Netherlands and Canada bring torture case against Syria at UN’s top court

Jun 12, 2023, 7:15 AM

THE HAGUE (AP) — The Netherlands and Canada jointly filed a complaint against Syria on Monday before the United Nations’ highest judicial body, alleging the regime of Bashar Assad has tortured thousands of civilians, in violation of a U.N. convention.

The pair say Syria has “committed countless violations of international law” and want the International Court of Justice to issue provisional measures ordering Damascus to halt an alleged widespread torture program against anyone opposed to the government during the country’s long-running civil war.

The Dutch first announced three years ago a plan to hold Syria accountable for what it called “horrific crimes,” asking Assad’s government via diplomatic note to enter into negotiations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Canada joined the process in 2021.

The 1984 treaty requires parties to enter into mediation before bringing the dispute to The Hague-based court. The complaint says that the process has failed.

The Netherlands and Canada say there is ample evidence that the regime has engaged in systemic gross human rights violations against its own people since 2011. “Syrian civilians have been tortured, murdered, disappeared, attacked with poison gas or lost everything when they fled for their lives,” Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a statement.

The complaint cites the findings of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria, the United Nations body tasked with investigating crimes during the conflict. Attempts to create a special tribunal to prosecute those crimes, however, have been blocked by Russia. President Vladimir Putin has backed Assad during more than a decade of violence and Russian mercenaries have been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians.

The pressure has mounted on the international community to do something to bring Syria to account as the country moves to normalize diplomatic relations. Last month, the Arab League reinstated Syria, ending a 12-year suspension from the regional union.

“We’ve been looking creatively at ways to bring justice to the victims,” Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer who is working on the case for the Netherlands, told The Associated Press.

While international efforts have so far been unsuccessful, national courts have convicted a number of regime officials in their own courts. Invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, Germany has convicted several former regime officials for war crimes. All of the men had applied for asylum in Germany.

Last month, French judges cleared the way for three former senior members of the regime to stand trial for crimes against humanity for killing two Syrian-French dual nationals. The trio are not in French custody.

The Dutch and Canadian complaint is only the second time a case alleging violations of the 1984 convention has been brought at The Hague-based court. In 2009, Belgium filed a complaint against Senegal, arguing that by refusing to prosecute the exiled former president of Chad, Hissene Habre, the West African country was failing to meet its obligations under the treaty.

Three years later, the ICJ ordered Senegal to prosecute Habre without delay. He died of COVID-19 in 2021 while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity for the deaths of some 40,000 people.

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