In 1998, the Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London, after nearly a decade of impunity for systematic crimes of torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial murder. This watershed moment in transnational justice possessed the aura of the impossible. A deeper look, however, reveals years of painstaking efforts by affected people, lawyers and activists to gather and document evidence of these crimes, uncertain if it could ever be put to use. Although Pinochet’s arrest did not lead to a conviction, it marked the birth of a new era of transnational human rights work – a fight for global justice that ECCHR has now been a part of for 15 years.

15 years of legal interventions

In legal work, the power of time can never be underestimated, whether in the duration of a trial or the timing of opening of a case. Time is also, of course, critical in understanding what legal interventions truly achieve, in all their complexity. After 15 years of working to enforce human rights through legal means, ECCHR has seen multiple interventions unfold over longer intervals, requiring both patience and perseverance. In practicing strategic litigation, we see the law as a tool to bring about long-term social change. We aim to tackle repressive features of the law, while opening up new legal and political terrain in the fight for human rights.

While international criminal law is enforced by several well-known institutions across the globe, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), these entities are not always able or willing to act when confronted with the most heinous crimes. But other avenues for justice do exist: the principle of universal jurisdiction maintains that there are crimes so grave that the duty to prosecute them transcends all national borders.

What is Universal Jurisdiction? Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity do not only affect individuals and countries, but the international community as a whole. If the International Criminal Court is not an option, Universal Jurisdiction offers another path to justice. This principle allows states to prosecute international crimes no matter who committed them, where they were committed or against whom they were committed.

ECCHR was conceived in the wake of a legal intervention under universal jurisdiction, when lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a 2004 criminal complaint in Germany against major architects of the US torture program, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former CIA Director George Tenet. This intervention aimed to counteract double standards in international criminal law, whereby leaders of powerful countries often enjoy impunity not shared by the rest of the world. While the complaint was eventually rejected, it generated international attention and forced Europe to reaffirm its stance against torture. It made clear that international law had potential to be tapped, prompting ECCHR’s founding in 2007.

George W. Bush Cancels Europe Trip As Human Rights Lawyers Threaten Legal Action Over Torture © DemocracyNow!

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The world’s first trial of Syrian state torture

From April 2020 to January 2022, the Koblenz Higher Regional Court tried two former officials of the Syrian secret service apparatus.

Roughly 130,000* people remain forcibly disappeared in Syrian prisons

*According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights

Family members of victims in Syria assemble outside the courthouse

Family members are still forcibly disappeared

Mariam Alhalak, Yasmen Al Mashan and Samaa Mahmoud from the Caesar Families Association demonstrate in front of the courthouse for their story to be heard. 

“Assad’s Syria = torture state”

Journalist Wafa Moustafa is holding a picture of her disappeared father next to human rights defender Mariana Karkoutly.

The “MUTE” installation by Khaled Barakeh was a demonstration held in summer 2020 outside the Koblenz courthouse composed of faceless figures in protest.

The “MUTE” by Khaled Barakeh

A demonstration held in summer 2020 outside the Koblenz courthouse composed of faceless figures in protest

Advancing justice through universal jurisdiction takes time, but when it sets international precedents, then it is clearly worth it. In response to the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on the 2011-2012 Syrian uprising, ECCHR’s International Crimes and Accountability (ICA) program began working in 2012 to address Syrian state crimes within the ongoing civil war, adopting a survivor-centered approach and collaborating directly with Syrian civil society. While Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council blocked the ICC from action, the German criminal justice system held a pioneering two-year trial on Syrian state crimes. In February 2021 and January 2022, the Koblenz Higher Regional Court convicted two members of the Assad regime for crimes against humanity – one a high-ranking colonel in charge of a detention center in Damascus. ECCHR partner lawyers supported 29 Syrian torture survivors, 14 of whom were joint plaintiffs in the proceedings.

The Koblenz trial set an international precedent using universal jurisdiction to pursue members of a political regime still in power, while also providing the first extensive legal documentation of countless atrocities committed against civilians by the Assad regime. In the wake of these proceedings, there are now several similar trials on Syria underway in Europe and the US, and an arrest warrant has been issued against Syrian Air Force Intelligence Chief Jamil Hassan, one of the highest-ranking members of the Assad regime.

