17 December 2023 : CEHRI calls upon Austria to reconsider its stance towards Israel-Hamas armed conflict

The Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International (CEHRI) expresses its deep concern and disappointment at Austria’s decision to vote against the resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on October 26 and December 13 2023 titled “Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations” (documents A/ES-10/L.25 and A/ES-10/L.27). The latter resolution called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, reiterating its insistence that parties to the conflict there comply with international law, all hostages be released immediately and without conditions, and humanitarian access be ensured.

Further, CEHRI recalls Austria’s obligation under international law, derived from Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, to insist on the compliance with international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

In the last ten weeks, the latest escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, along with other Palestinian armed groups, has left thousands of civilians dead and countless lives shattered. While the classification of the hostilities between Israel and Hamas and other armed groups is subject to controversy (for an overview of the legal framework, see RULAC) there is no doubt as to the fact that all parties to the ongoing conflict must comply with the fundamental principles of the laws and customs of war, namely humane treatment, distinction, proportionality, precaution and military necessity.

These principles, as ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan noted in his remarks at the opening of the 22nd Session of the Assembly of States Parties, are not mere ‘abstract constructs’ but rather ‘solid hard law’ which ‘cannot be interpreted in a way that denudes them from any legal effect, that eviscerates from them their core meaning’.

CEHRI is utterly devastated by the deliberate killing of Israeli civilians and the taking of hostages by Hamas, and other armed groups 7 October 2023. We denounce these acts, while recalling that the horrific nature of these acts does not however justify the limitless destruction of the Gaza Strip. The rules of IHL are non-reciprocal: they apply regardless of what the other party has done. CEHRI is deeply concerned about the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) massive retaliatory attack, which has become increasingly destructive and lethal.

The heavy bombardments in the densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip, including schools, hospitals, mosques and other protected objects and reports of use of white phosphorus, have killed to this date more than 18’000 civilians, most of them children and women, and caused outstanding damage to vital civilian infrastructure. The health-care system in Gaza is collapsing, as 14 hospitals out of 36 facilities are even partially functional. The issuing of evacuation orders for vast areas of northern Gaza has also led to the internal displacement of 80% of the population. Moreover, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s directive to block the entry of food, water, medicine, fuel, and electricity, has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

CEHRI emphasizes that Israel has an obligation under IHL to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. During armed conflicts, when civilians are struggling to survive with available resources, the parties to the conflict must facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid, i.e. food and medical supplies, even when the aid is intended for civilians on the opposing side (see B’Tselem). Impediment of humanitarian relief is a violation of IHL and may constitute a war crime within the ICC’s jurisdiction as well as a crime against humanity.

In relation to the alarming escalation of attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank by armed settlers, we recall that, Israel as an occupying power has fundamental legal obligations to repress, prevent and punish those alleged crimes.

Several UN officials, including the UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, expressed alarm over discernibly inciteful and dehumanising rhetoric used by senior Israeli government officials and public figures, emphasizing that “the international community has an obligation to prevent atrocity crimes, including genocide, and should immediately consider all diplomatic, political and economic measures to that end.”

In a rare and drastic move, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has also invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter that allows to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security. In his letter dated 6 December, Guterres warned that “the situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region.”

During his visits to the Rafah crossing – at the gateway to Gaza – and to Israel and Palestine, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan stressed that all the alleged crimes committed during the Hamas attacks on 7 October, the IDF’s military operations in Gaza as well as the attacks perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the West Bank fall within the scope of the ICC’s ongoing investigation, which began in 2021.The situation under investigation encompasses crimes committed since 13 June 2014 on the territory of Palestine, extending “to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem” (see ICC-01/18 ) as well as crimes committed by Palestinian nationals.

In light of the ongoing crisis and its international obligations, Austria must reassess its position and align with efforts promoting peace, accountability, and the safeguarding of fundamental rights for all individuals impacted by this conflict.

CEHRI urges the Austrian government to reverse its current policy and to co support the vast majority of UN member states in their appeal to the parties of the conflict for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the compliance with international law, the immediate release of all hostages without conditions, and the assurance of humanitarian access.

14 April 2023 : Trial of Austrian agents for harboring alleged Syrian war criminals to shed light on victims’ suffering

CEHRI and the Open Society Justice Initiative welcome the start of a trial against five officials from Austria’s civilian security-intelligence agency after an investigation revealed that they executed a plan to conceal a former senior Syrian official suspected of crimes against humanity in Austria.

We argue that the court should provide victims of Syrian state-sponsored torture with the opportunity to testify on the harm caused by officials at the agency then known as the BVT—now Austria’s Directorate of State Security and Intelligence—accused of transporting and providing protection to former Syrian Brigadier Khaled Al-Halabi and obstructing the criminal investigation into his crimes.

Halabi, who arrived in Austria in 2015, is currently under investigation by the Vienna Public Prosecutor for crimes against humanity but has not yet been indicted. He has been accused of supervising torture and other crimes while overseeing a detention facility in Raqqa from 2009 until 2013 and is the highest-ranking former Syrian intelligence officer known to be in Europe. CEHRI and the Justice Initiative jointly represent 18 Syrian victims of torture in the criminal investigation into Halabi and have called on the Austrian government to expedite its efforts to prosecute suspects for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Syrian conflict.

