Human rights abuses committed against migrants have been going on for decades. However, the ICC has repeatedly ignored calls for justice. Compare this to the court’s response to Russian crimes in Ukraine where they actively asked member states for more funding to pursue investigations. This shows a lack of will on the court’s part to seek justice for migrants which is coupled with an absence of states willing to push the court to act.
Mohammad Al Abdallah is the Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, an organization that works on ensuring that all human rights violations are well documented, preserved, analyzed and securely stored. Al Abdallah previously worked as a research assistant for Human Rights Watch in Beirut and as a program officer for the International Center for Journalists. He was imprisoned and tortured in Syria for his work defending human rights and lobbying for political reform.
Interview by Viktor Damas (2023)
The interview was conducted in the spring of 2023 and has been edited for clarity
In light of your communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor, which alleges that the Greek government's treatment of refugees since 2016 constitutes Crimes Against Humanity, how would you evaluate the ICC's jurisdictional capacity to investigate these claims? Do you perceive any gaps in the international justice system when addressing refugee-related issues?
The ICC has clear jurisdiction in this situation as all concerned parties are both signatories of the Rome Statute and, we allege, are guilty of deportation and forcible transfer of a population, deprivation of humanitarian aid, torture, and sexual violence.
The capacity of the ICC to prosecute these crimes is unclear, although the speed at which the court sprang into action and allocated resources to the Ukraine conflict, shows that their intransigence might have been an issue of political will rather than that of capacity.
The court has sufficient authority to investigate the allegations we have made, especially with the amount of evidence we, and other parties, have presented. The roadblock to progress at this point is a lack of will and resources allocated for this specific purpose.
In general, political will and political sensitivities are the main reason that there is a gap in the international justice system when it comes to refugee-related crimes.
As you were crafting your communication to the ICC, were there any other instances or cases that guided your approach?
In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights heard a case against Greece, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Northern Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia in which the court determined that these states had violated several sections of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The outcome of the case demonstrated that states can be held accountable for their migrant policies, however, no lasting change occurred in the aftermath. This was a good test to see what the burden of proof is in these types of cases and how much evidence is necessary for plaintiffs to support their claims. Additionally, as the case had no lasting impact, it demonstrated that a higher legal authority may be needed to influence states to act, although a ruling by the ICC may still be ignored.
To what extent were the views and concerns of victims incorporated into the development of your communication to the ICC?
The entirety of our communiqué is built around the views and concerns of victims. SJAC’s initial communiqué and later supplementary submission relied on testimonies of victims collected by SJAC’s former Legal Officer as part of her prior job working with migrants on the island of Lesbos. SJAC also relied on statements and information pulled from various organizations that collect this type of documentation. These interviews informed SJAC’s development of the communiqué which focused on victim-centered justice.
While it may be impossible to end illegal deportation practices, focusing on the experiences of victims could help influence public and governmental opinion to a point where border patrol agencies are forced to lessen the extent of suffering faced by migrants.
Given the recurring criticism that the ICC tends to overlook the actions of Western officials, do you believe this may have contributed to the absence of progress following your communication's submission? What other factors might have impeded the ICC's pursuit of the matter? Have you explored avenues for reinvigorating the possibility of an investigation?
While the ICC has overlooked crimes committed by Western officials, the bigger issue is the victims the court prioritizes. Human rights abuses committed against migrants have been going on for decades, however, the court has repeatedly ignored calls for justice. Compare this to the Court’s response to Russian crimes in Ukraine where they actively asked member states for more funding to pursue investigations. This shows a lack of will on the court’s part to seek justice for migrants which is coupled with an absence of states willing to push the court to act.
SJAC is not a migrant rights organization, but that space is filled by a large number of civil society organizations focused on promoting the plight of refugees who face violent pushbacks. Our focus has been to highlight this work and support legal submissions to the ICC in hopes that the weight of evidence can eventually force the court to act. Some opponents might point to a lack of resources or evidence, but at the end of the day, it is a lack of interest by the court and the European community to address the well-documented cases of torture, sexual violence, and forced deportation that are allowed to happen on their own shores.
SJAC’s supplementary submission was indeed a way to reinvigorate the possibility of an investigation.
About the interviewer: Viktor Dimas is a recent Master’s graduate in International Security from Sciences Po Paris. Viktor’s concentrations were Intelligence and Middle Eastern studies. Viktor holds a BA in Political Science from Yale University. He is passionate about the issues of disinformation and migration.