During the Koblenz trial, ECCHR partner lawyers successfully petitioned the court to treat crimes of sexual and gender-based violence – crimes often systematic in conflict zones, but rarely charged as such – as a crime against humanity. Today, the ICA team is pursuing the prosecution of high-ranking perpetrators in Ukraine for their role in crimes of sexual violence, as part of a widespread attack on Ukrainian civilians by the Russian military.

Syrian State Torture on Trial

The anthology examines the larger historical and political context of the Koblenz trial.

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A documentation of the Al-Khatib proceedings

Torture in Syria on trial in Koblenz

Humility is called for in the face of the countless agonies suffered by the Syrian people.

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Accountability for killings by US drones with European complicity: The almost global capacity to conduct airstrikes anytime, anywhere: that is one of the most distinctive features of armed drones – and therefore a new dimension of warfare. The US military bases at Ramstein (Germany) and Sigonella (Italy) play a crucial role in US drone strikes in Yemen and several other countries. Together with those affected by drone strikes and with its partners around the world, ECCHR uses legal means to seek an end to unlawful killings by armed drones.

The ICA team has also contested the ravaging effects of drone warfare on civilian populations in conflict zones. Beyond the realm of international criminal law, these efforts aim to enforce the right to life enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, our work has focused on German support for the US drone program by exchanging information and granting comprehensive rights to US military bases involved in unlawful drone attacks, such as Ramstein.

In the case of Syria, laws existed to address the brutality of the Assad regime; they just needed to be activated. But other times the law falls short, either due to gaps or simply because it does not yet exist. Over the last decade, ECCHR’s Business and Human Rights (BHR) team has worked with partners and those affected to reshape the legal landscape of corporate accountability.

The 2013 Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh was one of the worst industrial accidents in history, with more than 1,100 people killed and over 2,500 injured. That European textile brands had operated in the factory spurred outcry across Europe. With partner organizations, activists and affected individuals, ECCHR filed complaints against TÜV and BSCI, two major players in the safety auditing industry. Although the proceedings did not ultimately satisfy the affected parties’ demands, the case brought heightened political urgency to the routine human rights abuses within EU business operations.

In 2015, a case on a deadly factory fire in Pakistan in 2012, where the German company KiK sourced its products, again put a spotlight on the pervasive inhumane conditions of garment workers in the Global South. With support from ECCHR and medico International, affected individuals took the company to court in Germany. This widely publicized case brought home the fact that voluntary corporate responsibility standards fail to protect the human rights of workers in such facilities across the world. Binding laws are needed.

Rana Plaza survivors are still fighting for justice

Architectural analysis for the KiK/Pakistan case in Germany by Forensic Architecture

Both legal cases worked in tandem with a wider grassroots mobilization campaign to pressure politicians to address corporate harm. This campaign has helped usher in new corporate accountability laws in several countries, such as France’s 2017 Duty of Vigilance Law and Germany’s 2021 Supply Chain Act. These laws now obligate businesses to actively conduct human rights due diligence across the entirety of their global supply chains. The drafting of a similar EU law is also currently underway.

Beyond supply chains, our work on the European pesticide export ban aims to prevent trade in toxins that cause illness, death and ecological devastation in the Global South. The European pesticide industry is riddled with double standards: large agrochemical companies continue to export a range of toxic products banned in Europe to countries that lack adequate safeguards.

Toxic Pesticides in Punjab/India – Organizations from Europe and Asia, among them ECCHR, submitted a complaint to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in October 2015 on the marketing of hazardous pesticides by Bayer and Syngenta in Punjab/India. Pesticides are sold without adequate labels, available protective clothing, and proper training of the farmers and dealers as this video shows.

The BHR team also fights against the export of European weapons to conflict zones where they are used against civilians. We have focused on the Italian export authority and the Italian firm RWM, a subsidiary of German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall AG, for supplying bombs to the Saudi-led coalition used in airstrikes against civilians in Yemen. After several setbacks in Italian courts, we recently filed a complaint against Italy with the European Court of Human Rights.

