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Sweden: Syrian victims of chemical attacks fight for justice

Four NGOs fighting for justice for the victims of the Bashar al-Assad regime have filed a criminal complaint in Sweden regarding the chemical attacks in 2013 and 2017. This is not the first case of its kind in a European country. Will the victims of chemical attacks get justice?

The road to justice leads through NGOs and European courts

In a complaint in Sweden, four organizations – the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Express, Civil Rights Defenders, Syrian Archive and Open Society Justice Initiative – accuse Syrian officials and military personnel of chemical attacks in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib Province in 2017, and Ghouta near the capital of Damascus in 2013. [1] Thousands of civilians, including many children, were killed then. To this day, Assad denies that government forces used chemical weapons, although this is strongly contradicted by international reports. [2]

Sweden is not the first European country where Syrians are fighting for justice. Cases related to attacks with the use of chemical weapons are already ongoing in France, the Netherlands and Germany. [3] How is it possible? Such processes take place on the basis of universal jurisdiction. It is a property of international law that allows for investigations and trials of war crimes regardless of where they were committed. [4]

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“Swedish authorities can join their counterparts in France and Germany to jointly investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria and demonstrate that there will be no impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes,” explains Steve Kostas from Justice Initiative. [5]

During the trial that started in Germany, members of the Syrian Archive talked about how rich evidence they managed to collect. “We think from our investigation that most probably it’s branch of 150 – a network of different entities that are responsible for the coordination and the execution of these attacks.” The documentation gathered testimonies from 50 Syrian military defectors who had detailed knowledge of the Syrian chemical program, which had been in development for 40 years. Thanks to this testimony, the names of those directly responsible for the attacks were known. The evidence is clear – the key people in the chain of command were Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher. [6] This material, supplemented with the latest evidence, will also be forwarded to experts in Sweden.

Proof that justice is possible came from the case of 2019. Then a German court sentenced 44-year-old Eyad A. to four and a half years in prison for helping in crimes against humanity in the form of torture and “severe imprisonment”. It was the world’s first criminal trial against the use of torture by a Syrian state to use universal jurisdiction. [7] The Eyad A. case also gave hope to the victims of chemical attacks.

Why has the international community remained powerless?

Why are NGOs and European courts fighting for justice for the Syrians? Why haven’t international organizations, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court done so? Why has the international community proved powerless against the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed notoriously by the Assad regime in Syria? Two main issues were concerned. First, the way the UN and the international judiciary function. Second – no will of world powers.

Syria is one of the countries that have not signed the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court. Failure to sign and ratify this agreement means that the ICC cannot place its jurisdiction over Syria and therefore cannot judge its citizens. However, there is one gateway reffering to the perpetrators of war crimes, against humanity and genocide. The UN Security Council is the body that could commission the ICC to process a citizen of a state that has not signed the Rome Statute. [8]

The problem, however, is that the 5 permanent members of the UNSC have veto power to block any initiative. The veto was intended to protect against wrong decisions. Practice proves, however, that it is often a tool for blocking peace initiatives. This is what happened with Syria and Assad. The first “veto” power was Russia since 2014, an ally of the regime. The second power was China, which routinely resists international interference in how regimes treat their citizens. [9]

Clear evidence of the regime’s crimes and full awareness that Syria has for years had the most developed arsenal of chemical weapons in the Middle East turned out to be completely irrelevant. [10] In this way, the international community has been deprived of effective tools for the enforcement of justice and respect for the humanitarian law of armed conflicts.

Victims do not forget

Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, the Assad regime has attacked the opposition and civilians with chemical weapons more than 300 times. Thousands of people died during the attacks, thousands suffered from the effects of mustard gas, chlorine and sarin. Many Syrians are still traumatized today. They cannot forget the sight of victims and “children dying without scars on their bodies”. [11]

Witnesses to the attacks were repeatedly accused by the regime of lying and slandering the regime. There were even voices that civilian reactions were faked. And that the videos were later posted online to drive the international community’s wrath against Assad’s regime. The Syrians were amazed and outraged by the arrogance of the authorities.

