Side Event – “Justice for Syria: Universal jurisdiction as a main emerging tool to complement the International Criminal Court”

(co-hosted by Liechtenstein and European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR))

Overview by Abby Roberts, Research Associate PILPG NL


  • A survivor of a Syrian detention center is in favor of the use of universal jurisdiction in his case as well as others and considers the recent arrest warrants issued a ray of hope.

  • Universal jurisdiction and complementarity are especially important in the instance of Syria given the lack of jurisdiction by the ICC.

This event began in an incredibly impactful manner, with an opening speech delivered by a survivor of the Syrian war. He had been a detainee on two occasions of one of the Syrian military intelligence-run detention centers, which he referred to as the ‘slaughterhouse’ because when you are detained there, you are essentially sentenced to death. Anonymity was retained for this speaker because he still has family in Syria whom he fears for. He said that he and others like him are seeking justice for the sake of those still detained back in Syria. The survivor spoke very highly of the implementation of universal jurisdiction, as he is thrilled to be seeing concrete results in the form of arrest warrants being issued. He said that for the victims it is a sign of justice and that impunity cannot go on anymore. He believes this action is an assurance that the perpetrators have no place in Syria in the future.

Following the survivor, the head of the French War Crimes Unit detailed how, given the ICC’s lack of jurisdiction in this case, the principle of complementarity here makes perfect sense as most states parties adapt their domestic legislation to conform with the mandate of the Rome Statute. She provided the example of France, where legislation regarding torture was modified to match the Rome Statute, enabling suspects that allegedly committed crimes against humanity and war crimes to be prosecuted in France if they are on French territory. She explained the purpose of this is to prevent perpetrators of these crimes from escaping justice by hiding in France. She also spoke to France’s newer endeavors, such as exploring avenues for witness protection and the joint investigation team that was recently established between France and Germany.

Next to speak was Ms. Marchi-Uhel, head of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Syria. She opened by speaking about the sheer amount of evidence that has been gathered in this case, as there are more hours of video documentation than there have been hours in the conflict. She then asserted the arrest warrants issued by Germany and France for the alleged acts of torture are sending the first signal of hope that the victims’ suffering has not been unnoticed and will not go without responsive action.

Then the floor was given to Patrick Krocker with ECCHR. He is a part of the International Crimes and Accountability program where he is responsible for ECCHR's work on Syria. He began by discussing the emergence of universal jurisdiction as it relates to ECCHR’s previous body of work. Using Germany as a successful example, he credited their success to their war crimes unit and use of universal jurisdiction. He then spoke on the ICC, which he described as “...strengthening the whole system of international justice”, and finally expressed his favor for states (re)instating their universal jurisdiction law. 

The panelists were asked the following questions: how has your organization dealt with the varying needs of representative inclusion? What is the impact of the work inside Syria? What strategies are you working on the make sure your work is engaging people within Syria, and what can the people in this room do to help?

The survivor spoke to the second question by responding that many people were wondering why it was worth it to prosecute in Europe rather than closer to home, but are now seeing the utility of the prosecutions in light of the arrest warrants. For him, this speaks to there being no more future for these people in Syria. Now that perpetrators are named it is not acceptable to have them in future regimes, and this provides hope that these violations won’t happen anymore.

The head of the French War Crimes Unit responded to the last question by noting that there is a balance that has to be found between communication with the victims and protecting the viability of the investigation/potential for prosecution. Patrick Krocker also responded to the last question on behalf of the ECCHR. On inclusiveness, it is important for them that they see themselves as ‘co-claimants’ or translators, they open the door for the victims that want to come forward. ECCHR also uses a different methodology for representing the survivors depending on the involvement they want in the prosecution, so they can be as involved as they feel comfortable with. Ms. Marchi-Uhel added that the IIIM has also implemented a victim-centered approach, as you cannot assume you know what victims want or how involved they want to be.