While our efforts have contributed to significant changes in the field of corporate accountability over the last decade, the climate crisis has shown us that the ravages of a global economy based on extraction and exploitation are also fundamentally ecological. Thus, climate justice is also a core focus of BHR’s endeavors. 

Forensic Architecture

European Arms in the bombing of Yemen

On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabia- and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led military coalition instigated a military intervention in Yemen.

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Legal interventions are not always about the creation or activation of new laws – sometimes existing laws simply need to be enforced. Border regions in Europe are not lawless zones, which is why our Border Justice team fights to enforce laws that protect the rights of those on the move.

The situation at the EU’s external borders is devastating. Without safe and legal pathways to access protection, people embark on perilous, often deadly, journeys across the Mediterranean or overland routes. Those who manage to make it to Europe in search of asylum are increasingly pushed back across borders – often brutally and at risk of death – without receiving access to due process.

Beyond the physical expulsion of migrants and refugees, pushbacks often include a range of human rights violations, such as secret detentions, beatings, torture, and denial of access to asylum procedures. After large numbers of people on the move came to the EU seeking protection in 2015, many states doubled down on border protection and deterrence, and pushbacks became normalized. For over a decade, ECCHR’s Border Justice team has sought legal avenues to combat injustice at EU borders, but courts have increasingly tolerated pushbacks, while people on the move – and those who come to their defense – have become further criminalized.

Beyond national and international courts’ unwillingness to effectively investigate incidents or uphold the rights of people on the move, the lack of evidence – or its proactive destruction by border guards – also poses significant obstacles to case-building. As pushbacks often happen outside the law and off-the-books, we have had to develop new means of documenting and verifying these violations.

Parvin A, on her journey from Turkey into Greece after fleeing Iran, was pushed back six times without access to asylum procedures. However, she was able to transmit geolocation data of her whereabouts, and to capture video and photographic evidence of her detention conditions. Using this data with her testimony, the Border Justice team collaborated with Forensic Architecture, as part of the Investigative Commons project, to map her journey and produce a virtual simulation of her detention.

The Gourougou Trial - Trailer © SONDA Internacional

Investigative Commons reinvents legal investigations

In search of new ideas for the creative and public enforcement of human rights, we founded Investigative Commons in 2020. The multidisciplinary cooperation is a result of years of collaboration between ECCHR and the research agency Forensic Architecture.

Bringing Greek pushbacks to justice – Parvin A. was severely beaten, secretly detained and forcibly returned from Greece six times in 2020. Now she's filed a complaint with the support of ECCHR, the Greek NGO HumanRights 360 and Forensic Architecture. In this video, Parvin A. starts to tell her story and shows some of the video and photo evidence she gathered. It also includes excerpts of a Forensic Architecture investigation into her case.

Children and minors are also regularly subject to pushbacks, despite extra legal protections in place for them globally. EU border authorities increasingly fail to protect children on the move, and children often report physical violence from border police. We are currently supporting the case of U.F. before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning violations he experienced while trying to access asylum in the European Union.

This is the story of U.F., partially told by himself. It's the story of a Rohingya child's search for safety and of the violence and rightlessness at Europe’s borders. U.F. was repeatedly pushed back and his asylum claim ignored. He faced beatings by Croatian border officers, had his belongings burnt and his shoes confiscated before the expulsions, which included a chain pushback from Slovenia.

All current prognoses indicate that the number of those seeking protection is expected to rise as a result of intersecting economic, ecological and political turmoil. We fight to uphold existing legal protections for human rights at our borders, for transparency and change in systematic state pushback policies, and for accountability for violations.

For centuries, law has been used to justify and legitimate oppression, colonial racism, extraction and the appropriation of indigenous territories. To realize our vision of global justice, we continually evaluate our methods, exchange lessons learned with our network of global partners and the next generation of human rights lawyers, and critically assess persisting repressive power structures within the law. In 2018, ECCHR’s Institute for Legal Intervention was established to focus on these tasks. Adopting decolonial, feminist and critical legal approaches, the institute collaborates with artists, activists and academics to engage in debates beyond the courtroom.

