Human rights lawyers have urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a preliminary investigation into alleged mass deportations by Syrian authorities, in an attempt to hold President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime accountable for atrocities carried out during the country’s bloody civil war.
On Thursday, a group of lawyers filed requests with the ICC on behalf of 28 victims who were forced across the border into Jordan, according to a statement by UK law firm Stoke White.
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Another set of lawyers had filed an article 15 communication on Monday with the ICC, using what appears to be the same precedent for bringing Syria under the court’s jurisdiction.
Syria is not a member of the ICC and thus the court has had no jurisdiction in the country.
That has meant that numerous allegations of atrocities committed during the conflict have not been prosecuted at the world’s first permanent criminal tribunal.
Both sets of lawyers cite a case involving the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar that could be used to give the ICC jurisdiction over at least part of the Syrian conflict
That case focussed on Muslim Rohingya driven out from Myanmar, which is not an ICC member, into Bangladesh, which is and the ICC ruled it had jurisdiction to look at a range of allegations against Myanmar’s security forces.
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The new arguments say that the ICC could exercise jurisdiction over Syrian civilians forced into Jordan, because Jordan is a member of the court.
“The same principle [used for Myanmar and Bangladesh] should apply to Syria and Jordan,” said Toby Cadman a lawyer for the Guernica Centre for International Justice which filed the article 15 communication.
He added that atrocities committed by Syrian government forces forced about a million civilians to flee into Jordan.
The threat of more mistreatment, if they return, is preventing them from returning home, he said.
“The ICC exists precisely to bring justice to the victims of these most brutal international crimes,” said Rodney Dixon, from Temple Garden Chambers. He is the leading lawyer in the group representing the 28 Syrian refugees, along with UK-based firm Stoke White.
“What we are trying to do is to highlight the crimes committed against these people in the right platform, that is the ICC,” said Hakan Camuz, with Stoke White.
Camuz said they have been investigating crimes against civilians in Syria for the last two years and have “submitted all evidence collected to the ICC prosecutors”.
“The very people who actually committed these heinous crimes think they have somehow impunity,” he added.
In a statement, Stoke White said the case would also “focus on the wider pattern of attacks and crimes against the civilian population in Syria including torture, rape, chemical attacks and disappearances in order to establish the full breadth of the systematic violations of which the deportations form a part”.
The ICC is a court of last resort, which steps in only when national authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute alleged crimes.
In a written response, the ICC prosecutor’s office confirmed it had received the filing and said it would analyse the material.
“As soon as we reach a decision on the appropriate next step, we will inform the sender and provide reasons for our decision,” the office said.
The ICC and its chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda have faced criticism in recent years after a series of failed prosecutions. Addressing crimes in Syria could help restore faith in the court and its prosecutor, Cadman said.
“I think this is this is an opportunity for her to really establish the credibility of her office,” he said.