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2017 | HRW - These Are the Crimes We Are Fleeing

This report by Human Rights Watch outlines ongoing efforts in Sweden and Germany to investigate and prosecute individuals implicated in grave international crimes in Syria, as these are two of the main destinations for Syrian asylum seekers in Europe and the first states in which individuals were tried and convicted for serious international crimes in Syria. 

Drawing on interviews with relevant authorities and 45 Syrian refugees living in these countries, the report highlights challenges that German and Swedish authorities face in taking up these types of cases, and the experience of refugees and asylum seekers in interacting with the authorities and pursuing justice. In so doing, this report draws valuable lessons for the countries involved and for other countries considering investigations involving grave abuses committed in Syria.The authors find that both countries have several elements in place to allow for the successful investigation and prosecution of grave crimes in Syria—above all comprehensive legal frameworks, well-functioning specialized war crimes units, and previous experience with the prosecution of such crimes. In addition, due to the large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees in Europe, previously unavailable victims, witnesses, material evidence, and even some suspects are now within the reach of the authorities. 

The report also discusses the standard challenges associated with pursuing universal jurisdiction cases, especially in the circumstances of an ongoing-armed conflict. One the main challenges is lack of access to information due, inter alia, to restricted access to crime scenes, lack of awareness among Syrian asylum seekers and refugees about the investigation and prosecution systems in their host states and the fear of possible retribution against their families back in Syria that make then mistrust authorities. Among other issues the report acknowledges insufficient cooperation with countries neighboring to Syria and limited information provided by non-governmental and intergovernmental bodies.

While any credible criminal proceedings that lead to accountability for crimes committed during the conflict are welcome, the reality is that the initial few cases authorities have been able to prosecute successfully within their jurisdictions are not representative of the scale or nature of the abuses committed in Syria. On pages 6-9 of the report, HRW provides a number of specific recommendations to Sweden and Germany, and to any organizations involved in pursuing accountability, with the aim of addressing identified gaps and increasing the likely success of future prosecutions based on universal jurisdiction.