Guernica 37
Guernica 37

Interview: “The University of Northampton graduate who is trying to bring Assad to book for crimes against humanity”

Toby Cadman, co-founder and head of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, was interviewed by his alma mater, the University of Northampton, about the criminal case that his organisation and G37 Despacho Internacional filed against nine members of the Syrian intelligence and security forces before the Spanish National Court. The university highlights that Mr. Cadman has “made history” when he, together with Almudena Bernabeu, Maite Parejo Sousa, and University of Northampton graduate Carl Buckley, hit the headlines in early 2017 after they “filed the first criminal case against the Syrian regime”:


The University of Northampton graduate who is trying to bring Assad to book for crimes against humanity

A University of Northampton graduate has made history as part of a team of international lawyers that’s filed the first criminal case against the Syrian regime.

Law graduate Toby Cadman joined forces with fellow international human rights law specialist Almudena Bernabeu and University of Northampton graduate Carl Buckley last year to form the international justice chambers Guernica 37 – and hit the headlines in early 2017 after the organisation filed the criminal case against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for crimes against humanity.

The case has been described as a dawn for justice for Syria, and is the latest in a long line of investigations Toby has pursued into war crimes and human rights abuses.

Graduating with a Law degree from Northampton in 2000, Toby returned to study for a Master’s in Public International Law nine years later.

“I was exposed to areas of law, such as human rights and transnational crime, early in my studies,” said Toby. “This shaped my career path. I was also pushed by two of my law lecturers to pursue a career at the bar, rather than as a solicitor. I was told that this would be hard and that getting experience in my chosen field would be essential. I also realised that pursuing the Master’s would be critical for my career development.”

Toby’s first graduate position saw him seconded as a legal advisor to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Human Rights Chambers. Since then, he’s held a variety of roles, including Head of the Prosecution Section for War Crimes at the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber, before gaining a reputation for extradition prosecution at London chambers, 9 Bedford Row.

The University caught up with Toby to find out his viewpoint on Syria, war crimes and his magic wand solution to prevent atrocities occurring.

Q. War crimes, atrocities and genocide continue to occur. Is it fair to say something isn’t working when the world can’t prevent them happening, or justice doesn’t catch up with the perpetrators? Is the international community doing enough, or is it failing the human race?

This is possibly the hardest question. What are we, as a community of nations, doing wrong? The Armenian Genocide is said have taken 1.5 million lives. The Holocaust from six to eleven million. After the Holocaust we said never again. But then we experienced East Pakistan (Bangladesh), Cambodia, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Palestine. We also have the experiences of Latin America (Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, etc). Now, we also have the experience of Syria, where six years after a peaceful uprising, we have seen half a million killed, use of chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombings, torture and extra-judicial killings in the tens of thousands.

There are a number of issues in my view. First, is the impotence of the international community to intervene in conflict situations. Second, there is no will by States in transition to address accountability and bring an end to impunity. Third, the international community tends to look at short-term fixes rather than long-term institutional building – there are many examples of this.

The last-surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz, an extraordinary man who I had the pleasure to meet last year in New York, recently stated that war makes men do evil things. I think that is right. He said wars made murderers out of decent people who were trying to protect their religion, nationality or economic security. He further went on to say that we still have not learned that guns will never kill an ideology.

The principle issue for me is that there is no effective deterrent. Bashar al-Assad in Syria is a brutal dictator who is prepared to kill and maim his way to maintain power. He is not combatting terrorism – he is killing civilians who oppose his rule. He is doing that with the military and political support of Russia and Iran. He knows that, due to the catastrophic errors in Iraq and Libya, there will be no military intervention and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The fact that Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC and can veto any resolution provides the Syria regime with cover and brings the UN system of protection into utter disrepute.

Q. What would your magic wand solution be?

That’s the million dollar question. If I had an answer to that question I would be running to replace Antonio Guterres as UN Secretary General.

The sad reality is that there is no quick fix. Each situation requires a different approach. However, what each situation requires is an understanding that there can be no peace without justice and justice must be more than vengeance, it must be meaningful.

