War crimes round-up: prosecuting Russia’s ‘aggression’ crimes, reparations for ‘colonial crimes’ against Chagos Islanders

560 km south of the Maldive Islands in the central Indian Ocean, the largest of the coral atolls of the Chagos Archipelago, Diego Garcia, is the site of a large Anglo-American naval air and communications facility. November 1990. (NASA)

Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt”, in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.

The International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression (ICPA), announced for this summer in the Hague, is another step towards accountability. It follows the creation of the Core International Crimes Evidence Database (CICED) by Eurojust, the EU agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, to preserve, store and analyse evidence of core international crimes, which is fundamental to avoid loss of valuable proof – especially at times of ongoing conflict.

These new European-led initiatives, alongside the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor’s leadership, send a strong signal that impunity will not be tolerated for the crimes committed in Ukraine.

  • Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima

Efforts to hold Russia accountable stepped up

As the war in Ukraine approached its one-year anniversary, the European Union and Ukraine announced the creation of a centre to prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression. Leaders who plan, prepare, initiate or execute an aggressive war against another state can be individually prosecuted for this crime.

Ukraine has been pushing for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be prosecuted for invading the country. Still, the International Criminal Court (ICC), which deals with crimes of aggression, cannot try Russia's invasion because, under the Rome Statute, prosecution of nationals of non-state parties to the court for the crime of aggression requires a referral by the UN Security Council.

The news was announced on 2 February by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a press conference in Kyiv.

Expected to be set up in the Hague in July 2023, the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression (ICPA) will be embedded in a joint investigative team led by Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and the EU’s judicial cooperation agency, Eurojust.

The push for holding Russia accountable also made strides elsewhere. During the Munich Security Conference on 18 February, Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, stated that Russia is not only committing war crimes but also crimes against humanity, in one of the most forceful statements made so far by a western power.

“Russian forces have pursued a widespread and systemic attack against a civilian population – gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape, and deportation. Execution-style killings, beating and electrocution,” she said, stressing that the US would back efforts to prosecute these crimes. Unlike war crimes, crimes against humanity imply widespread attacks against civilians.

Reparations for ‘colonial crimes’ in Chagos

The US-based human rights group Human Rights Watch called for “full, unconditional, and effective reparations to the Chagossian people” by the United Kingdom and the United States in a report released on 15 February. The report comes a few months after the UK agreed to enter negotiations with Mauritius over the handover of the Chagos archipelago.

The archipelago has been administered by the UK since 1965, even after the independence of Mauritius, which it was a part of. The entire Chagossian population was forced out of its home between 1967 and 1973, to make way for a US military base. The Chagossian people have been fighting for years in court for the right to return but their claim was finally rejected in 2016, claiming “feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost to the British taxpayer”.

Human Rights Watch described the actions of the UK and the US as crimes against humanity. The UK’s sovereignty claim over the archipelago was rejected by an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 2019 and the UN’s special international maritime court in 2021.

US and UK spokespersons said they regretted how the Chagossian people were treated. However, the UK claims to “categorically reject this characterisation of events”. In their report, Human Rights Watch stressed that “international and domestic institutions (...) should treat crimes against humanity committed by UK and US officials like those committed by any other state”.

Germany issues another major verdict on Syrian war crimes

A court in Berlin convicted the Palestinian-Syrian Moafak D. to life imprisonment – which in Germany generally amounts to 15 years with parole – for killing at least seven people after firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a refugee camp near Damascus, Syria in 2014. Set up in 1957 as an unofficial camp, Yarmouk is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Syria. It became the scene of heavy fighting after the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, particularly when it was under the control of Syrian opposition and besieged by the government in 2013.

After a German court convicted last year former Syrian government official Anwar R. for crimes against humanity, this is one more case highlighting Germany’s leading role in prosecuting international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows –  under certain conditions –  the conviction of some particularly severe crimes, regardless of when, where and by whom they were committed.

What else happened?

There has been some progress in the cases involving Civitas Maxima. Appeal proceedings against Liberian warlord Alieu Kosiah in Bellinzona, Switzerland ended on 3 February. The appeal judgment in the war crimes and crimes against humanity case, in which Civitas Maxima’s director Alain Werner represents several plaintiffs, should be rendered public on 1 June.

Appeal hearings in Finland against Sierra Leonean rebel group commander Gibril Massaquoi for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Liberia have been moved to Monrovia, Liberia, where the court is expected to stay until the end of March. Finally, the appeal proceedings against Kunti Kamara for crimes against humanity and torture he allegedly committed during the First Liberian Civil War have been scheduled to take place from 26 February to 22 March 2024 in Paris.

Killing of UN peacekeepers could be a war crime. Three peacekeepers of the UN stabilisation mission Minusma in Mali were killed in an attack on 21 February. Since its creation in 2013, Minusma has had the second-highest number of fatalities of all UN operations, with 168 blue helmets killed. Minusma head El-Ghassim Wane said that the attacks on peacekeepers could constitute war crimes, echoing similar remarks by the Security Council.

Experts call for action against Israel for ‘domicide’. UN independent human rights experts called for Israel to be held accountable for demolishing the homes of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. According to UN figures, Israeli authorities tore down 132 Palestinian structures in January 2023 alone to build settlements. The experts said the “systematic demolition of Palestinian homes, erection of illegal Israeli settlements and systematic denial of building permits for Palestinians” constituted the crime of “domicide”. While not recognised by international law, another UN expert called last year for its recognition as an international crime.

Civitas Maxima is a Geneva-based NGO that facilitates the documentation of international crimes and pursues the redress of such crimes on behalf of victims who do not have access to justice. Founded in 2012 by human rights lawyer Alain Werner, it has most notably represented victims in landmark cases for atrocities committed during the Liberian civil wars.