal psychologically.”


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