Case Studies | Crimes against humanity and universal jurisdiction

Jonas Heering

In April 2020, a German regional court began proceedings in a landmark case against two Syrians accused of committing crimes against humanity during the Syrian civil war. One of the defendants, a former intelligence officer, Anwar Raslan, is charged, among other crimes, with overseeing the torture of over 4,000 prisoners, and 58 murders.

Despite numerous reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the German case marks the first time that members of the regime could face accountability in an independent court. Because Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, and because Russia and China have vetoed UN efforts to set up special international tribunals, avenues to bring the Assad regime to justice through international law are limited.

One of those avenues — the one used by the German court to establish the case — is the invocation of the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for the prosecution of crimes committed in another country.

Case 349 Universal Jurisdiction and the Rwandan Genocide
Case 349: Universal Jurisdiction and the Rwandan Genocide

What is universal jurisdiction? How has it been applied in the past? And what are its implications for international justice?

In ISD’s latest case study, Eric Leonard explores the concept of universal jurisdiction by examining one of the first and few cases in which the principle has been successfully applied: The prosecution of the ‘Butare Four’ for crimes committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The so-called Butare Four — Alphonse Higaniro, Vincent Ntezimana, Sister Gertrude (Consolata Mukangano), and Sister Maria Kisito (Julienne Mukabutera) — were convicted of war crimes by a Belgian court in 2001. None of the perpetrators or victims were Belgian citizens and the crimes were not committed on Belgian soil, yet through the application of universal jurisdiction they were brought to justice.

The unique nature of the Butare Four trial, and the subsequent political fallout, make this an interesting case to examine sovereignty and authority in the global community and to consider what the future of international justice might look like.

Thus, this case helps us understand how universal jurisdiction might be applied successfully in the German case against Syrian government officials — as well as in other conflicts.

Jonas Heering is a research assistant at ISD. He is also the Bunker graduate fellow in diplomacy, and a master’s student in the School of Foreign Service.

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