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A Historic Verdict, and a New Front in the Global Fight for Human Rights

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What did shock him, though, was how unconcerned the authors were that such documents could ever be used against them. “You’d expect them to try to hide things,” he says. “But no, they still signed with their names, rank and in their own handwriting. They believed 100 percent they could write what they want and behave the way they want.”

The Syrian regime’s brutality was infamous long before 2011. During the early years of the fight against terrorism, the U.S. government and others relied on it, using “extraordinary rendition” to send individuals to Syria to carry out interrogations using torture methods the C.I.A. doesn’t allow itself. When the United States captured and rendered a German citizen of Syrian origin who had known the Sept. 11 hijackers in Hamburg, the German government coordinated with the Syrian regime to allow German investigators to interrogate their citizen in Syria. But for decades, the Syrian regime has used torture and enforced disappearances — the arrest, detention or abduction of a person, as well as the refusal to acknowledge that person’s fate — primarily to terrorize the Syrian people, effectively deterring generations from ever challenging its rule. (Today, approximately 100,000 disappeared remain unaccounted for.)

The agents of this terror have been the mukhabarat — their name derived from the verb khabbara: to notify or inform — and have been for so long that for many Syrians it has always been this way. Though the mukhabarat came to Syria under Gamal Abdel Nasser when Syria and Egypt briefly merged as the United Arabic Republic in 1958, their ranks and activities expanded under Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 by coup. The mukhabarat are a much less refined version of the Stasi, who at different points in history trained the Syrians in methods. (During the Cold War, Syria was mostly aligned with the Soviet Union.) Since 1962, these security agencies have operated above the law, protected by an emergency decree that was partly justified based on supposed external threats, allowing them to collect intelligence and suspend civil liberties and rights. When the Arab Spring looked as if it might disrupt the status quo, the regime dispatched the mukhabarat. In blaming a foreign conspiracy for the 2011 popular uprising, the regime was simultaneously saying that its security apparatus was remarkably ineffective in pre-empting, let alone containing, these “external threats” that were essential to their professed raison d’être, and for which Syrians had sacrificed decades of rights.

Mukhabarat violence is often eerily invisible, if ever-present. Rather than occupy buildings in remote parts of town, mukhabarat branches have long been placed within residential neighborhoods — there are at least 20 in Damascus alone — so that Syrians pass them as they go about their daily lives. Their presence, and the awareness of what unspeakable things are being committed inside, have kept Syrians actively threatened and in line. So when European Union nations declare that Syrian refugees should be sent back because in regime-controlled parts of the country warfare has stopped and so it must be safe, such policies’ opponents believe that the proponents are revealing a profound (and perhaps willful) misreading of the situation.

Syrians have never been able to challenge the Assad regime’s violations of their human rights in their own country. But they also have virtually no legal recourse against the Syrian state in any international legal forum. The most appropriate such forum, the International Criminal Court, remains unreachable to Syrians. Created to investigate and prosecute four core international crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression — in situations where states are “unable” or “unwilling” to do so themselves, the I.C.C. has jurisdiction only over states that are party to the 1998 Rome Statute that created it. (Along with Syria, nonparties include the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.) Alternatively, the U.N. Security Council may refer states to the I.C.C., but the Security Council members Russia and China vetoed referring the Syrian regime in May 2014. Ad hoc tribunals, like those established for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, also require Security Council backing.

For Syrians looking to pursue legal remedies against those who violated their rights, what is left are national courts in countries that recognize universal jurisdiction. Such jurisdiction allows for the prosecution of those core international crimes no matter where they were committed, and irrespective of the location or nationality of the defendant or plaintiff involved. The underlying idea is that these crimes affect the entire international community. Universal jurisdiction is enshrined in the law of many E.U. countries, where more than a million displaced Syrians have sought refuge in the past decade. This includes Germany, host to nearly 60 percent of the Syrians in the European Union.

While Syria is far from Germany, thousands of potential witnesses and victims — and, undoubtedly, perpetrators as well — now find themselves together in Germany. Among them are key Syrian human rights lawyers and activists who lost no time — even in the pain and discombobulation of displacement and exile — in trying to stop further offenses in Syria, as well as seeking some morsel of justice for victims and accountability for the perpetrators. They have found willing partners in German civil society and the German federal public prosecutor general’s office, which handles cases relating to international war crimes.