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FAQs: Universal Jurisdiction
A look into the Courtroom in Koblenz on February 24, 2021 © AFP/Pool/Thomas Lohnes

FAQs: Universal Jurisdiction

Part II of our Universal Jurisdiction FAQ is available here

For years, European prosecutors and police have contacted SJAC with requests for information about human rights violations committed in Syria, specifically with regard to victims and perpetrators residing in European countries. SJAC has responded to these requests thanks to our documentation coordinators who risk their lives to collect information invaluable to future accountability efforts, and to our data analysts who risk secondary trauma as they catalogue and preserve material. It is because of their sacrifices that SJAC’s database, Bayanat, contains over 1.4 million pieces of data, ranging from personal testimonies to videos scraped from social media channels.

Understanding that SJAC is uniquely placed to bridge the gap between European authorities and Syrians, we launched a new project in October to take a more proactive role in universal jurisdiction proceedings. Our goal is to facilitate legal and psychosocial support for Syrians residing in Europe who wish to participate in universal jurisdiction processes – whether that means the submission of complaints against an alleged perpetrator or the provision of testimony. In doing so, we hope to provide Syrians—outside of the activist sphere—with the knowledge they need to responsibly engage with European justice mechanisms.

Within the first six month of the project, SJAC’s lawyers have received countless questions from average Syrians asking about their legal rights in Europe. Some of the questions have been asked in comments on Facebook or Clubhouse following episodes of SJAC’s podcast, Adaleti. Others have been submitted during human rights training sessions or to our email at [email protected] In response, we composed a list of frequently asked questions, the answers to which are below.

1. Is it possible for someone who committed a serious crime in Syria to be held accountable in a non-Syrian court?

Yes, it is possible for someone who committed a crime in Syria to be held accountable in a non-Syrian court. This is because of “universal jurisdiction.” Universal jurisdiction is the legal principle that some crimes are so grave that they impact the international community as a whole, so courts in one state can prosecute someone who committed a crime in another state. The only requirement is that the crime be “grave.” Most countries consider a crime to be grave if it involves one of the core international crimes: crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.

Although not every country allows for universal jurisdiction, the list of countries is growing, making universal jurisdiction the most feasible option for holding individuals accountable for crimes committed in Syria. For a more detailed analysis on why universal jurisdiction is the strongest legal remedy for Syrians, see A Step Toward Justice.

2. What are the requirements for filing a criminal complaint against an alleged perpetrator?

The requirements for filing a criminal complaint against an alleged perpetrator vary from state to state, but the prevailing rule is that a complaint can be filed with the police, a public prosecutor, or a local court in the country in which the alleged perpetrator (or sometimes just the victim) is located. The authorities will then decide whether or not to initiate an investigation. You do not need a lawyer to submit a complaint. However, SJAC recommends speaking to a lawyer prior to filing a complaint to fully understand your rights and responsibilities.

3. Is there a statute of limitations or a certain period of time after which war crimes or crimes against humanity can no longer be prosecuted?

At the domestic level, statutes of limitation vary based on the state, the nature of the crime, and the conflict at issue. In Germany, for example, crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes committed after June 2002 are not subject to a statute of limitations. In the Netherlands, crimes against humanity, genocide, and most war crimes are not subject to a statute of limitations. In Sweden, murder, manslaughter, , genocide, war crimes, terrorism resulting in death, or attempts to commit any of these crimes do not have a statute of limitations. The same applies to crimes against humanity, but only those committed after July 2014. Find out about the statute of limitations in other countries by checking out SJAC’s country-specific universal jurisdiction guides.

At the international level, the International Criminal Court can only prosecute crimes committed after its statute was entered into force in 2002.

4. Can SJAC help me file a criminal complaint or report a suspect to European authorities?

SJAC can help you file a criminal complaint or report a suspect to European authorities. If you wish to report a suspect, but you prefer not to engage with authorities, then SJAC can forward the information on your behalf. If you wish to submit the information or complaint yourself, SJAC can pay for legal assistance through its legal partners if the submission is made to authorities in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Separately, SJAC understands the emotional ramifications of recalling past traumatic experiences, especially for accountability purposes. So SJAC has a psychosocial support provider to administer counseling.

5. Can a witness outside the EU participate in accountability processes happening inside the EU?

Yes, witnesses outside of the EU can participate in accountability processes happening inside the EU. Individuals residing in Turkey, for example, have been asked by European authorities to serve as witnesses in proceedings. In some instances, witnesses were flown to Europe to deliver in-court testimonies. Other times, investigators went outside the EU to meet with witnesses and collect their statements. You are encouraged to come forward with information no matter your location, so long as the perpetrator is in the EU.

6. Can I file a criminal complaint in a state other than the one in which I reside?

Yes, you can file a criminal complaint in a state other than the one in which you reside. The major principle is that the complaint must be filed in the state in which the alleged perpetrator is present.

7. Will participating in any stage of universal jurisdiction proceedings affect my immigration status?

No, your immigration status should not be impacted by your participation in any stage of universal jurisdiction proceedings, including the submission of a complaint or testimony. Engaging with justice mechanisms through a country’s judicial system is your right as an asylee.

8. I still have family in Syria and I am concerned about their safety if I participate in proceedings against a Syrian official in Europe. Am I entitled to any witness protection measures?

The safety of witnesses is never guaranteed. However, protective measures can be taken to minimize risks. First, you can anonymously submit information to authorities. This right should be exercised from your very first interaction with authorities, and your desire to remain anonymous should be stated on the record. Failing to do this may result in the authorities revealing your name later in the proceedings. Note that the authorities may choose not to rely on your testimony if you maintain your anonymity. If you prefer not to engage with authorities at all, then SJAC can submit the information on your behalf. Should you be summoned to testify, you can request to submit a written statement. During in-court hearings, you can request that your identifying information be concealed, as well as your face. Witnesses may participate in formal witness protection programs in which their identities are changed, but only in extreme circumstances.

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For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected] and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe to SJAC’s newsletter for updates on our work