On 23 April a court in Koblenz, Germany opened a trial under the principle of universal jurisdiction for two former Syrian government intelligence officials charged with perpetrating crimes against humanity. This is the world’s first criminal trial of Syrian state agents for atrocities perpetrated during the country’s ongoing conflict.
Before defecting in 2012, Anwar Raslan was allegedly a senior member of the General Intelligence Directorate, one of the Syrian government’s four main intelligence agencies. Raslan allegedly perpetrated torture, including rape and sexual violence, against at least 4,000 detainees at the al-Khatib detention facility in Damascus between April 2011 and September 2012. Prosecutors argue that Raslan’s position within the General Intelligence Directorate made him a direct representative of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They will try to prove Raslan’s role in orchestrating systematic torture and murder. Eyad al-Gharib, the second accused, allegedly aided and abetted torture as a member of the General Intelligence Directorate.
Throughout nine years of conflict in Syria, every major principle of international law has been violated and there have been widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the UN General Assembly-authorized International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria, said that, “Germany, with this case, offers the hope that, while there is seemingly large-scale impunity for crimes in Syria, that impunity will only be temporary.”
Under the principle of universal jurisdiction perpetrators of grave international crimes can be prosecuted domestically irrespective of the citizenship of the perpetrators or victims, or where the crimes were committed. Germany has been a leading proponent of upholding its responsibility to protect by pursuing cases under universal jurisdiction. On 24 April the trial of a man allegedly affiliated with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also began in Frankfurt on charges of genocide, human trafficking, torture and murder. The trial is the first in the world related to atrocities committed against the Yazidi minority by the armed extremist group between 2014 and 2019.
Where possible, all states should pursue accountability for perpetrators under the principle of universal jurisdiction. However, such prosecutions only provide a partial solution to the lack of domestic legal accountability in Syria. The UN Security Council should immediately refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Evidence collected by the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL should also be used in an Iraqi domestic judicial mechanism created in accordance with international standards. A complementary and comprehensive approach to justice and accountability should be pursued for all mass atrocity crimes.
On 22 April the government of Cameroon published the findings of a national Commission of Inquiry (CoI) that looked into the mass killing of 22 civilians, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, on 14 February in Ngarbuh, in the disputed north-west of the country. Human rights organizations accused government forces, supported by an ethnic Fulani militia, of deliberately killing civilians perceived to be supportive of Anglophone separatists. After the incident, the government denied any responsibility, referring to the event as an “unfortunate accident” caused by a fuel explosion and a “collateral result of security operations in the region.”
The CoI’s confidential report acknowledges that security forces were involved in killing the civilians, and that they tried to conceal their actions by committing arson and submitting false reports. Three soldiers have been arrested and will face a military tribunal. However, the CoI’s findings also diverge from research by human rights organizations in that they still deny the killings were intentional. Nevertheless, Juliette Paauwe, Senior Research Analyst at the Global Centre, noted that “publishing the findings and holding soldiers accountable could potentially serve as a careful first step towards building trust and a genuine dialogue between the government and the Anglophone population.”
Civilians in the Anglophone regions continue to face the threat of atrocity crimes due to widespread violence between government forces and armed separatists. Since October 2017 more than 2,000 people have reportedly been killed and 700,000 displaced as a result of ongoing political conflict over cultural rights and identity. Throughout the conflict there has been extensive evidence of security forces perpetrating extrajudicial killings, burning Anglophone villages and torturing individuals with alleged separatist sympathies. Armed separatist groups have also perpetrated abuses, including kidnapping and killing civilians.
Currently, Cameroon also has one of the highest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this, the government and all but one separatist group have ignored the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. All parties to the conflict in the Anglophone regions should immediately declare a ceasefire and enable humanitarian support to reach those populations most vulnerable to the spread of the virus.
In order to work towards a lasting negotiated solution to the Anglophone conflict, the government should hold an inclusive dialogue mediated by a neutral player on neutral territory. All UN member states and regional organizations should suspend all military aid to Cameroon until it has made demonstrable progress towards ending extrajudicial killings and other grave human rights violations and abuses.
Between 27 March and 2 April the Armed Forces of Niger allegedly arrested, disappeared and executed 102 young men in two villages in the Tillabéri region, near the border with Mali and Burkina Faso, while carrying out operations against armed Islamist groups. According to local villagers, the victims, who were mainly ethnic Tuaregs and some Peuhls, had no connection to armed Islamist groups who operate near the tri-border area. Villagers reportedly discovered mass graves close to where the arrests occurred. Niger’s Defense Minister, Issoufou Katambé, indicated in a press release that a formal investigation will be conducted into the killings.
Clashes in the border area between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali have been on the rise in recent years due to arms proliferation, increased inter-communal rivalries and weak state structures. Armed Islamist groups have taken advantage of the fragile security situation to launch cross-border attacks against civilian populations and the security forces. Niger’s security forces, in turn, have intensified their operations against armed groups in the area.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that due to ongoing “counter-terrorism operations,” between January and March there were an increasing number of attacks on civilians in Niger, including assassinations, kidnapping, forcible recruitment of youths, as well as sexual and gender-based violence. Several villages near the border have been emptied. According to UNHCR, approximately 97,097 people are internally displaced in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions, an increase of 36 percent in the past year. Clashes during April displaced more than 4,000 people in Tillabéri alone.
Aissatou Ndiaye, Deputy Director for UNHCR’s Bureau for West and Central Africa, said that, ”Attacks and counter-attacks are constantly pushing populations living in the border areas into deeper misery.” The government of Niger must prioritize the protection of civilians and ensure that all counter-terrorism operations strictly adhere to international human rights standards. While working together to defeat armed Islamist groups, the governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger should also support disarmament and reconciliation initiatives in the tri-border area aimed at alleviating inter-communal conflict.