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Some Hope in the Struggle for Justice in Syria

European Courts Offer Survivors a Path Toward Accountability

From left, Syrian women Samaa Mahmoud, Mariam Alhallak and Yasmen Almashan hold pictures of relatives who died in Syria, before the verdict in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany, January 13, 2022.  © 2022 AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Today marks eleven years since the peaceful uprising in Syria descended into a brutal armed conflict, and comprehensive justice for countless abuses committed during the crisis remains elusive.

While many avenues for prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria are blocked, the principle of universal jurisdiction opens a pathway for survivors to pursue a small measure of justice through European courts.

Universal jurisdiction allows for the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of victims and perpetrators. Some European countries, including France and Sweden, are using these laws to investigate allegations of serious crimes in Syria. It is one of the few accountability options available for victims of atrocities committed there.

Today, Human Rights Watch released an audio archive of interviews with Syrian survivors, journalists, activists, lawyers, and others involved in the struggle for justice in Syria. The archive puts particular focus on the recent German universal jurisdiction trial which took place in the city of Koblenz. In January, the court in Koblenz convicted Anwar R., a former Syrian intelligence official, for crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. A second German trial for crimes against humanity currently taking place in Frankfurt shows that justice efforts are gaining momentum.

Over the last decade, Syrian authorities have arbitrarily arrested, unlawfully detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured tens of thousands of people. Other parties to the conflict have also committed serious violations with impunity.

More needs to be done to address the scale of atrocities in Syria. The international community should take every step to dismantle the culture of impunity and bolster ongoing efforts to hold those responsible to account. Survivors and victims deserve justice and must not be forgotten.

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