(The Hague) – The International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings on October 10 and 11, 2023 on state-sponsored torture in Syria since 2011 are critically important for advancing justice, Human Rights Watch said today. On June 8, the Netherlands and Canada filed a case with the court alleging that Syria is violating the international Convention Against Torture.
The case cited unlawful treatment of detainees, inhumane detention conditions, enforced disappearances, sexual and gender-based violence, violence against children, and the use of chemical weapons.
The case is not a criminal proceeding against individuals but seeks a legal determination of state responsibility for torture. “The case brought by the Netherlands and Canada provides an important opportunity to scrutinize Syria’s long-standing heinous torture of countless civilians,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “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.” While the case may take several years to reach a final ruling, the Netherlands and Canada have asked the court to order provisional measures aimed at stopping ongoing violations and supporting steps necessary for future accountability proceedings. Arguments on the request for provisional measures are the subject of the hearings. Activists, torture survivors, and relatives of Syrians suspected of being detained or forcibly disappeared by the Syrian government plan to attend the hearings to support the case.
The Netherlands and Canada said “as a matter of urgency” provisional measures are needed “due to the substantial risk that torture and other [cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment] will continue unabated in Syria, including throughout the duration of proceedings before the Court.” The two countries assert that Syria has not demonstrated any intention of preventing ongoing or future violations.
The provisional measures hearings were initially scheduled for July 19 to 20, but were postponed following a request from Syria. Even with Syria’s record of serious crimes and without any indication that its abusive practices have ceased, several Arab countries have rushed to normalize relations with the government, including the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. In May, the Arab League readmitted Syria after suspending it in 2011 over its rights abuses.
The ICJ case should push governments to reevaluate any moves to resume regular relations with Syria without addressing its torture and other abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Among the provisional measures sought are for Syria to: take effective measures to cease and prevent all acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; not destroy or make inaccessible any evidence related to the underlying case; and disclose the location of burial sites of people who died from torture.
The two countries also asked the court to order a number of detention-related provisional measures “[i]n light of the greatly enhanced risk for detainees of being subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” These include releasing anyone arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, ending all forms of incommunicado detention, and allowing access for independent monitors and medical personnel to both official and unofficial detention sites.
The countries also asked the court to require Syria to report to it on steps taken to carry out the provisional measures order “no later than six months from its issuance and every six months thereafter pending the resolution of the dispute.” In their oral arguments, the two countries should specifically ask to make the reports public, Human Rights Watch said. Past ICJ practice suggests that a decision on provisional measures can be delivered within weeks. A provisional measures order would be legally binding on Syria but would not prejudge the merits of the allegations that Syria has violated provisions of the Convention Against Torture. Syria has rejected the allegations.
The Netherlands and Canada have asked the court in its final judgment–among other relief–to declare that Syria has and continues to breach its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, that it must cease any ongoing violations, offer assurances and guarantees that it won’t resume violations of the convention, ensure that those responsible are held to account in fair proceedings, and provide reparations to victims. Since 2011, Human Rights Watch and others have extensively documented the arbitrary detention and torture of tens of thousands of people by Syrian government forces in what amount to crimes against humanity. In August 2013, a military defector code-named Caesar smuggled photos out of Syria that provide irrefutable evidence of widespread torture, starvation, beatings, and disease in Syrian government detention facilities. As recently as July, a UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that Syrian authorities continue to detain and forcibly disappear thousands of people using an extensive network of detention facilities throughout the country. Detainees remain at risk of death from torture and horrific detention conditions, Human Rights Watch said. Despite widespread condemnation, the Syrian government has done little to stem the use of torture by its agents, Human Rights Watch said. In fact, the UN Refugee Agency maintains that conditions in Syria prevent it from promoting orfacilitating refugee returns. Human Rights Watch has documented that Syrian security agencies arbitrarily detained, kidnapped, tortured, and killed refugees who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021. Comprehensive justice for these and other unchecked atrocities in Syria has been largely elusive. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. And in 2014, Russia and China blocked efforts at the UN Security Council to give the court a mandate over serious crimes in Syria. Two years later, UN member countries responded by setting up an investigative team to gather, analyze, and secure evidence of serious crimes for future prosecutions. Efforts to bring individuals responsible for torture and other atrocities in Syria before European courts have been starting to bear fruit, including in German, Swedish, and French courts.
The ICJ case could trigger further proceedings and inform ongoing prosecutions against individual suspects in national courts, Human Rights Watch said. Syria can be brought before the ICJ under the Convention Against Torture because it is a party to the convention. States parties to the treaty, including the Netherlands and Canada, may bring a suit against Syria even if they have not been specially affected by the alleged violations.
The Netherlands announced on September 18, 2020, that it had notified Syria of its intention to hold its government accountable for torture under the convention. Canada joined these efforts in March 2021. Before the two countries could formally initiate ICJ proceedings in June, they had to meet the jurisdictional requirements required by the convention, including a required negotiation and arbitration phase. “The hearings put back into sharp focus the horrific fact that Syrians continue to face torture and that more is needed to stop these violations and ensure accountability for the Assad government’s atrocities,” Jarrah said. “The case at the World Court should propel greater international action toward justice for victims and survivors of grave abuses committed in Syria over the last decade.” .
Read the full article at the original website