If I had a magic wand I would, nonetheless, make three broad sweeping changes. First, I would remove the veto power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Second, I would establish a system of suspension or expulsion from the UN for gross human rights violations. For example, how can one morally support the continued membership of States such as Syria, Iran, Egypt and Bahrain on the UN and how can one support states such as Saudi Arabia that continues to flout human rights obligations from holding leadership roles in the UN Human Rights Council.  Thirdly, I would expand the jurisdiction of the ICC. I would impose a system by which once a sufficient number of States have joined, the Prosecutor could be granted jurisdiction to investigate situations outside the current limited jurisdictional basis. This would allow States such as Syria to be investigated.

Q. Is it fair to say that genocide/atrocities can happen anywhere given the right conditions?

Yes – we could all commit atrocities. The Genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia were committed by ordinary people, but the environment was manipulated from outside and hatred was drilled into ordinary people to blame certain groups for political and economic instability. To paraphrase what Benjamin Ferencz said, war makes ordinary men do unspeakably evil things. We should also not forget the old saying that evil prevails when good men do nothing. When you look at Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria you see unspeakable evil. Were these monsters? Some of them yes. Others no, they were ordinary people driven by patriotism, hatred and incited to commit acts of evil.

Q. On a personal level, do the harrowing stories you are involved with ever become ‘normal’ – are you desensitized after a while?

They do not. They can never become normal and one can never be desensitised. The simple reason is that the victims we deal with are real people. The sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters of real people. That is what motivates me to do this kind of work. The victims deserve a voice and deserve to see justice.

Q. The case being brought against the Syrian regime has been described as “a dawn for justice for Syria”. Do you think that’s the case?

I would say that it is certainly a watershed moment.  It is the result of more than three years investigation and it is the first case before a court that will hold the Syrian regime accountable. There are other important cases being pursued in Germany, the United States and France as well and we are working with the UK authorities to open an investigation into the abduction, torture and murder of a British doctor, Dr Abbas Khan. However, we still have a long way to go.

The conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has seen almost half a million deaths, 11 million forced to leave their homes with close to five million fleeing to neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands of Syrian citizens have been subjected to enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and unlawfully detained without any form of legal authority, tortured, and ultimately executed or starved to death, in the vast network of Syrian Military Detention Centres controlled and managed by the Government supported Security and Intelligence Services. We have observed instances of chemical weapons being used, widespread indiscriminate bombing, the deliberate targeting of civilians, journalists, doctors, medical facilities and schools. Further, there is substantial, credible, documented evidence to demonstrate the widespread and industrial use of torture against those that seek to oppose the brutal, dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad. It will be clearly shown that the scale of the crimes committed by the Syrian Regime have taken place in a widespread or systematic manner, as part of a deliberate attack on the civilian population, committed in accordance with a terrorist policy, designed in 2011 at the highest political, governmental and security levels of the Syrian state; its aim being to subjugate, intimidate and create terror among the Syrian civil population,  to alter the constitutional order, and to quash any anti-government protesters and silence any critics of the Assad Regime through an orchestrated campaign of violence, and attempt to quell the wave of popular protests that began in early March 2011 in Dara’a and Damascus.

Q. Do you think the International Criminal Court (ICC) has failed when it comes to Syria?

Yes, of course the ICC has failed the Syrian people. The real issue however is that it has no jurisdiction in the absence of a UN Security Council referral. Therefore, rather than putting the blame at the door of the ICC, the blame must be placed squarely on the doorstep of Vladimir Putin. It is his regime and his regime alone that has prevented justice in Syria. It therefore must fall to national courts to ensure that such crimes do not go unpunished and the current impunity afforded to the Syrian Government Forces is brought to a prompt end. Our group acts on behalf of a Spanish victim and filed a criminal lawsuit together with the Spanish Association for Human Rights. The identification of a Spanish victim —a family member of a Syrian national who disappeared, and was detained and tortured in one of the Regime-controlled detention facilities— confers jurisdiction on the Spanish Criminal Courts to open a criminal investigation. It is therefore a hugely significant case and one that I am extremely proud to be a part of.

You can read more about Toby’s time at University on the website.


This interview was published on Thursday 29th June 2017 at The University of Northampton

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