Full press release available here. For more information, click here.

24 February 2023 : Aggression against Ukraine – one year after the full-scale invasion

Today, we solemnly mark one year of the unprecedented escalation of the aggression committed against Ukraine. On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation (supported by Belarus) initiated a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, marking a dramatic escalation of the conflict that began in 2014. This brutal aggression continues to cause immense human suffering: thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed and wounded, entire cities have been reduced to rubble. The effects of the Russian government’s actions are felt beyond Ukraine – they have thrown the international order into a state of insecurity.

As we commemorate one year of the dramatic escalation, we reiterate our strong condemnation of Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine and our support for justice and accountability for crimes committed in the course of the war.

In the aftermath of the invasion of 24 February 2022, national, regional and international courts have mobilized at an unprecedented speed. War crimes trials are taking place across Ukraine, as the war still rages. The Russian invasion has also triggered a significant, coordinated international legal action. All available tools of international criminal justice are being deployed to ensure that perpetrators of alleged war crimes and serious human rights violations committed in the course of war are prosecuted, whether through national judicial proceedings or through international mechanisms.

CEHRI is actively engaged in this legal battle. We are currently representing the interests of Ukrainian victims of grave violations of international humanitarian law, together with the Clooney Foundation for Justice. We are preparing complaints to be submitted to national courts. The legal and psychosocial support we provide to Ukrainian survivors will not waver.

10 March 2022: CEHRI’s position on the situation in the Ukraine 

CEHRI condemns in the strongest term the use of armed by the Russian Federation and Belarus against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine. These acts constitute a manifest violation of the jus cogens prohibition of the use of force and the prohibition of aggression, for which international law acknowledges state responsibility and individual criminal responsibility.

We fully support the demands expressed by an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly in its Emergency Special Session, including the immediate termination of the unlawful use of force against Ukraine and the immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all foreign military forces from the territory of Ukraine.

CEHRI is deeply concerned about reports on alleged indiscriminate attacks against individuals, the use of cluster ammunition, the shelling of nuclear plants, and other acts that may amount to war crimes.

CEHRI welcomes the referral of the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by 39 states parties to the Rome Statute, the announcement of the Prosecutor of the ICC to start a formal investigation and the deployment of an advance investigation team onto the territory of Ukraine.

The Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on March 4 2022, in which it decided to establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine.

CEHRI stresses the importance of prosecutions of alleged war crimes and the crime of aggression on international and national levels. We recall in this context that Austria provides universal jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression, once an alleged perpetrator enters Austrian territory. We will be alerted and prepared for such a situation and ready to dedicate our resources for accountability for crimes committed on the territory of Ukraine.

15 September 2021: CEHRI and CEHRI Members have been present in a series of press releases over the past months

05/2021: Diplomatische Halbwelten: Das Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung soll einen mutmaßlichen Kriegsverbrecher vor der österreichischen Justiz versteckt haben. Der Fall zeigt, wie groß der Reformbedarf der Behörde ist. BVT – Konradin Schuchter

05/2021: Globalisierer des RechtsEinige europäische Staaten setzen das Weltstrafrechtsprinzip bereits engagiert um. Warum sind Verurteilungen namhafter Politiker trotzdem immer noch so selten? Weltstrafrechtsprinzip – Janik

05/2021: Uns Nachbarn darf nicht der Atem ausgehen: Welche Rolle spielt das Recht für die Versöhnung nach einem Krieg? Justizministerin Alma Zadić und Spitzendiplomat Wolfgang Petritsch über die Lehren aus der Aufarbeitung der Balkankriege. Gespräch Zadic & Petritsch

05/2021: Das fünfte Verbrechen: Wie Naturschützer erreichen wollen, dass künftig auch Umweltzerstörer vor dem Internationalen Strafgerichtshof landen. Naturschutz – Ricardo Parger

05/2021: Die Vermessung des Leids: Das Regime von Baschar al-Assad lässt in Syrien seit Jahren systematisch foltern. Manche der Opfer konnten sich nach Österreich retten – und machen sich hier auf die Suche nach Gerechtigkeit. Die Vermessung des Leids – Steiner

2021: First criminal trial worldwide on torture in Syria before a German court: The first trial worldwide on state torture in Syria started in Germany in April 2020. The defendants: Anwar R and Eyad A, two former officials of President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus. In February 2020, the Koblenz Higher Regional Court sentenced Eyad A to four and half years in prison, Anwar R’s trial continues. ECCHR – Al-Khatib trial

10/09/2021: Syrischer “Foltergeneral” in Wien: Wie ein Mossad-Deal zum Fiasko wurde: Der israelische Geheimdienst bat das BVT, einen syrischen Überläufer in Wien zu verstecken. Er soll Kriegsverbrechen begangen haben, nun gibt es weitreichende Ermittlungen. Der Standard – Syrischer “Foltergeneral” in Wien

18 December 2020: CEHRI and Justice Initiative call on Austria to accelerate prosecution of Syrian War Crimes

In light of recent public revelations that Austria has provided a safe haven to a former chief of Syrian intelligence since 2015, the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Centre for the Enforcement of Human Rights International (CEHRI) call on the Austrian government to expedite its efforts to investigate and prosecute suspects for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Syrian conflict.

