The International Court of Justice (ICJ) commenced hearings today on a landmark case brought by the Netherlands and Canada against Syria for state-sponsored torture since 2011. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has declared these proceedings to be of paramount importance in the pursuit of justice.
In a case filed on June 8th, 2023, the Netherlands and Canada alleged that Syria is systematically violating the International Convention Against Torture. The allegations include inhumane treatment of detainees, appalling detention conditions, enforced disappearances, sexual and gender-based violence, violence against children, and the use of chemical weapons. While this case does not target individuals, it seeks to establish Syria’s legal responsibility for the widespread use of torture.
Balkees Jarrah, the associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, emphasized the significance of the case, stating, “The case brought by the Netherlands and Canada provides an important opportunity to scrutinize Syria’s long-standing heinous torture of countless civilians. The World Court should urgently put in place measures to prevent further abuses against Syrians who continue to suffer under nightmarish conditions and whose lives are in serious jeopardy.”
Although the case may take several years to reach a final ruling, both the Netherlands and Canada have requested provisional measures to halt ongoing violations and support future accountability proceedings. These provisional measures, subject to discussion during the hearings, are considered essential due to the substantial risk of continued torture and other inhumane treatment in Syria. Both countries argue that Syria has shown no intention of preventing future violations.
The requested provisional measures include instructing Syria to take effective steps to end all acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, preserving evidence related to the case, and disclosing the locations of burial sites for individuals who died from torture. Additionally, the court is being asked to order the release of arbitrarily or unlawfully detained individuals, end incommunicado detention, and grant access to independent monitors and medical personnel in both official and unofficial detention sites.
The Netherlands and Canada also propose that Syria be required to report on the implementation of provisional measures, with these reports made public, every six months from the issuance of the order. While a decision on provisional measures can typically be expected within weeks, it should be noted that this order would bind Syria but would not predetermine the allegations’ merits.
In their final judgment, the Netherlands and Canada seek various remedies, including a declaration that Syria has violated its obligations under the Convention Against Torture and a commitment to cease ongoing violations. They also call for assurances that Syria will not resume these violations, fair proceedings to hold those responsible accountable, and reparations for victims.
Since 2011, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented the arbitrary detention and torture of tens of thousands of people by Syrian government forces, constituting crimes against humanity. In August 2013, compelling evidence of widespread torture, starvation, beatings, and disease in Syrian government detention facilities emerged through photos smuggled out of Syria by a military defector known as Caesar.
As recently as July, a UN Commission of Inquiry reported that Syrian authorities continue to detain and forcibly disappear thousands of people through an extensive network of detention facilities, with detainees remaining at risk of torture and abhorrent detention conditions.
Despite global condemnation, the Syrian government has failed to address the use of torture by its agents. Additionally, conditions in Syria have prevented the UN Refugee Agency from facilitating refugee returns, as refugees who returned between 2017 and 2021 have been subjected to arbitrary detention, kidnapping, torture, and even death.
With Syria not being a member of the International Criminal Court and efforts to grant the court a mandate over crimes in Syria blocked by Russia and China in 2014, the ICJ case offers a glimmer of hope for justice. National courts in countries like Germany, Sweden, and France have started to see progress in prosecuting individuals responsible for torture and atrocities in Syria, potentially aided by the findings and outcomes of this ICJ case.
The Convention Against Torture allows states parties, such as the Netherlands and Canada, to bring a suit against Syria even if they have not been directly impacted by the alleged violations. The case’s journey began with the Netherlands announcing its intention in September 2020 to hold Syria accountable for torture, followed by Canada joining the effort in March 2021.
As the hearings continue, the world is watching closely, and the case at the World Court may serve as a catalyst for greater international action toward justice for the victims and survivors of grave abuses committed in Syria over the last decade.