Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Almost immediately after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, already those at the highest level of power in the West were talking about war crimes.
Male Speaker 9: Biden flat-out called Putin a war criminal for the first time. In case we thought that was off the cuff, the president doubled down on that today.
Biden: He is a war criminal, but we have to gather all the detail so this could be an act that should have a war crime trial. This guy is brutal.
Brooke Gladstone: International justice is complicated. Deb is not only my companion this week, she's also my guide to this world of war crimes and tribunals, a world she knows well. Hi, Deb.
Deb Amos: Hi, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: What were you doing when the Russian army put the city of Mariupol under siege?
Deb Amos: I was in Berlin, Germany. I was there on a fellowship, and I also was there to cover Syrian war crimes trials, and it was three weeks later that the Russian army crossed the border into Ukraine.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me the reasons why you were covering Syrian war trials in Germany.
Deb Amos: Germany had about a million refugees, and Germany interviews refugees, and they would hear these stories about tortured chambers, about prisons in Syria where people were just swept off the street, tortured, and died. There was one refugee, a colonel, his name was Anwar Raslan, and he'd been in charge of interrogations in one of Syria's prisons called Branch 251.
When he turned up to Germany, he asked for asylum, thinking somehow that his past life would disappear and no one would notice, but refugees noticed, and said, "I know that guy." That's the guy who was in charge of interrogation when I was arrested. Eventually, the Germans had a big enough file on Colonel Anwar Raslan to arrest him, which they did in 2019 and then it was a two-year trial for Crimes Against Humanity.
Brooke Gladstone: Does Germany have standing to arrest a Syrian war criminal?
Deb Amos: Germany is not the only European country that has this provision, and it's called universal jurisdiction. It is something that your legislature passes and then, you have this ability to take on the most grievous international crimes. They don't have to be committed in your territory. In fact, they don't even have to be citizens of your country that committed these things.
Brooke Gladstone: This was in the city of Koblenz. It was called the Koblenz trial. What was the impact?
Deb Amos: It was an unprecedented trial. There's been no one in Syria who had ever been held to account for anything.
Brooke Gladstone: We know that the path of international justice does not run smooth. Can you explain what some of the obstacles are and how this German court using this idea of universal jurisdiction, made it happen?
Deb Amos: Not only does it not run smoothly, it takes a long time. I'm going to start with talking about Ukraine. President Biden called President Putin a war criminal that was unusual for one nuclear power to call out another one publicly. European officials are talking about war crimes, tribunals and so was Washington. There's a couple of obvious places that you could take a criminal prosecution for war crimes. One of them is in Ukraine's domestic courts and they have 80,000 cases that they have compiled. The other place that you can try war crimes is in the international criminal court in the Hague, and the third place you can do it is in national courts in Europe. For example, just a few weeks ago, Germany announced that they are going to try a rape case, a Ukrainian rape case because the victim has moved to Germany.
Brooke Gladstone: Germany can take on these cases because it has universal jurisdiction, but the people have to be there, don't they?
Deb Amos: They do. There's no trials in Absentia in Germany, so somebody has to be there. In fact, the victim is there, but the alleged perpetrator is not. What Germany will have to do is build a case and have a case ready if they can extradite him from somewhere, if he shows up in another European country. The fact that they're beginning to take some of those cases off the books in Ukraine and move them into European courts, this could be another way to take down that number. 90,000 cases cannot be resolved, certainly in my lifetime or in the lifetime of the people who are running the country now.
Brooke Gladstone: I spoke to Mstyslav Chernov, the person behind the film 20 Days in Mariupol, and he told me that the war in Syria offered a preview of how the Russian military would behave in Ukraine. I wonder if you could explain that and also how the Syrian experience enabled potential war crimes to be tracked.
Deb Amos: I would agree that watching the Russians in Syria would give you a sense of what was going to happen in Ukraine because I was doing that. I watched the Syrian uprising from the beginning, and the Russians don't get there until somewhere in the middle 2015. Their method of suppressing the uprising was to bomb hospitals, apartment blocks, bakeries, all the things that were done in Ukraine. In Syria, the Russians were invited in by a sovereign nation, so no one called what they were doing war crimes, although they were so obviously war crimes.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me about the Syrian-Ukraine network. They are really committed to exposing Russian crimes.
Deb Amos: There was nobody in Germany who understood what was happening in Ukraine more than the Syrian community, and they were on alert from the first day. In fact, the Syrian American Medical Association who did a lot of work in Syria and did clinics behind rebel lines, they went right to Ukraine because they understood battlefield medicine as well as anybody. They rushed to help. There were Syrians who went right to the Ukrainian border with supplies.
The other thing is that the open-source investigators, and there were plenty of them in Ukraine, they looked to Syria because Syria had perfected some of these techniques. In particular, there's a group in Germany that's run by a Syrian, it's now called Mnemonics. Mnemonics was a group that was taking social media and packaging it as evidence. They grew to also do the same thing for Sudan, for Yemen, and finally, Ukraine came to them and said, "Can you help us? Could you package this for us as evidence?" In Berlin, that is what Mnemonics is doing.
Brooke Gladstone: Is accountability writ large why you got so interested in international justice?
Deb Amos: If you work in the Middle East long enough, you want to see accountability somewhere because there's so little of it. There's so little accounting for the terrible measures that people take and it looked early on like there was this atmospheric change. You could feel it. You could hear it in the way that people were talking about justice, about courts, about tribunals, about genocide. I'd never really heard anything like it. I think 18 months in there has been a recognition that it's not as easy as anyone thought.
Brooke Gladstone: You've been covering the Middle East for 40 years. You've been a war correspondent throughout that period. Do you miss the excitement? You're talking about the law.
Deb Amos: We're talking about history. We are asking ourselves at this moment, are we going to have an international system that holds states accountable for their worst behavior? It will not be a pleasant world if we find that the answer is no. That is why this can't stand.