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Syrian regime taken to world court over mass use of torture

Syria regime taken to world court over horrific rights abuses
3 min read
12 June, 2023
Rights groups have documented mass torture and killing of detainees by the Syrian regime.
The ICJ could bring the Syrian regime to trial for torture of detainees [Getty]

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is being taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the Netherlands and Canada over torture and human rights violations, a statement from the court said on Monday.

The two countries are seeking to hold the Assad regime to account for massive rights abuses under the UN Convention against Torture, which Damascus ratified in 2004.

If the court finds it has jurisdiction, the ICJ would be the first international court to be able to make a legal finding on state use of torture in Syria.

"Syria has committed countless violations of international law, beginning at least in 2011," the ICJ, also known as the World Court, said in a statement.

It asked for emergency measures to be taken to protect those at risk of being tortured,

Canada and the Netherlands decided to act in 2020 after Russia blocked multiple efforts in the United Nations Security Council to refer a case on human rights violations in Syria to the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals for war crimes and is also based in The Hague.

The Netherlands government said it had tried to negotiate a solution to the impasse but failed, forcing it to take this alternative legal route.

"These talks have not led to a solution. In addition, Syria did not consent to the proposal for arbitration within the six-month period stipulated by the Convention. For this reason, it was decided to bring the case before the ICJ on 8 June 2023, in an effort to compel Syria to comply with its obligations under the Convention, to which Syria is itself a State Party," the Dutch government said in a statement.

"Syria has been notified of this decision in the form of a diplomatic note from the Netherlands’ Permanent Representation to the UN in Geneva. The Netherlands and Syria have had no diplomatic relations since 2011, but they are both represented at the UN in Geneva."

The Dutch action has been praised by Syrian rights lawyers and activists, who have been campaigning for years to bring the Assad regime to account for its violations of human rights. 

Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer with Guernica 37, tweeted: "Breaking!! International Court of Justice confirms that The Netherlands & Canada filed a case against #Syria under the Convention Against Torture. A heavy responsibility to have been assisting in this process which started in 2020 to push for ending breaches fight impunity!!"

Syrian rights lawyer Mazen Darwish also praised the move and the role played by Syrian civil society groups.

"Proud of the role played by the victims and the Syrian civil society in supporting the Dutch-Canadian action The International Court of Justice should immediately consider interim measures to stop the acts of torture that the Syrian government is systematically carrying out," he tweeted.

The Syrian regime is believed to have detained more than 130,000 people since the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in 2011 with their fate unknown. Many are the disappeared believed to have been executed or to have died under torture and ill-treatment.

Reuters contributed to this story