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Heintze: ICC could investigate war crimes in Syria, if UN asked

The ICC in The Hague hasn't been authorized to press charges against war criminals in Syria. Hans-Joachim Heintze, an expert on international law, explains how these crimes could potentially be prosecuted.

DW: What's the International Criminal Court's (ICC) position on war crimes taking place in Syria?

Hans-Joachim Heintze: The International Criminal Court was established on the basis of an international treaty. International treaties are legally binding for those countries which have ratified them. At the moment, 110 countries have ratified this treaty. Syria is not one of them. This is why one has to argue the ICC is not allowed to deal with Syria.

Is there another way for the ICC to start investigations in the case of Syria?

This treaty under international law contains a clause that makes it possible for the ICC to deal with Syria. It would be possible if the UN Security Council were to refer the case to the ICC because it saw world peace or regional peace at stake.

That has happened twice so far - one time in regard to Sudan, and in the case of Libya. In both of these cases the ICC's prosecutor started investigating and came to the conclusion that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed.

Does this mean no institution is currently responsible for dealing with possible war crimes in Syria?

The UN is dealing with this, of course. Information also is gathered that is accessible, since one has to assess how one could proceed against crimes that have been committed. Even if the ICC is not authorized [to take on the case], one has to state that other countries could also take action against criminals who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity if there is some sort of a link.

For Germany, such a link could be the fact that a person who has committed crimes is on German territory. That would allow German prosecutors to deal with these crimes. So [the criminals] would have to expect to be tired for their crimes by courts all over the world with proper authority. These courts would be authorized because these crimes - war crimes and crimes against humanity - are not just against the Syrian legal order but also against international law.

So alleged war criminals from Syria could technically be brought before a German court, if they were in Germany territory?

That's correct - it has happened for instance in the case of Yugoslav war criminals. They were punished here in Germany because of their war crimes in [the former] Yugoslavia. We currently hold four people in German prisons who have been responsible for such war crimes and who were citizens of Yugoslavia.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad raise their weapons while carrying pictures of him at Sbeineh town, southern Damascus (photo: REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters)

All parties involved in Syria's civil war have committed disastrous crimes, says Heintze

Has international law failed in the case of Syria?

I wouldn't say that, because the main significance of criminal law is that it is supposed to act in a preventive manner. It should deter people from committing such crimes, who might commit these crimes if they wouldn't know that penal jurisdiction could possibly get to them.

Is the international community responsible for protecting civilians in Syria?

There is a development in terms of "Yes, it's a country's responsibility to respect human rights, but if that doesn't work, the international community could maybe take over." This is what has been tried in Libya. But the situation in Libya has been different since one could safely say which parties were involved in the conflict.

In Syria on the other hand, there is this mix of parties that are involved that one can't really identify which groups are fighting whom. Unfortunately, in the case of Syria, all involved parties have committed disastrous crimes. And then there is the political interest of super powers that are also involved to some extent.

Hans-Joachim Heintze is a professor at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at Bochum's Ruhr University. He is a lawyer who has focused - among other topics - on legal issues involving the UN and human rights.

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