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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

UN’s high court orders Syria to stop torture 

The Netherlands and Canada claim that Syria has abused thousands of people since the start of the civil war in 2011, in violation of the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture. 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Judges at the International Court of Justice told Syria on Thursday to stop the practice of torture, in the first international case stemming from the country’s civil war. 

"Syria must … take all measures within its power to prevent acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the court's president, Joan E. Donoghue, said in reading out the decision on the preliminary request. 

Provisional measures issued by the court are legally binding but the judicial body has no enforcement mechanism. Last year, the court ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, but that conflict persists.

Canada and the Netherlands say that the regime of Bashar Assad has violated the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture, filing a complaint against Syria in June

Damascus snubbed hearings on the measures last month, informing the court by letter the day before that it would not participate in the proceedings.

“The non-appearance of a party has a negative impact on the sound administration of justice,” Judge Donoghue said, reading the decision. 

According to court rules, the proceedings can move forward despite a country’s absence. The hearings were initially scheduled for July but were postponed for three months at Syria’s request.  

The Netherlands and Canada brought a complaint to the court earlier this year, following several years of attempted mediation with Syria. Under the convention, countries must first try to resolve their dispute by negotiation and arbitration. 

The government of Bashar al-Assad has “delayed and obfuscated at every turn,” Dutch lawyer Annemarieke Kiinzli told the 15-judge panel during the October hearing. The trio exchanged more than 60 official communications and held two face-to-face meetings in the United Arab Emirates over the past two years. 

Two of the 15 judges disagreed with the decision. The Chinese and Russian judges issued dissenting opinions. According to Judge Xue Hanqin, the court lacks jurisdiction because there are no Canadian or Dutch victims. Kirill Gevorgian, who recently lost his reelection bid to the bench, was unconvinced that the parties had tried hard enough to resolve their differences via negotiations. 

What began as peaceful protests in 2011 against Assad as part of a widespread democratic movement in the region has turned into a bloody conflict that’s left more than 300,000 people dead and more than 6 million displaced. The U.N.’s own body looking into allegations of crimes committed during the conflict — the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism — has documented widespread torture against anyone the regime sees as a threat, as well as the use of chemical weapons against civilians. 

Syria is now trying to normalize international relations. Earlier this year, the country returned to the Arab League after having its membership suspended for 12 years.

Other attempts to bring accountability in Syria have been blocked by Russia, which has remained loyal to Assad during the bloody conflict. Russia thwarted attempts to establish a special tribunal to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria and refused to back a proposal to send the situation to the International Criminal Court. Syria has not signed the Rome Statue, which underpins the court, leaving the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes without jurisdiction unless granted by the U.N. Security Council. 

Some European countries, including Germany, France and the Netherlands, have charged various regime officials using a legal concept known as universal jurisdiction. A former member of the Syrian secret police was convicted by a German court of facilitating torture in 2021.  A senior Syrian official was also convicted by a German court of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. 

A hearing on the merits will likely be held sometime next year.

Follow @mollyquell
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