THE HAGUE (AP) — The Netherlands and Canada jointly filed a lawsuit against Syria on Monday in the United Nations’ highest court, alleging that Bashar Assad’s regime tortured thousands of civilians, in violation of a UN convention.
Both men claim that Syria has ‘committed countless violations of international law’ and want the International Court of Justice to issue interim measures ordering Damascus to end an alleged program of widespread torture against anyone opposed to the government during the country’s long civil war.
The Dutch first announced a plan three years ago to hold Syria accountable for what they called “horrendous crimes”, asking Assad’s government by diplomatic note to start negotiations in the framework of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Canada joined the process in 2021.
The 1984 treaty obliges the parties to enter into mediation before bringing the dispute before a court based in The Hague. The complaint says the process failed.
The Netherlands and Canada say there is ample evidence that the regime has engaged in gross systemic human rights abuses against its own people since 2011. foreign Wopke Hoekstra in a statement.
The complaint cites the findings of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria, the United Nations body responsible for investigating crimes committed during the conflict. Attempts to create a special tribunal to prosecute these crimes have, however, been blocked by Russia. President Vladimir Putin has backed Assad through more than a decade of violence and Russian mercenaries have been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilians.
Pressure has intensified on the international community to do something to hold Syria to account as the country moves to normalize diplomatic relations. Last month, the Arab League rejoined Syria, ending a 12-year suspension of the regional union.
“We looked creatively for ways to bring justice to the victims,” Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer working on the case for the Netherlands, told The Associated Press.
While international efforts have so far been unsuccessful, domestic courts have convicted a number of regime officials in their own courts. Invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, Germany convicted several former regime officials of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes. All the men had applied for asylum in Germany.
Last month, French judges cleared the way for three former senior regime officials to stand trial for crimes against humanity for the murder of two Syrian-French nationals. The trio is not in French custody.
The Dutch and Canadian complaint is only the second time that a case alleging breaches of the 1984 convention has come before a tribunal based in The Hague. In 2009, Belgium filed a lawsuit against Senegal, arguing that by refusing to prosecute Chad’s exiled former president, Hissène Habré, the West African country was failing to meet its obligations under the treaty.
Three years later, the ICJ ordered Senegal to prosecute Habré without delay. He died of COVID-19 in 2021 while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity for the deaths of some 40,000 people.