Crimes against international law and their international persecution

The film "The Lost Souls of Syria," directed by Stéphane Malterre, vividly depicts the dedication of activists who are fighting against the forgetting of the crimes and human rights violations committed by the Assad regime. During the screening and panel discussion at the FES, it became clear that the work of activists and Syrians in seeking international prosecution, such as in the Al-Khatib trial, is crucial to achieving justice.

The film "The Lost Souls of Syria" tells the story of the deserting military photographer "Caesar," through whom more than 27,000 photos of prisoners tortured to death from the secret archives of the Syrian regime were exposed to the international community in January 2014. They were more revealing than anything held against the Nazis in Nuremberg. The photos shocked people worldwide, including UN representatives, politicians, and jurists. They were also the basis for further US sanctions against the Syrian regime under the "Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act," passed in 2019. However, the perpetrators could not be held accountable because international justice failed to pursue the crimes against international law by the Syrian regime. The film shows the commitment of the victims' families, activists, and Caesar himself to search for witnesses and evidence, but above all, the fight for truth and justice and against the forgetting of the disappeared and murdered.

The newly released film by director Stéphane Malterre and co-author and content consultant Garance Le Caisne was shown at the FES event "Syria's Lost Souls" on February 8, 2023, and discussed with:

  • Joumana Seif: Legal adviser to the International Crimes and Accountability Program, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR);
  • Sama Kiki: Executive Director, Syrian Legal Development Program (SLDP);
  • Frank Schwabe, Member of the German Bundestag: Spokesperson for the for the Working Group on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid in the SPD Parliamentary Group.

Die Diskussion wurde von Kristin Helberg, Journalistin und Nahostexpertin, moderiert.

The discussion was moderated by Kristin Helberg, journalist and expert on the Middle East.

The film "The Lost Souls of Syria” reminds us that human rights violations continue to occur in Syria, that the repressive system of Assad still oppresses, kills, makes disappear, and tortures people. Unfortunately, the ongoing systemic brutality of the regime, as well as the continuing difficult living conditions in Syria, are increasingly fading into the background and disappearing from our consciousness.

Torture and kidnappings under Assad's regime are neither new nor isolated cases. They have been used since the 1970s to maintain Assad's power and intimidate critical voices. Under this state terrorism, hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared and lost their lives under torture. Currently, at least 135,000 people are missing, who have disappeared after being arrested by the Syrian security apparatus. People who come out of prisons alive are severely traumatized and silenced by the regime. Sadly, Syria has become a country of the disappeared, dead, refugees, and survivors.

Knowing the fate and location of their family members can provide comfort to the families of the disappeared. Although the news of death is always difficult and the hope of reunion is finally extinguished, the knowledge can also be liberating. That's why family members are constantly seeking information and searching for the disappeared. This is also why bringing perpetrators to justice with the help of international human rights activists and lawyers abroad is crucial - not only for the Syrians affected but also for all people fighting against violence and for justice. One success of these efforts is the so-called Al-Khatib trial in Koblenz.

The Al-Khatib trial in Germany

In 2020, the groundbreaking Al-Khatib trial (Al-Khatib meaning intelligence service location/investigation and torture center) took place in Koblenz, where for the first time, perpetrators or actors of the Syrian regime were convicted. It is possible to prosecute violations of international law at the national level through the principle of universal jurisdiction, and Germany was the first country to apply this in the Al-Khatib trial.

In 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the documentation of war crimes in Syria, after a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) was prevented by Russia’s and China’s veto in the UN Security Council.

The detailed forensic examination of the Caesar photos established the causes of death and methods of systematic torture. Thus, the Caesar photos were incriminating evidence and a clear documentation of the crimes. Since the photos have been examined and verified by the German court, they can be used for further proceedings. More detailed information about the trial can be found in the publication by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).

The ECCHR took on the important task of providing legal assistance and support to the 17 Syrians who acted as witnesses and joint plaintiffs in the trial.

There was also legal action in France, where international arrest warrants were issued against high-ranking members of the Assad regime's intelligence apparatus, including Jamil Hassan, head of the Air Force Intelligence Service. While arrest warrants for perpetrators still in Syria may not be executable, these convictions send the message that the wall of impunity can be broken.

Sanctions and UN aid supplies

During the discussion at the film screening at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, various topics were discussed. In particular, the issue of sanctions was repeatedly raised by audience members. The discussions made it clear that sanctions are considered very relevant as they are the last resort against the regime. Bombardment of hospitals and civilians, chemical weapon attacks, and the practice of starving its own population are all crimes against humanity and reasons for the sanctions.

The European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Arab states, and some other countries have imposed sanctions against Assad for these crimes. The sanctions are not UN sanctions and therefore not mandatory for all countries. Humanitarian aid and aid deliveries are not affected by sanctions. After the release of the Caesar photos, the US "Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act" imposed sanctions on all states and private actors doing business with Assad's regime. These actors also no longer have access to the US market.

In Syria, Assad instrumentalizes UN aid supplies. On the one hand, with the help of the Russian veto in the UN Security Council, he prevents deliveries to Syrian areas that are not under his control. On the other hand, he manipulates and uses UN aid in his own areas for his own interests, including to favor those loyal to him. Unfortunately, the regime also benefits greatly from UN aid programs. As a side effect, due to politically motivated and unfair distribution of aid, it only reaches a fraction of those in need.

To ensure that sanctions are effective and remain so, it is important to constantly review and question them and, if necessary, change or adapt them. For example, there is a debate about whether sanctions are responsible for the collapse of the Syrian economy and the fact that a large portion of Syrians live in poverty. The effectiveness of sanctions should also be reviewed. This issue is very complex, difficult, and contradictory, as lifting sanctions can be problematic and finding alternative sanctions measures can be difficult. Furthermore, the question of how to deal with the crimes of the Syrian regime arises.

However, it is important to focus not only on the (indirect) consequences but also on the causes of sanction policies and to see the responsibility with the Assad regime. It should not be forgotten that the regime itself could lift the sanctions if it were to implement the demands, including an end to human rights violations and the release of political prisoners.

Obtaining a Passport

In the panel, the topic of obtaining passports for Syrians in Germany was also discussed. Here, Syrians, especially those with subsidiary protection, do not receive passports from the immigration office, but must apply for passports from the Syrian embassy for 500 to 1000 Euros. This makes them among the most expensive passports in the world. An unintended side effect is that the Assad regime is co-financed, among other things, by the Syrian embassies and representations in Germany. According to estimates, the Assad regime has already earned around 100 million euros through the passport requirement in Germany. This practice is a serious burden for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who have to pay huge sums to a state that drives away, tortures, and murders their acquaintances, friends, and family members. In addition, Syrians in Germany are also threatened with persecution, especially when they have to show up at embassies and then provide information about their whereabouts in Germany. Therefore, there is a campaign called #DefundAssad to change this practice, which is directed to the Interior Ministry, as the BMI is responsible for these regulations for obtaining passports.

Steps for the future:

What do activists, human rights defenders, and oppositional Syrians wish for in terms of prosecution and justice? It is important that the horror does not paralyze but rather motivates to continue fighting for justice. As with the Al-Khatib trial in Koblenz, further trials should be initiated in other European countries. In addition, it would be useful and relevant to establish a special court for the crimes committed in Syria. International prosecution is essential to create justice for the Syrian people and to stop the crime.

The article about the film screening and the significance of the Al-Khatib trial was written by Vera Schiche.

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