Way back in 1998, I went to visit a refugee family in the Swiss capital, Bern. They had come from Bosnia, and, as the conflict there was finally over, and the first elections in Bosnia were approaching, I wanted to ask them what their hopes for the future were.This content was published on June 29, 2021 - 16:00
The daughter, just 18 and doing very well in the Swiss school system, told me eagerly she planned to study law. International law, she elaborated, so that she could join the tribunal for former Yugoslavia and help to prosecute the men who had destroyed her town, killed her friends and relatives, and driven her family from their home.
Her mother, who barely spoke, simply showed me a picture of what her home had once looked like, before it was burnt to the ground, and wept.
I think about that 18-year-old girl often. Did she make it to the Hague? Whether she did or not, she will have moved from being a teenager to early middle age before she saw any convictions for the atrocities committed in Bosnia.
This week on our Inside Geneva podcast, we ask why it seems so hard to prosecute those who commit war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, and how those who have been the victims of such crimes can be supported.
But there’s a problem with national prosecutions, because, as my colleague Julia Crawford, who is a guest in this week’s episode points out, "You have people still in power now who are prime suspects in some of those atrocities."
That was the case in former Yugoslavia, it remains the case in Sri Lanka, and in Myanmar, and Syria. However many commissions of inquiry the UN Human Rights Council orders (and we will be hearing more harrowing reports from those commissions over the course of the current council session), however many demands for accountability and an end to impunity, war criminals often seem to be able to get away with it.
But in addition to the ICC and the international tribunals, there is another route to legal redress which is offering hope. It’s a relatively new instrument called universal jurisdiction. Philip Grant of Trial International, an organisation dedicated to fighting impunity, explains in the podcast how universal jurisdiction works: "Genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, states can investigate, even though the crimes were committed not on their own territory, and not by their own citizens."
Across Europe, we are seeing cases of universal jurisdiction, and we are seeing convictions. In the German town of Koblenz, the court successfully convicted a Syrian man who had arrived as a refugee, but, evidence brought by victims and human rights groups showed, had in fact been part of the regime, and committed acts of torture in Syria’s notorious prisons.
Here in Switzerland, the federal criminal court handed down a 20-year sentence for war crimes to Liberian rebel commander Alieu Kosiah for atrocities committed during the civil war in the 1990s. Kosiah had claimed asylum in Switzerland, but after the non-governmental organization Civitas Maxima presented a wealth of evidence to the Swiss Attorney General, a prosecution was opened.
The case took time, Kosiah was arrested by the Swiss back in 2014, the verdict was not delivered until this month. Nevertheless Human Rights Watch has hailed it as a "landmark" case. Meanwhile Finland and France are also pursuing cases related to Liberia, many European countries have set up war crimes units, and some are beginning to work together to share evidence.
Support for victims
The cases have also been welcomed by organisations who support victims. Gerald Staberock, secretary general of the World Organisation against Torture, told the podcast "we cannot underestimate the value of justice for victims of gross human rights violations".
But even with universal jurisdiction, the path to accountability remains long. European countries may be more active, but war crimes are not top of their to-do list. Terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, and the drugs trade generally take priority.
That means that many victims will never have their day in court, which is why some organisations, like Gerald Staberock’s, try nevertheless to validate a torture survivor’s experience, by, at the very least, listening.
A centre run by the Red Cross for victims of torture in Bern will often take testimony, writing it all down, confirming that what happened was wrong, and signing it together with the victim. For many, this will be the only recognition they get that the suffering they endured was a violation and a crime.
Trials and convictions, though there really should be more of them, Gerald says, are at the end of a long process. "I think the message is to a victim ‘you are not alone, somebody stands with you.’ And that’s where it starts."