Addressing colonial crimes as current human rights violations

The legacy of the 1904–1908 German genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama in Namibia continues to this day in a variety of ways: the intergenerational dispossession of land and wealth that followed the genocide, the lack of its formal acknowledgment by Germany, and the absence of adequate reparations. Today, human remains and cultural artifacts wrested from colonial contexts still sit in German museums and institutions. With our partners, we seek to dismantle the racist and colonial structures used to justify the continued dispossession of those affected by colonization, while demanding human rights-based reparations that prioritize the needs and perspectives of those affected.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Interim findings of the research conducted around the Waterberg | HKW Video

with Kambanda Veii, Ashkan Cheheltan, Tobechukwu Onwukeme, Agata Nguyen Chuong and Eyal Weizman<br>English original version<br>Presentation & Q+A, Nov 5, 2022<br>

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Working beyond the courtroom

To expose power structures within the law, we integrate academic and artistic approaches to visualize and map the complexity of human rights struggles. In conferences and workshops with academics and other experts, we contextualize our work, hone our strategies, and shape discourse, pushing for a counter-hegemonic, progressive interpretation and application of the law. In our collaborations with artists, we engage the emotional register of human rights struggles. By cultivating connections in ways unbound by the strictures of legal frameworks, art enlivens the context of our work and conveys its significance to a wide range of audiences. 

Training the next generation of human rights defenders

ECCHR’s Critical Legal Training (CLT), now 12 years running, gathers law students and lawyers from all over the world. Beyond exposing them to an array of critical approaches to legal and human rights work, the CLT also introduces trainees to our global network of partner organizations and helps advance their careers in human rights law. Out of 600 alumn* from 70 countries, many have gone on to join progressive human rights organizations, to establish their own legal practices, enter academia or work in courts or state institutions.

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“My Fascist Grandpa”, Laura Fiorio exhibition at ECCHR, 2023 © Laura Fiorio

ECCHR Alumn* Reunion, 2016

“1968, the fire of ideas”, Marcelo Brodksy (Argentinien) exhibition at ECCHR, 2018. © ECCHR

ECCHR Alumn* Reunion, 2018

ECCHR Alumn* Reunion, 2018 © Mohamed Badarne

 

Staying in contact during the pandemic
© Mohamed Badarne

ECCHR Legal Advisor Claire Tixeire in conversation with ECCHR General Secretary Wolfgang Kaleck and ECCHR Board Member Reed Brody Alumn* Reunion, 2021.
© Mohamed Badarne

New approaches toward generating evidence

Repressive power structures operate within written law as well as in the institutions and expertise that shape the production of legal evidence. In 2020, with Forensic Architecture and Forensis, ECCHR established the Investigative Commons (IC) to interrogate and undermine the institutional monopoly on what constitutes evidence. This work focuses heavily on open source material documenting human rights violations, often recorded with cell phones and then posted online. This vast data trove requires innovative techniques to comb through, authenticate and analyze it, to secure it as evidence, and to present it in a range of forums. 

Investigative Commons

The Investigative Commons seeks to understand what constitutes evidence in our present day and age, as well as how and why certain data is given the stamp of legitimacy and authority, while other data is discredited or relegated to obscurity.

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Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Investigative Commons | Trailer | HKW Video

Ausstellungen, Konferenzen<br>2021/2022

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In our current world of interlocking crises – climate change, pandemics, growing inequality, large-scale migration etc.– it is now more essential than ever to bring these problems into focus and develop new strategies to combat them through legal and political action. For 75 years, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has provided a vision of a world free of torture, war crimes, exploitation, gender-based violence and fortressed borders. Yet, every attempt to realize this vision of justice has demanded immense struggles led primarily by oppressed groups and individuals. In recent decades, some successes have been achieved, but the global crises we now face will require fierce commitment and all of our available energies. In this spirit, we thank all those who are working with us to realize the concrete utopia of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because, in reality, there is no alternative to it.

Published

November 2023