menu close

Review: Panel discussion “War Crime trials in German courts”

How can international crimes be investigated?

War crimes – an abstract word which refers to suffering that is difficult to grasp. Since 2002, the Völkerstrafgesetzbuch (Code of Crimes against International Law) has made it possible to prosecute crimes against international law in German courts. As part of Revolutionale 2023, Dr Somi Nikol, Marianna Karkoutly, Roman Avramenko and Katyerna Busol, spoke about the obstacles and potentials of applied international criminal law. During the panel discussion in Leipzig on Wednesday, 11 October 2023, they gave insights into their work investigating war crimes. Alexandra Kemmerer moderated the event. The armed conflicts currently taking place around the world underlined the urgency of the discussion and provided food for thought.

The panel brought together different perspectives and voices. Dr. Somi Nikol opened the discussion with insights into the work of the Office of the Attorney General, where she works. Due to the principle of universal jurisdiction and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity that violate international criminal law can also be prosecuted in third countries. In accordance with the Rome Statute, Germany has made a commitment to prosecute and punish crimes against humanity.

The nationally applicable Völkerstrafgesetzbuch also states that the offence only needs to have a connection to Germany in exceptional cases in order to be prosecuted. In 2011, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office filed the first indictment based on the Völkerstrafgesetzbuch – at that time against Rwandan rebel group leaders who had coordinated the murder of civilians in Congolese villages from Germany. The starting point of the work is often a so-called Strukturermittlungsverfahren (structural investigation proceedings), which initially focus on the crime complex itself and possible groups of perpetrators and only identify individual perpetrators and their involvement in the course of the investigation.

This illustrates the tremendous relevance of the early and detailed documentation and preservation of evidence of crimes in order to bring war criminals to justice worldwide. This was also emphasised by the reports from Mariana Karkoutly, Roman Avramenko and Kateryna Busol. Syrian lawyer Mariana Karkoutly spoke as a representative of the organisation Huquqyat, which promotes the prosecution of criminal offences in Syria. She reported on the particular challenges faced by survivors and witnesses of crimes. Her work centres on documenting gender-specific violence in the context of war crimes. For the victims, reporting what they have experienced is a particularly heavy and challenging burden. At the same time, the proceedings make it clear how crime complexes often harm overlooked groups in very specific ways.

Foto von Kateryna Busol und Alexandra Kemmerer
Alexandra Kemmerer und Kateryna Busol, Foto: Sandrino Donnhauser

As cynical as this may sound at first, smartphones and the internet offer many people the opportunity to document crimes. At the same time, there is the challenge of the extent to which these can be admitted as evidence in court, says Roman Avramenko, Director of the Ukrainian NGO Truth Hounds. With an increasing number of actors such as journalists, activists and researchers endeavouring to document crimes, new challenges arise in the use of the material, but also on the part of the witnesses. Both Avaramenko and Karkoutly emphasised the psychological burden placed on victims and witnesses and the need for investigators to be able to cope with it.

Avramenko and international criminal law expert Katerny Busol, who works at the National University of Kyiv – Mohyla Acadamy in Ukraine, highlighted the challenge and the efforts of the Ukrainian civilian population to document violations against international law.

Foto von Roman Avramenko und Dr. Somi Nikol auf dem Podium bei der Revolutionale 2023
Roman Avramenko und Dr. Somi Nikol, Foto: Sandrino Donnhauser

The Revolutionale team, which had organised a week of important spaces for exchange and debate for human rights and democracy activists alongside this discussion, aptly summarised the debate and its findings on their X account (formerly Twitter): “All panellists agreed that war crimes investigations are highly relevant – not only for legal justice, but also for social justice, individual survivors and for civil resilience in Syria, Ukraine, Israel and everywhere in the world.”

We would like to thank the participants on the podium and in the audience as well as our co-operation partners for the evening, the Revolutionale team ( and the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig ( for an insightful dialogue.

Recording of the event

Watch the recording of the discussion at the Zeitgeschichtliche Forum Leipzig on 11 Oktober 2023 here for free.

Die aufzeichnung wurde uns freundlicherweise vom Zeitgeschichtlichen Forum Leipzig zur Verfügung gestellt.

Das Gespräch wurde in englischer Sprache geführt.

More information

[Please note that the links in orange below lead to third-party sites]

About the participants

Kateryna Busol (International Criminal Lawyer at the National University of Kyiv – Mohyla Acadamy, Ukraine)
Roman Avramenko (Director of Truth Hounds Ukraine, an NGO documenting war crimes)
Mariana Karkoutly (Syrian lawyer, human rights activist and member of Huquqyat)
Dr Somi Nikol (Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office)
Moderated by Alexandra Kemmerer (Research Fellow and Coordinator, Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law)

Learn more

A glossary of key terms in the context of human rights protection can be found on the website of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

More information on the work of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office can be found on the website of the Generalbundesanwalt.

Foto: Sandrino Donnhauser