France issued arrest warrants on Nov. 15 for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher al-Assad, de facto chief of the regime’s elite 4th Armored division, as well as two high-ranking military generals. The warrants stem from an investigation into two chemical weapons attacks that occurred in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013, resulting in the death of over 1,000 people. French officials launched the investigation in 2021 after the Syrian Center for Media & Freedom of Expression (SCM) and other nongovernmental organizations filed a complaint with the Specialized Unit for Crimes against Humanity & War Crimes of the Paris Judicial Court. The SCM argued that the use of chemical weapons is a jus cogens crime, implying an absolute prohibition with no immunity based on state sovereignty.
The Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria became party to in 2013, specifically prohibits the use of chemical weapons such as sarin, the substance allegedly employed in the attack. Despite Syrian regime denials, a UN mission uncovered “clear and convincing” evidence of sarin use. The complaint is also supported by victim testimonies and evidence collected by various organizations, including declassified intelligence reports and open-source information analysis.
The case is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits the prosecution and judgment of crimes against humanity or war crimes even when the acts were committed abroad and neither the perpetrator nor the victim is French. Similar complaints regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government have been submitted in Germany and Sweden.
The SCM described the issuing of the arrest warrants as an “historical judicial precedent.”
From Jurist, Nov. 15. Used with permission.