International Justice Closes in on Syria’s State-backed Killers

On Tuesday, February 19, nine Syrian survivors of torture filed a criminal complaint in Stockholm, Sweden, against 25 senior Syrian government intelligence officials. That complaint is the latest in a series of similar moves in countries – including France, Germany, Austria, and other European countries – aimed at rendering accountability for actions by the Syrian government that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The abuses that the nine plaintiffs in Stockholm allegedly endured illustrate the Syrian government’s savage zero-tolerance approach toward perceived dissidents. According to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the plaintiffs were arrested on separate occasions between 2011 and 2015 and subsequently subjected to torture by agents of four of Syria’s five intelligence branches. The plaintiffs’ allegations include illegal abduction, rape, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – patterns of abuse that have been extensively documented by human rights monitoring organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

The motion in Sweden comes on the heels of an unprecedented accountability milestone in a grinding eight-year conflict that has been characterized by gross violations of human rights and international law. Until recently, these violations have taken place in a context of utter impunity. But on February 13, German and French officials arrested one former high-ranking Syrian intelligence official and two of his subordinates on suspicion of torture and crimes against humanity. The arrests ended the complete failure of the international community to hold perpetrators of these vicious crimes to account. Those arrests, together with criminal complaints filed and warrants issued over the past year, have sparked renewed hope in the prospect for justice. This despite coming at a particularly hopeless moment in the crisis – when the Syrian government’s apparent military victory has all but cemented its reign of impunity.

Syria presents a particularly complicated context for accountability, primarily because the party responsible for perpetrating the majority of crimes – the Syrian government – remains in power. The international criminal justice system has not yet determined a way to address this problem. Because Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court which it established is not authorized to investigate crimes in Syria without a referral by the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China have blocked attempts at such a referral.

In the absence of large-scale international options, the struggle against impunity has begun in countries outside Syria, where survivors, legal advocates, and judicial institutions are employing universal jurisdiction to launch investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. We have seen this taking shape in Sweden, France, Germany, Austria, and other European countries. A similar example of efforts toward justice in national courts outside Syria involves the case of Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, prosecuted in the United States.

Since the early days of the conflict in Syria, PHR has conducted painstaking research to document violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, while advocating for justice. To date, PHR has confirmed 550 attacks on health facilities and the killing of more than 890 medical professionals. Our recently updated map provides a snapshot of the intentionality and scale of the assault on health care in Syria, while giving users the ability to zoom in on the details and documentation of each verified attack.

In a landscape fraught with political and procedural obstacles, avenues to justice must be pursued at every opportunity. The seeds of justice are sown where circumstances allow, but justice cannot flourish without the immense efforts of those dedicated to the ideal of accountability: victims and witnesses who courageously give testimony; human rights organizations that conduct research, advocate, and litigate; and government authorities that assume their responsibilities to investigate the most heinous crimes and prosecute those responsible.

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