Evidence of war crimes committed by the Syrian government is the strongest collected since the Nazis were tried in Nuremberg, according to the chairman of Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) Stephen Rapp.
In an interview with the World Today, the war crimes prosecutor and former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues said that his organisation has accessed more than 750,000 pages of documents that record the atrocities committed by the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
“It’s a solid kind of evidence that we haven’t really had since Nuremberg when the Nazis were prosecuted,” he said, adding that like the Nazis, the regime was meticulous in recording its work.
“I prosecuted Charles Taylor, president of Liberia for war crimes; I prosecuted those responsible for the Rwandan genocide. We had nowhere near the extensive records we’ve been able to obtain out of Syria.”
CIJA has worked with hundreds of Syrians on the ground to collect the information, often through photographic and video evidence. The group has collated over 600,000 videos, many of which were shot with individual smartphones that have been instrumental in raising awareness about the conflict; another organisation, the Syrian Archive claims to have collected some two million videos.
Photos have also been provided by former forensic photographer within the Syrian military police, whose job it was to photograph the hundreds of bodies arriving at a military hospital.
“We were able to identify at least 800 of the victims, and they were almost all civilian demonstrators,” Rapp said. “[They] were generally civilians that had been tortured to death in Syrian military custody. And written on their bodies would be the numbers of the facilities where they’ve been killed.”
The prosecutor detailed how the extent of the torture made it impossible for regime officials to deny.
“If somebody’s been tortured to death, their eye is gouged out, there’s acid all over their bodies, and the regime itself took the photo — you’ve got evidence the regime committed a crime.”
In a report released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the group estimated that at least 14,000 people had died in custody between March 2011 and August 2018, with a further 85,000 still in detention.
The Assad regime has been protected from the International Criminal Court by allies Russia and China, who blocked a referral from the UN Security Council. However other avenues are being pursued by human rights groups around the world to hold government officials accountable.
Earlier this year, 16 Syrian men and women filed a criminal complaint in Austria against 24 senior officials in the Syrian government for being involved in their detention and torture. Aided by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, the group has been collecting evidence of torture by the Syrian government since 2012 and last year filed four complaints in Germany against the regime. Under the Convention Against Torture, which most countries have ratified including Syria, it is possible to prosecute individuals accused of torture within national systems.
With such options open to them, Rapp said that whilst getting the perpetrators into custody would prove challenging, there was a strong chance of achieving prosecutions.
“The pressure will build, and if Assad lives a few more decades, there will come a day when he’ll be under an international arrest warrant,” he concluded. “Whether he’ll be caught, who knows, but certainly these kinds of crimes are crimes that the world doesn’t forget.”