The Justice Initiative and CEHRI urge the Austrian Ministry of Justice to provide adequate support for these investigations by providing necessary resources and sufficient personnel to complete a prompt and effective investigation. The groups also call on Austria to begin a process to establish a specialized prosecutorial unit to investigate and prosecute crimes under international law in order to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of those suspected to have committed grave crimes.

Former Syrian Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi has been accused by victims and human rights groups of supervising crimes against prisoners while overseeing a Raqqa detention facility. Halabi served as head of the Syrian state security branch in Raqqa from 2009 until 2013. Media reports have indicated that he left Syria for France before entering Austria in 2015.

“The Austrian justice system remains slow to join the global fight to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes under international law, even though it has the legal tools to do so,” said CEHRI board member Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek. “The complexity of these crimes means that, despite the dedicated work of individual prosecutors, understaffing and underfunding inevitably leads to delays.”

“The slow pace of progress of Austrian investigations into Syrian suspects takes a tremendous toll on the survivors we represent and undermines the hopes of Syrians that their efforts to achieve justice are supported by European governments,” said Steve Kostas, a senior lawyer at the Justice Initiative. “The Austrian government should immediately take steps to ensure the investigations have the required resources and support to be concluded promptly and effectively.”

Over the past two years, the Justice Initiative has worked with Syrian and international investigators to build criminal cases against former Syrian government officials, including those in Austria. This is part of ongoing work since 2017 to identify and investigate former Syrian officials in Europe and refer dossiers of evidence to prosecutors, in collaboration with Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA).

In the case of Halabi, the Justice Initiative has partnered with CEHRI to support more than a dozen victims and witnesses who wish to take part in ongoing investigations. CEHRI uses strategic human rights litigation to advance the prosecution of international crimes before national courts, and has filed several criminal complaints for torture, crimes against humanity, and war crimes on behalf of Syrian torture survivors in Austria since 2017.

Please contact CEHRI’s press speaker, Dr. Wolfgang Petritsch by email or under +43 660 656 43 45  for more details.

13 August 2020: CEHRI’s and the Justice Initiative’s battle for accountability for grave human rights violations committed in Syria

The abhorrent human rights situation and violence that we continue to witness in Syria has earned the Syrian War against its citizens the title of the deadliest conflict of the early 21st century.

Since 2019, CEHRI and the Justice Initiative have been jointly representing survivors of torture and arbitrary detention by the Syrian government. Our clients, many of whom are now in Europe, seek justice for the crimes committed against them and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. They place their hope in the role of national law enforcement bodies in European states, including Austria, exercising the legal principle of universal jurisdiction.

For more details on this initiative please see our page on severe human rights violations or read our FACT SHEET.

17 December 2018: CEHRI Board Member Tatiana Wittek in conversation with the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM)

CEHRI Board Member Tatiana Wittek has been in conversation with the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) on impunity for crimes in Syria, the international legal system and what national legal initiatives can do to support victims in their quest for justice. Read the full article here, and click here for the full IWMpost magazine autumn/winter 2018 edition.

November 2018: Austrian prosecutors initiate investigations into Syrian torture regime

The road to justice for war crimes and torture in Syria also leads through Europe. After Germany, Sweden and France, Austrian authorities have initiated investigations into the Syrian intelligence services’ role in systematic torture. The investigations were opened following a criminal complaint submitted by sixteen Syrian women and men to the public prosecutor in Vienna in May 2018. “I hope that Austria will now follow the example of Germany and France and issue arrest warrants against senior officials of Assad’s torture system,” said one of the complainants, who was tortured in Damascus by the military intelligence service.

The criminal complaint against twenty-four high-ranking officials of the government of Bashar al-Assad is the first of its kind in Austria. It was compiled by CEHRI and the ECCHR in Berlin, alongside Syrian partners. In light of the investigations, Board member Tatiana Urdaneta Wittek said that “the public prosecutor in Vienna has done important work in recent months. We are confident that the Austrian authorities will apply international criminal law as their colleagues did in Germany, France and Sweden. The crimes committed in Syria should be prosecuted throughout Europe, in a coordinated manner.”

The full press release is available here in Arabic, English and German.

May 28, 2018: Complaint submitted to the European Commission against the Government of the Italian Republic

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), submitted a complaint to the European Commission against Italy for allowing Ali Mamluk to enter Italian territory and to meet with Italy’s former Minister of Interior Affairs earlier this year. Ali Mamluk, a high-ranking military official, is alleged to having been involved in ordering or knowing of oppressive measures (including attacks on unarmed protestors, arbitrary arrest warrants, detention and interrogations under torture) as part of a brutal crackdown by the Syrian government against peaceful protestors since March 2011.

CEHRI is dedicated to ending impunity for the atrocious crimes committed in Syria. We have hence expressed our support for the complaint by signing a formal letter of support, available here.