Rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni warns against ‘making deals with war criminals’ as international community convenes at Brussels conference


EU Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (2R) at the 'Brussels III' conference on Tursday. Photo by Emannuel Dunand/AFP.

BRUSSELS: “How can we build solutions with the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes?”

From the podium at one of the discussions opening the civil society dialogue portion of this year’s "Brussels III" conference, award-winning Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni is speaking to a room packed with UN representatives, civil society activists, government officials and journalists.

“This is about making deals with criminals, who are wanted by the international courts for crimes against humanity,” he said in a fiery speech.

This year’s annual international donor conference has been marked by an increasing tension between its two goals of raising funds to respond to urgent humanitarian needs of civilians in and outside of Syria, while at the same time pushing for a “lasting political solution” to the conflict.

Al-Bunni’s argument is more pressing than ever. Since the last time diplomats, international humanitarian organizations and Syrian civil society representatives met in Brussels for the annual “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” conference, the Syrian government has only further consolidated its control.

Large swathes of rebel-held territory across the country have crumbled one by one. Supported by its Russian and Iranian allies, the Syrian government has proved unwilling to compromise, while the international community adjusts to the reality of a war entering a new phase, with the government as its victor.

International donors, governments and humanitarian organizations now find themselves in a dilemma, having to navigate a political minefield of funneling money towards “supporting the Syrian people,” without inadvertently legitimizing a government accused of serious international crimes committed during eight years of brutal conflict.

With a long history of defending journalists and political prisoners in the courts of Syria, al-Bunni himself spent more than five years in prison before the uprising, where he was reportedly subjected to torture. Upon his release in 2011, he continued to advocate for the rights of detainees before eventually leaving the country altogether in 2014.

Anwar al-Bunni at the 'Brussels III' conference on Wednesday.

The executive director of the Germany-based Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, al-Bunni became known last summer as the lawyer chiefly responsible for the issuance of the first international arrest warrant against a high-profile Syrian government officialJamil Hassan.

Hassan, head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence security branch, has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the rape, torture and killing of hundreds of Syrians.

A few months later, French prosecutors issued a similar arrest warrant against Hassan and two other senior security officials. 

As UN-led peace talks in Geneva appear more or less stagnant, al-Bunni remains skeptical about the prospects of any political process around Syria. 

“[The international community] turned Geneva into a puppet theater,” he told Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou on Wednesday, on the second day of the conference.

Still, he added, “we need to hope for a political outcome.”

At the same time, al-Bunni hopes that the international arrest warrants issued last year could pave the way towards accountability and transitional justice for Syrians.

“I’m not just talking about one or two criminals,” he said. “I’m talking about the very legal infrastructure of the Syrian regime, which allows for those criminals to...continue committing crimes.”

Q: Do you feel that there’s a gap between the policies being discussed here at Brussels, and the realities that Syrians are actually living on the ground?

There is definitely a gap, but this gap is deliberate. Politicians are actually well aware of the reality [in Syria]; they know in detail through their intelligence agencies and their diplomats.

First of all, something that [the international community] can no longer get around—although they’ve tried to a lot—is the fact that those [in power] in Damascus have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. You can’t work with these people: not as part of a transitional period, and not in a future with these people as heads of a [supposedly] legitimate authority.

This has long been politically clear from the reports of human rights organizations and the Organization for the Prohibition of [Chemical] Weapons, as well as the [UN’s] Human Rights Committee and Commission of Inquiry. But they’ve still been trying to ignore it and proceeding as if this regime is still an actor you can work with.

This was an issue that they ignored, but after Germany and France issued arrest warrants, they can no longer ignore it. Hopefully other countries will do the same soon, too.

I’m not just talking about one or two criminals, or that refugees are afraid of returning because of one or two criminals. I’m talking about the very legal infrastructure of the Syrian regime, which allows for those criminals to remain in place and continue committing crimes. And if this legal infrastructure doesn’t come to an end then it allows them to commit crimes again.

Q: Do you think anything will change after the 'Brussels III' conference?

The decision is not in the hands of the Europeans. The political role of Europe is very limited and its military role likewise, because it is America who is leading the political solution. [The Europeans] don’t have the capability to make an independent decision for intervention, be it military or political, although they sometimes try.

So for this reason their concern is limited to civil society, aid and humanitarian needs. [The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica] Mogherini expressed this multiple times. And this is a result of legal incapability, they don’t have the means. But the challenge is that they can’t make a move without the Americans’ will. 

Q: So your hopes from this conference are more from the humanitarian side than the political?

No, we need to hope for a political outcome because Europe could put pressure on American policy. Currently, the US doesn’t have a strategy for Syria, so it’s really important to put pressure on them to put [forward] a strategy.

And [it’s important] that Europe itself presents a strategy for how to solve the situation in Syria. Until now, western countries have only been reacting to what’s happening in Syria.

[The international community] turned Geneva into a puppet theater for entertainment. But they all know, that nothing will come out of Geneva.

Q: Do you think the arrest warrants issued by Germany and France last year mean that we will start to see the Syrian government being held accountable in the future?

The prosecution of the criminals who reached Europe is currently something we are following and we will prosecute all of the criminals who came to Europe.

[Ed.: National courts in Europe have used the legal principle of universal jurisdiction—allowing states to claim jurisdiction over a person accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes regardless of where the crime was committed—to charge and issue arrest warrants against a number of high-ranking Syrian officials.] 

This is not a matter of politics, it is a matter judged by the national judiciaries [of the countries involved].

Q: Does that mean there’s a glimmer of hope, in your view?

There’s always a glimmer of hope. Syria, and the Syrians, will overcome their immense suffering.

The big price that [Syrians] are paying is not just the price of changing the regime, but the price of changing the world.

Barrett Limoges contributed to reporting from Brussels.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.