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'International community has failed completely' in Syria

Matthias von Hein
June 25, 2020

From Syrian war crimes to US hypocrisy in the Julian Assange case, the global "erosion of human rights standards" is of critical concern, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer tells DW.

A Syrian man shows marks of torture after his release from regime forces in 2012
The "shocking carnage" in Syria "is one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the UN Security Council," says the UN's top envoy on tortureImage: JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/AFP/GettyImages

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Melzer, you have been UN special rapporteur on torture for almost four years now. What would you say is the most urgent issue regarding torture at the moment? 

Nils Melzer: What worries me most right now is a general trend towards the erosion of the international human rights system. We can see that in China, Hong Kong, Russia, Brazil, the United States, Syria — it is impossible to name them all. In every country affected by the migration crisis, there are serious issues. What we are seeing is a strong erosion of human rights standards and of the readiness of states to be held to account for violations of human rights.

Two defendants on trial in Germany on charges of Syrian state-sanctioned torture
Two Syrian nationals are currently on trial in Germany on charges of torture for their role in the Syrian regimeImage: DW/M. von Hein

But then there are other developments. For instance, in Germany a trial is being held for the first time of two people accused of being members of the Syrian torture apparatus. What kind of signal is this trial sending and is the signal being heard?

This is a very important trial. Germany has a strong history in conducting war crimes trials for its own soldiers, so the country has great credibility in this regard. It is very important that the Syrian regime's atrocious torture policy be exposed. This really is the primary value of this proceeding, irrespective of the personal culpability of the accused in this specific trial, which I don't want to express an opinion on, because that's up to the court to do.

Germany: The trial against Assad's torturers

But I can attest from personal experience, having worked in Syria myself, that this absolutely horrendous system of torture existed already 20 years ago. And it is about time that the world knows about this in all the details. Unfortunately, the international community has failed completely in stopping this shocking carnage, which is one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the UN Security Council.

Read more: Can Syrian sexual violence survivors get justice in Germany?

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils MelzerImage: picture alliance/KEYSTONE/S. Di Nolfi

The US is threatening sanctions against members of the International Criminal Court in The Hague if they dare to investigate possible war crimes by US soldiers. That's something that US President Donald Trump has decreed two weeks ago. What kind of signal does that send?

Well, I think the way the US government is threatening the ICC certainly is bordering on the grotesque. I mean, it's absurd for a modern democracy to adopt this type of behavior. Even putting aside Trump's personal character for now, the US government has been extremely aggressive about preventing accountability for its own soldiers. So that really undermines the credibility of the United States, and its moral and legal standing in the world more broadly. You cannot, on the one hand, push for the development of the Nuremberg trials and the Tokyo trials and even push the development of the ICC statute — and the US even signed it — but then refuse to live up to the same standards

That really is a stance that is fundamentally unworthy of the most influential political, military and economic power in the world, it also finds apprentices among other allied nations, such as Israel and the UK, that are now eager to adopt the same type of policy of impunity for their own forces.

Talking about ignoring their own war crimes, it's 10 years since WikiLeaks published the "Collateral Murder" video that shows US soldiers shooting from a helicopter into a crowd in Baghdad. There were no consequences for the perpetrators up to now.

Absolutely. That really is absolutely unacceptable. The American people should not accept that the US government doesn't prosecute crimes like that. In that incident, people that had been severely wounded, as well as people trying to rescue them — all of them unarmed — were being consciously and intentionally murdered.

These are, without any question, war crimes. And if a state no longer prosecutes its worst crimes, but it prosecutes those who expose these crimes, whether as whistleblowers or as publishers, and threatens them with imprisonment of 175 years, we are setting a very, very dangerous precedent. Because this means that investigative journalism becomes a crime, that telling the truth becomes a crime, and that governments and soldiers are now entitled to violate the most basic fundamental norms of international law with impunity.

You mentioned the trial of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. There is a trial in London right now where a judge is trying to determine whether he should be extradited to the US, where he would face 175 years in jail. Do you think that his trial is following the rule of law?

No, it certainly is not. Julian Assange does not have a fair trial in the UK. And I say this as a UK professor of law. I am very respectful of the British rule of law tradition. I am shocked to see that Julian Assange was not given — and is currently still not being given — adequate access to his lawyers, that he has not been given access to his American lawyers at all although he is threatened with extradition to the United States, and that he has not had access to legal documents for many months. It is not right that Mr. Assange should be held in virtual isolation in a prison, although he is not being punished for a crime, he's simply being detained to prevent his escape in case he should be extradited to the United States.

But this certainly does not require a high security prison. It does not require these restrictions on his legal defense. I think this is intentionally being done to weaken his position while on the other side, we have the most powerful country in the world. This is not a fair trial, but it is clearly a politicized trial and that is likely to continue once he is extradited to the United States, if that happens.

A protester in London demonstrating against extradition of Julian Assange
Assange faces a sentence of 175 years in prison in the US indictment on espionage chargesImage: Reuters/P. Nicholls

Earlier you described the horrors of Syrian torture chambers. There are similar torture chambers all over the world much worse than a British prison. So why are you working so intensively for a single person like Julian Assange when so many things are happening around the world that are much worse?

It would be wrong to think of the Julian Assange case as being just about the person of Julian Assange. This case really isn't as much as about Julian Assange himself as it is about the precedent it sets with regard to investigative journalism, secrecy and impunity for torture and war crimes around the world. Firstly, if the United States convicts Julian Assange for espionage, it means that it becomes a crime to expose secret evidence for serious crimes committed by US officials. That is an extremely dangerous precedent because we will then effectively live under censorship. 

Secondly, let us not forget that none of the crimes that Julian Assange has exposed have ever been prosecuted. This includes torture on a very large scale. Also, let us not forget that the Iraq war was illegal, a war of aggression that led to more than a million people being killed, and millions being displaced and tortured. So this is not a small case that we're talking about and the implications it has are emblematic and of global proportions. 

Swiss human rights lawyer Nils Melzer has been the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture since 2016. He has served with the International Committee of the Red Cross for twelve years in various zones of conflict and violence.

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