“The world can now watch what a chlorine attack looks like. What type of attack could cause children to suffocate? Okay, let’s say the adults could pretend, but we have two-month-old babies here who are suffocating. You can see them on videos fighting for every breath. Children from 2 months to 3 years old. This is not a game,” says Ibrahim, member of the Syrian volunteer Civil Defense. He has conducted 24-hour rescue operations after attacks. [12]

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Ahmad al-Youssef assisted victims after the first chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun. He ran a small shop. However, in a moment he became a victim himself. “I started camping victims to ambulances but many died on the spot. I saw rescuers rushing into the are but as soon as they started the rescue victims collapsed and died. I collapsed but when I woke up I was told my family was gone”. [13] Thousands of Syrians who are waiting for justice can share similar stories.

The Syrians have not forgiven the regime to this day. “I hope that one day I can stand before the judge and tell what this chemical attack did to us,” said Mohammad, husband of Iman – syrian nurse. The couple lost their eldest son in a chemical attack on Ghouta. To this day, Iman has not dealt with the trauma, she is still taking medication. “It was a terrible scene that i can’t describe to you. People were lying on the ground like ants being killed by a buck spray. These images never leave my mind”. However, an investigation in Germany helped Iman heal and made her willing to fight. [14]

Why is it so important?

Doctors point out that victims of chemical attacks will never fully recover. One of the Syrian doctors from Idlib was talking about it with Al Jazeera’s reporters. “I still treat victims who will have long-term complications. I have patients still suffering from blurred visions, neurological problems. The biggest challenge of course is psychological impact of the attack. People lost their loved ones and we still treat them”. [15]

This is confirmed by the history of the already mentioned Iman. However, her example shows that the chance for justice helps rebuild the psyche and gives hope to those still living in Syria. “I fear for my mother and my sister. They are still living in Syria, because the regime is still cruel and unjust. It has no mercy. If it had a conscience they wouldn’t have done these things,” says Iman. [16].

For many years, Assad and his associates were convinced of their impunity. This was evidenced, for example, by the fact that the attack in the eastern Ghouta was carried out when international observers were stationed 15 minutes away from this town. It is no coincidence that attacks involving chemical weapons have ceased since the start of the first European investigations. We will certainly have to wait many years for the highest state officials to be judged. However, the historic judgment and the trials that have started in recent years are unequivocal confirmation that despite the ineptitude of the international community, war criminals cannot feel completely unpunished. In turn, the determination of NGOs and Syrians brings hope for long-awaited justice.

Sources

[1] Middle East Monitor, NGOs file case in Sweden against Assad’s chemical attacks,

[2] Na przykład: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Addressing The Threat From Chemical Weapons Use; Human Rights Watch, Syria: A Year On, Chemical Weapons Attacks Persist,

[3] Human Rights Watch, The Netherlands’ Action Against Syria: A New Path to Justice, Middle East Monitor, NGOs call on Germany to investigate sarin gas attacks in Syria, Middle East Monitor, NGOs urge France to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria,

[4] International Justice Resource Center, Universal Jurisdiction,

[5] Al Jazeera, Victims of Syrian gov’t chemical attacks file case in Sweden,

[6, 14, 16] DW News, German authorities investigate Syria’s chemical warfare, 

[7] Deutsche Welle, Precedensowy wyrok. Niemiecki sąd skazał Syryjczyka za tortury,

[8] Gazeta Wyborcza, Robert Stefanicki, Syryjczycy pozwali Asada przed Międzynarodowy Trybunał Karny. Procedura zajmie lata i może spełznąć na niczym,

[9] BBC,  Russia and China veto UN move to refer Syria to ICC

[10] Foreign Policy, Jack Detsch, Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer, Syria Is Still Trying to Use Chemical Weapons,

[11, 12] BBC News, Syria conflict: New evidence of chemical attacks,
[13, 15] Al Jazeera English, Russia blocks UN probe into Syria chemical attacks.

Cover photo: victims of attack on Aleppo, Syria. Credit: Syrian Freedom via flickr.com.

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