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Netherlands, Canada take Syria torture claims to ICJ

June 12, 2023

The two countries are asking the International Court of Justice both to examine torture and other crimes against humanity committed during Syria's civil war, and to order Damascus to halt any such mistreatment.

A guard opens a door inside a prison that holds foreign prisoners, suspected of being part of the Islamic State, in Hasaka, Syria, January 7, 2020.
Among other things, the Netherlands and Canada allege abuse, mistreatment, and arbitrary detentions in Syrian prisons Image: Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS

The Netherlands and Canada filed a joint application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN court based in The Hague said on Monday, asking it to prosecute the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for crimes committed during the country's civil war. 

What are the allegations? 

"Syria has committed countless violations of international law, beginning at least in 2011, with its violent repression of civilian demonstrations, and continuing as the situation in Syria devolved into a protracted armed conflict," the two countries say in their application. 

Examples of violations "include the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," such as "abhorrent treatment of detainees, inhumane conditions in places of detention, enforced disappearances, the use of sexual and gender-based violence, and violence against children." 

They also refer to the use of chemical weapons by Assad's government during the civil war. 

"It is the Dutch government's position that there is ample evidence demonstrating that Syria has committed serious human rights violations against Syrian citizens on a grand scale," Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government said in a statement on Monday. 

The legal bid also coincides with regional efforts to start ushering Syria back into the diplomatic fold, for instance with the Assad regime's suspension from the Arab League being lifted. For around a decade, most of Syria's neighbors had tried to isolate Assad's regime in response to the conflict.

Syria: Bashar Assad returns to the international stage

Seeking longer trial, and emergency order to halt abuses

As well as trying to convince the ICJ to become the first international court to make a legal finding on the alleged state use of torture in Syria, a process that could take years, the Netherlands and Canada are also seeking an emergency ICJ order to compel Syria to halt any such practices now.

That decision could be reached much more quickly, potentially within weeks.

Canada and the Netherlands argue that the ICJ has jurisdiction because of two international treaties that all three governments have signed. 

The first is the ICJ Statute's article 36, paragraph 1, which states that the court's jurisdiction can encompass any complaints brought to it by any signatory about any other signatory. 

The second is article 30, paragraph 1 of the Convention Against Torture, which states that all signatories shall ensure that acts of torture, as well as attempted torture and complicity in torture, are criminal offenses under their domestic law.

Similar Syrian cases being tried in third countries, like Germany

Western countries made several attempts over several years to secure a UN Security Council resolution referring potential Syrian war crimes and President Bashar al-Assad to the International Criminal Court instead. 

That court, also based in The Hague, prosecutes individuals accused of such offenses. 

However, permanent Security Council member Russia blocked these efforts and in 2020 Canada and the Netherlands elected to start exploring alternative avenues. 

Some third countries have also started making use of their universal jurisdiction for war crimes to try to prosecute Syrian suspects. This is the idea that their domestic courts can have jurisdiction to try war crimes committed anywhere in the world, even if the alleged victims and perpetrators hailed from another country.

The phenomenon is not new and has also been used to try cases in Germany against Rwandans, and former members of Islamist terror group calling itself the Islamic State, among others, but such examples didn't usually concern people connected to a still-sitting national government.

Deutschland I Ehemaliger syrischer Geheimdienstoffizier Anwar Raslan verurteilt
A court in Koblenz, Germany last year convicted a former Syrian intelligence officer who worked in a prison Image: Thomas Frey/POOL/AFp/Getty Images

So far, there has only been one conviction of a former Syrian state official in a third-country court, in Germany in 2021 against a former member of Syria's secret servicesA Palestinian was also convicted this year in Germany for his role fighting for Syria's government forces.  

msh/jcg (AFP, Reuters)