FICJ Coordinator Danya Chaikel recently had the pleasure to interview Matevz Pezdirc about his work as Head of the Secretariat to the European Network for investigation and prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes (Genocide Network)
Tell us about your international criminal law experience and what drew you to work in this field?
Before joining Eurojust and being appointed as the Head of the Secretariat to the Genocide Network, I was working in national administration in the field of judicial cooperation in criminal law, in Brussels as Counsellor for Justice and Home Affairs, with the Constitutional Court in Slovenia and with the ICTY in The Hague. Being a criminal lawyer, I followed studies at Leiden University in international criminal law and remained attached to this field of work, combining it further with judicial cooperation.
Describe the work of the Genocide Network and the ways you feel it strengthens the prosecution of core international crimes.
The Genocide Network was established in 2002 by the Council of the EU on the initiative of Denmark and the Netherlands with the objective of ensuring close cooperation between national authorities when investigating and prosecuting the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes with a view to preventing the European Union from becoming a safe haven. Successful prosecution of core international crimes requires cooperation between States, as documents, witnesses, victims and other evidentiary material as well as perpetrators are usually found in various jurisdictions.
Members of the Genocide Network are national contact points - prosecutors, investigators or MLA legal officers dealing with core international crimes in their respective jurisdiction. In addition to EU Member States, the Network consists of Observer States (Switzerland, Norway, Canada, the USA and, recently, Bosnia-Herzegovina), EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust, the ICC, IIIM, Kosovo Chambers, MICT/ICTY, ICRC, INTERPOL and several civil society organisations (HRW, AI, Redress, TRIAL, FIDH and CICC). In this manner, the Network provides a unique global forum, acting as a connecting thread between EU Member States, non-EU States, international organisations and civil society, devoted to pursuing criminal responsibility of perpetrators of atrocities.
For practitioners, this setting offers a platform of contacts between competent domestic authorities and their counterparts in international courts/tribunals/mechanisms; access to best practice, experiences and methods relating to investigation, judicial cooperation and prosecution of core international crimes; knowledge sharing; and, most important, case-related information exchange. In this manner, the Network members build trust, ensure smooth cooperation with letters of request and MLA, receive information from colleagues, assist each other, learn from each other, gain inspiration and obtain access to jurisprudence from other countries.
The Network members meet twice per year. Part of the meeting is open only to national authorities for the exchange of operational information; the other part of the meeting includes associates, and addresses challenges common to all jurisdictions within the Network. For example, previous meetings included discussion on challenges relating to:
the use and preservation of open source information from social media providers in the context of prosecuting war crimes;
cooperation between NGOs and national authorities;
looting and destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime and consequent prosecution of trafficking of looted artefacts;
international rules on immunity of public officials;
criminal responsibility of legal persons and business for complicity in core international crimes;
sexual- and gender-based violence; and
cooperation between national immigration and law enforcement/prosecution authorities.
Conclusions of past meetings can be found on the website, offering insight into our activities and ways of strengthening prosecutions of core international crimes.
What are some of the key challenges that members of the Genocide Network currently face in prosecuting atrocity crimes domestically?
Many challenges are common to all domestic jurisdictions attempting to prosecute core international crimes. They relate to the implementation of these crimes in national legislation combined with extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction. Additionally, while many EU Member States have set up specialised units within immigration services, law enforcement and prosecution authorities, many still need to do so, or, alternatively, they need to ensure dedicated and specialised staff for this crime area within units responsible for complex trans-border organised crime cases. The added value of specialisation, either with units or dedicated staff, leads to improved identification of suspects, trained investigators for taking testimonies from traumatised victims, retained knowledge and experience from cases, and clear points of contact for cooperation. Two challenges in this connection that many Network members face, however, are ensuring political and public support for establishing such units, and ensuring sufficient resources for their functioning, often competing with other priority crime areas that have closer territorial ties.
A second set of challenges relate to evidence collection. In this crime area, practitioners are often faced with scattered information and evidence-gathering stretches across many States and/or organisations. Evidence might be difficult to obtain because the crimes were committed many years ago or they relate to a situation with an ongoing armed conflict or a State less willing to cooperate.
Furthermore, in many States, practitioners, particularly judges, lack expertise and training in this area.
Last, but not least, the number of cases is increasing, with the consequent need for prioritisation. With the conflicts in the EU neighbourhood, the number of cases has increased in many EU jurisdictions. Last year, 2,684 cases were ongoing in the EU Member States.
How are they addressing these challenges?
The Network works to bring the national efforts to fight impunity to the attention of both experts and the general public by organising awareness-raising activities, such as the EU Day Against Impunity, observed every year on 23 May.
Furthermore, some of these challenges can be addressed with enhanced coordination and cooperation at both inter- and intra-state levels. In this respect, links with other crime areas, such as terrorism, migrant smuggling and money laundering, should be acknowledged. A recent case in Germany offers a good example: conviction cumulatively included membership in a terrorist organisation and a war crime of inhumane treatment.
The Network, along with Eurojust and its expertise in dealing with cross-border crimes and tools for judicial cooperation (such as coordination meetings and JITs), provides support to practitioners concerned to mitigate, as far as possible, any practical difficulties encountered in the evidence-gathering and investigative processes.
When collecting evidence, prosecutors follow new developments and use information coming from open sources and from social media providers. Open source information has proven fundamental to securing prosecutions in relation to Syria and Iraq, a notable example being the material published on YouTube, which led to a conviction by the Swedish courts. A final judgement from a situation with an ongoing armed conflict is quite unprecedented. The Secretariat is offering support by translating relevant judgements and elaborating best practice and trends in a series of expert papers, applicable beyond any national legislative context.
What does international criminal justice mean to you?
I have the privilege of working with highly committed colleagues from different jurisdictions. After all, this work is a joint effort. Each of us can contribute to upholding the values achieved in the course of the last century to protect civilians, to prevent suffering and to punish perpetrators of these horrible crimes. Last year’s example from the Netherlands, resulting in a conviction for a crime committed in Ethiopia in 1978, reminds us all that these crimes are not statute-barred and that investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes can occur at any time, no matter how late.