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Call for the creation of a war crimes unit

08.12.2011 ( Last modified: 17.07.2017 )

Since January 2011, Switzerland disposes of a thorough legal arsenal for prosecuting war criminals and other torturers present on Swiss territory. But the practical means available in this respect are clearly insufficient as criminals often use Western countries as a refuge and manage to stay there without any worries. Consequently, Switzerland should set up a special unit in charge of tracking down international crimes, following the example of several other European States.

On 1 January 2011 new provisions implementing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court into Swiss law entered into force. Crimes against humanity have found their way into the Swiss Criminal Code along with a more precise definition of war crimes. The Office of the Attorney General of the Swiss Confederation is now in charge of the prosecution of these crimes. His competence goes as far as to also apply to crimes committed abroad by foreign nationals finding themselves on Swiss territory (universal jurisdiction).

Criticising the lack of effectiveness

While the International Criminal Court starts hearing the case of the former Ivorian president Laurent Gbabo, less renowned criminals travel the world sheltered from justice. In Switzerland, the first and so far only conviction dates back to ten years (a Rwandan national sentenced to 14 years in jail for his participation in the genocide). Although NGOs such as TRIAL managed to track down some suspects on Swiss territory, these people nevertheless represent just the tip of the iceberg. 

This lack of effectiveness is mainly due to the absence of a special unit in charge of prosecuting these criminals. In fact, at present, only two federal prosecutors are dealing with such cases on a part-time basis. Whereas several Western countries have already successfully set up specialised teams, Switzerland is lagging behind. In this respect, the Swiss Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which includes the main human rights organizations in Switzerland, is launching a campaign aimed at raising the awareness of the swiss authorities. It urges them to close this gap as soon as possible in order to avoid that Switzerland becomes a refuge for the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.


Among the personalities supporting the campaign are Dick Marty, well-known for his long-standing struggle against impunity, and former European Court of Human Rights judge Giorgio Malinverni. According to Richard Greiner, coordinator of the Swiss Coalition for the International Criminal Court, “the Swiss law is rather developed in the fight against impunity. But in order for the provisions to be effectively applied, Switzerland needs to acquire the means for their implementation. This requires a better coordination of the different actors involved in tracking down war criminals, meaning inevitably the creation of a special unit. Such a unit would allow for a better training of policemen and officers, a more enhanced information exchange between the Office of the Attorney General and the Office for Migration as well as for a better cooperation with international tribunals”.


The performance of such a war crimes unit mainly hinges upon the level of political will. If Switzerland does not want to be sloppy about international criminal justice, it should seriously start thinking about adopting the means necessary to the realisation of these goals by starting the to prosecute egregious criminals present on its territory.


Special pages of the campaign “War crimes Unit”
Swiss Coalition for the International Criminal Court website
Article of Philip Grant, Plaidoyer, Pour une unité spécialisée traquant les crimes de guerre


With the support of:

Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture (ACAT) | Alliance Sud | Amnesty International – Swiss section | Association for the prévention of torture (APT) | Humanrights. ch/MERS | International Commission of Jurists, Swiss section | Ligue Suisse des Droits de l’Homme | World organisation against torture (OMCT) | Society for threatened people | TRIAL (Swiss association against impunity)

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