A French court has upheld arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad over a Syria chemical attack.

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France’s highest appeals court has upheld an arrest warrant targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for alleged complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes related to a chemical attack in Syria. Last year, investigative judges in France sought the arrest of Assad and three others in connection with a deadly chemical weapons assault in 2013, despite Assad’s denial of any involvement. Anti-terrorism prosecutors had contested the validity of the French warrant, arguing that Assad, as a sitting foreign head of state, enjoyed immunity.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the initial complaint celebrated the decision of the Paris Court of Appeal, heralding it as a landmark ruling that rejects the notion of total personal immunity for sitting heads of state. Clémence Bectarte, Jeanne Sulzer, and Clémence Wittmann emphasized the significance of this legal precedent, noting that it marks the first instance where a national court has acknowledged limitations on the immunity of a head of state.

France is among the countries that permit the prosecution of crimes against humanity under universal jurisdiction in its courts, irrespective of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the perpetrator. This principle enables French courts to pursue cases involving grave international crimes, even if they do not have a direct connection to France.

The Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 when Assad’s government responded violently to peaceful pro-democracy protests, leading to a devastating civil war that has claimed over half a million lives and displaced millions of people both internally and abroad. One of the most notorious incidents during the conflict occurred in August 2013, with a chemical weapons attack in the opposition-held Ghouta region near Damascus.

United Nations experts confirmed the use of rockets containing the nerve agent sarin in the Ghouta attack, highlighting the severity and indiscriminate nature of the assault. While the UN experts did not assign blame, Western powers asserted that only Syrian government forces possessed the capability to carry out such an attack. In response, Assad denied any involvement and instead accused rebel fighters of staging the incident to draw international intervention against his regime.

Assad ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to dismantle Syria’s declared chemical arsenal under international supervision. However, investigations by UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have implicated Syrian government forces in several subsequent chemical attacks.

After three years, survivors of the Ghouta attack, along with the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SMC), filed a complaint with French investigative judges in Paris. They alleged that Assad and senior Syrian officials had committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, arguing that French courts could exercise jurisdiction under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Last year of November, French judges issued arrest warrants for Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad, who commands the Syrian army’s fourth armoured division, General Ghassan Abbas of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), and General Bassam al-Hassan, a presidential advisor and liaison officer with the SSRC.

The appeal by anti-terrorism prosecutors did not contest the evidence presented but focused on the issue of immunity for sitting foreign heads of state. They argued that such immunity should only be waived for proceedings before international tribunals like the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Paris Court of Appeal affirmed the validity of the arrest warrant, rejecting the argument for immunity based on the nature of the alleged crimes. The court underscored that the use of chemical weapons violates customary international law, constituting a mandatory rule that cannot be considered part of the official duties of a head of state. Therefore, these crimes are distinct from the sovereign responsibilities typically associated with such positions.

It is improbable that Assad will stand trial in France due to the complexities of international law and geopolitical realities, Mazen Darwish, director of the SMC, described the court’s decision as a crucial step towards justice for the victims of chemical attacks. Darwish emphasized that the ruling sends a clear message that serious crimes will not go unpunished and that the era of using immunity as a shield for impunity is coming to an end.

Syria, under Assad’s rule, is not a party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the court. This situation limits the avenues for international prosecution of Assad and other high-ranking officials implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

France reflect broader efforts by the international community to hold perpetrators of egregious human rights violations accountable, even in the absence of cooperation or participation from the accused state. Despite the challenges and complexities involved in prosecuting such cases, proponents of international justice view these efforts as essential steps towards upholding the rule of law and ensuring accountability for grave international crimes.

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