Lasting peace in Syria is only possible if the war crimes and atrocities committed against the civilian population are investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. For this reason, Germany is pursuing concrete initiatives to target impunity in the Syria conflict in addition to its comprehensive humanitarian engagement and support for the political process facilitated by the United Nations.
Alliance against Impunity
Germany is working to pool and dovetail national, regional and international initiatives and measures to fight impunity in Syria. This goal is one aspect of the Alliance against Impunity launched by Germany. Foreign Minister Maas most recently discussed options for conducting criminal proceedings outside Syria with 20 colleagues on the fringes of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in February 2020.
In the absence of independent and transparent jurisdiction in Syria and international criminal jurisdiction, the focus of international cooperation in the fight against impunity in Syria is on securing evidence. The UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) has a central role to play. The aim of the IIIM is to gather, secure, analyse and process evidence of atrocities against the Syrian civilian population. This evidence is to be used to support future criminal trials – regardless of whether they are held before national bodies or before regional and international courts or tribunals.
The Federal Foreign Office has provided the IIIM with approximately 3.125 million euro in support since it was established in 2017 and in 2019 it successfully campaigned for the IIIM to be included in the regular UN budget. Germany is also promoting a large number of other initiatives and projects to document and process human rights violations, support ongoing efforts and lay the foundation for the future investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed within the context of the conflict. In 2020, for example, the Federal Foreign Office is supporting the Syrian non-governmental organisation Syrian Network for Human Rights, which documents arbitrary arrests and torture in prisons, among other things.
The IIIM cooperates closely with the independent international Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in Syria, which was set up in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council at Germany’s initiative. The Commission documents human rights violations and infringements of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. The IIIM makes use of the data gleaned by processing it and compiling it in investigative files. These files can be used for investigations by national, regional or international courts.
Investigation of chemical weapon attacks
Since 2012, chemical weapons have been repeatedly deployed in Syria. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) wants to investigate these crimes. To this end, a mechanism for attributing responsibility for such attacks (attribution mechanism) was established in 2019. In 2019, Germany supported the work of the OPCW in Syria with around one million euro. Germany is also a member of the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons.
Proceedings in Germany
In Germany, criminal investigations and trials against suspected perpetrators from Syria are conducted by the Federal Public Prosecutor General under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In the case of the most heinous crimes – such as war crimes and crimes against humanity – the German Code of Crimes Against International Law allows for the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators without a direct link with Germany. Germany is a pioneer in this area.