Tora Holst

Tell us about your experience prosecuting core international crimes (war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide) and what drew you to work in this field?

I have been working as a prosecutor for 27 years, and since 2015 I have been the coordinator for the war crimes unit at the International Office of the Prosecution in Stockholm. For a long period, I had already worked with serious crimes such as murder, rape and grave assaults when I began working with international crimes. However, crimes like genocide and crimes against humanity are of a whole other dimension compared to domestic crimes and affect not only the individual, since in the state in which they occur there are consequences for the entire population. Seeing that crimes like these are committed in such a magnitude, to this extent they cannot be compared to domestic crimes as they fundamentally impact human rights in states affected by them. I find this complexity especially interesting. With that said, there are a lot of similarities to domestic crimes. For the victim the context in which the offence is perpetrated does not necessarily affect their pain and suffering and I believe that my previous experiences have been to great advantage when handling these cases.   

Describe the work of the War Crimes Unit in Sweden

The War Crimes Unit was established at the International Office of the Prosecution in Stockholm in 2008. Today we are eight prosecutors especially appointed to work with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. We are closely connected to the war crimes unit within the police. We have had four convictions and one acquittal including cases concerning the genocide in Rwanda, war crimes in the former Republic of Yugoslavia and more recently war crimes committed in Syria. Moreover we are waiting for judgements in two cases.

What are some of the key challenges your office faces in prosecuting atrocity crimes domestically?

The fact that we, in many of these cases, cannot visit the crime scene either because of an ongoing conflict or for other safety reasons. This prevents us from finding victims and witnesses and corroborating evidence. When it comes to strengthening our ability to prosecute atrocity crimes there is also a greater need for cooperation between government agencies domestically and improving our ability to work with international organisations and agencies. The message that there is no impunity for these crimes would only be valid if there are no safe havens for perpetrators. I believe that a lot of the structures already exist when it comes to mutual legal assistance and extradition. It is up to us to apply the same measures and use them in the same way as we do when we tackle cross-border crimes. I would however say that a lot has happened in this field and that we have overcome many obstacles over the last couple of years. There are better means for international cooperation and we have learned a lot along the way.

Tell us about one of your most memorable or inspiring experiences in this field?

The first time we went to Rwanda and saw a crime scene in one of our genocide cases. The whole court and the defence lawyers went as part of the trial. It was amazing that we were able to pull through and that it worked so well. This was to a great extent possible thanks to our colleagues in Rwanda. And to be able to see the crime scene, well I wouldn’t be able to describe in words how overwhelming that experience was.  

What advice would you give to fellow prosecutors who are considering working in this field?

International crimes require international solutions and it is of vast importance to cooperate and exchange experiences with colleagues across borders. The feeling that what you are doing has an impact, not only in your backyard, but globally cannot be underestimated. A piece of advice I would give is that one must strive to understand and keep a humble approach to your colleagues in different parts of the world. I believe that legal practitioners sometimes tend to have the conception that ones’ own system is the ultimate one. You will be far better equipped to handle these cases if you achieve a better understanding on how your colleagues tackle the same questions that you do and try to learn from their experiences.

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