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On the occasion of the publication of the Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review 2019 the War Reparations Centre of the University of Amsterdam hosted a debate on the key findings of the report. Read more about this discussion.

Launch event Universal Justice Annual Report 2019

Moderated by Frederiek de Vlaming, University of Amsterdam, War Reparations Centre, International Criminal Law Law Lab, 21 March 2019


The Report

The report highlights cases where national judges or prosecutors have initiated investigations into the most serious international crimes. It does not include every complaint. The report was written by Valérie Paulet, TRIAL International, in collaboration with REDRESS, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the International Foundation Baltasar Garzón (FIBGAR).

Download the report:


Key findings of the report

  • 149 named suspects in 15 countries, 18% more named suspects than in 2017
  • 17 accused on trial, 8 convictions, 2 acquittals
  • 111 war crimes charges, 90 crimes against humanity charges, 15 genocide charges, 42 torture charges


The panel discussion

The panelists discussed the following points:

  1. The overall view: How far are we in universal jurisdiction (UJ) worldwide? How does it work, that is how to get the information that is judicially useful? What have been best practices and strong examples?
  2. The case of Syria: Who has been indicted? Whom can we prosecute? What are our best sources? What have been the results so far?
  3. The way forward: How do we get more prosecuting countries involved in UJ? What are the risks of UJ? What is crucial for UJ to be a success?


Participants in the panel

  • Rupert Skilbeck, REDRESS
  • Bénédict de Moerloose, TRIAL
  • Clémence Bectarte, FIDH
  • Christian Ritscher, German War Crimes Unit
  • special guest: Mazen Darwish, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression
  • special guest: Matevz Pezdirc, Eurojust Genocide Network


Rupert Skilbeck, REDRESS (UK)

UJ works, see the numbers. The ICC during the same period did not achieve 8 convictions. Some domestic courts beat that number, as in Argentina and Bosnia. This year’s report in particular has a lot of cases. There are not that many NGOs who do this, or they do only a few cases. Yet now a larger number of NGOs  is involved, particularly in Germany.

Developments include:

  • Structured investigations: not just picking someone up at an airport. You’re ready to go as an NGO when you have asked the police to arrest someone.
  • War Crimes Units at national police/prosecutor’s office: originated in the last ten years. Many people with experience from the tribunals started working there. Different types of responsibilities, some have dual jurisdictions (including counter-terrorism, as in the UK). When there are more terrorist attacks within short time, war crimes investigations have to halt for the moment due to limited resources.
  • Common and civil law directions: common law is noticeable for its lack of prosecutions even when, as in the UK, the Home Office says there 1,000 people suspected of war crimes. In common law some things are almost impossible such as trial in absence and longer detention during investigation
  • Current investigations are characterized by the interplay between police and NGO investigations.


Bénédict de Moerloose, TRIAL International (Switzerland)

NGO perspective: uj is a galaxy of police, justice and NGOs. One important NGO role is documentation: getting the facts and name of a suspect. We then see whether there is sufficient evidence. We may take a plane and investigate on the ground. When the Gambia Minister of Interior was in Switzerland, we took a plane and met with local NGOs, we started to interview witnesses and experts, then compiled evidence and handed that to Swiss authorities. It is important to interview witnesses by the guidebook, to not identify closely with the witnesses. Some victims prefer to speak with NGOs rather than governments. We may represent them, sometimes legally. In France an NGO can be a civil party and litigate.


Clémence Bectarte, FIDH (France)

In France there has been a growing capacity in the seven years since the start of the war crimes unit. It was paired with much advocacy towards politicians and public opinion. Two trials on the Rwanda genocide received huge media coverage. Such events show that victims’ voices are meaningful even if they come from far away. There is a growing number of complaints but also a growing capacity of the unit to operate. There is some resistance as cases can have diplomatic impact. Public awareness is rising.

Regarding international crimes committed in Syria, this is the second time in the history of UJ (after Rwanda) that various countries are opening cases. Efforts started in France in 2012  with complaints on a company that provided the Syrian regime with materials - a case of  corporate complicity. We cooperated with Syrian NGOs on how best to push accountability. Our initial focus was on the ICC but as from 2014 there have been continuous vetoes so the consensus shifted to the use of UJ. We focused on two French-Syrian victims, one in the case of war crimes in Homs (the attack on the press centre which lead to the  deaths of journalists), the other on the disappearance of a French-Syrian father and his son in 2010. We were aware of the perception that we working for just ‘lucky survivors and victims’, i.e. those with dual nationalities, so we did lot of outreach and worked for Syrians to have cases  at various courts. After in September 2015 the ‘Caesar Report’ was presented in Paris, photographic documentation of torture victims in Syrian detention facilities, the war crimes unit studied this material intensely for their investigation. Evidently, what remains is tremendous frustration with victims and survivors who spot war criminals about the slow and incidental nature of the proceedings. There are currently two major developments: in October 2018 there were new arrest warrants against high-place Syrian officials, reflecting the large amount of testimonies collected; in February 2019 there were arrests in Germany and France of military intelligence officers.


Christian Ritscher, German War Crimes Unit

In Section 1 of the German Criminal Law we have UJ, dating from 2002 and came into effect one day before the ICC started its work. We started with cases from Yugoslavia, Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa. With the Arab Spring the focus shifted to the Middle East, Syria came into view. In 2011 we started a structural case on some Germans nationals who were involved in fighting in Syria. We started regular criminal proceedings against less well known perpetrators. In the beginning there was not much evidence, then things developed quickly with refugees coming in from 2014 onwards making the pool of witnesses and perpetrators much bigger. Up to now, for Syria we conducted over a hundred interviews about torture, killings and war crimes. We cooperate with NGOs and Syrians in Germany. Now there have been 15-20 cases against known perpetrators. They include an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Service. He is not present in Germany, the warrant is based on crimes against humanity, and we ask for extradition. As to the Caesar files, we got them from Liechtenstein, and there are now several sources to substantiate the facts. We are having them analyzed by forensic academics. Can we derive from the photos how they died? We interview people who are based in Germany and the rest of Europe, in particular Scandinavia and France. We are also looking into crimes committed by opposition groups, especially Islamic State. Our main focus now concerns the crimes against the Yazidi, and we conduct a structural investigation on ISIS. Two arrest warrants have been issued against known mid-ranking ISIS involved in slavery, sexual abuse against women, and the killings of men but those indicted are still in the region.


Mazen Darwish, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression

‘Working on these cases has kept me from radicalizing.’ We don’t want to operate as victors, or as angry victims. I still remember when I got the call about the prosecution initiated against Jamil Hassan, I was in the supermarket and I started to dance! We learn a lot and get a lot of support. We started working with victims and now we work with Syrian people who have legal experience. We become survivors and supporters of an important development. The new topic of forced return to Syria now the war for some seems to be over, makes it very stressful for people. Return is often dangerous. We do not only focus on UJ, but are developing an idea for justice for Syria. The most important thing is to have a Syrian platform for transitional justice. Last week I was in Brussels with the organization Justice and Accountability for Syria, it was already our third meeting but now for the first time I feel there is serious support for justice, not for vengeance. Finally, one can detect a movement coming alive. Victims often trust international NGOs more that governments, and we need NGO coalitions. Justice is not free, it needs a lot of resources, and money! The problem is that our donors offer resources for training but the costs of litigation are hardly sponsored.  Believe me, a lot of us want to go back to Syria. But I will never return if there is no justice. It would be like saying to the authorities: ‘There, you deserve another chance to kill me.’


Thank you to Daan Bronkhorst of Amnesty International Netherlands for writing this account of the panel discussion.