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Netherlands and Canada sue Syria for torture in top UN court

On Monday, the Netherlands and Canada filed a joint complaint with the United Nations’ highest judicial authority against Syria, alleging that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had tortured thousands of civilians in violation of a convention of the UN. The two believe that Syria has “committed countless violations of international law” and call on the ICJ to apply temporary measures compelling Damascus to end a campaign of systematic torture targeting all those who oppose the government throughout throughout the country’s protracted civil war. Three years ago, the Dutch proclaimed their intention to hold Syria accountable for what they called “horrendous crimes”, sending a diplomatic note to the Assad government asking for negotiations under the Convention of United Nations Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2021, Canada became a member of the group working on this issue.

The treaty signed in 1984 mandates mediation between the parties to the dispute before any legal action can be brought before the international tribunal in The Hague. According to the lawsuit, this procedure was unsuccessful. The regime has been accused of systematic and serious human rights atrocities against its own people since 2011, according to the Netherlands and Canada. “Syrian civilians have been tortured, murdered, disappeared, attacked with poison gas or lost everything when they fled for their lives,” Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a statement. The report of the United Nations Impartial and Independent International Mechanism on Syria, which was established to investigate war crimes, is cited in the complaint. However, Russia has obstructed efforts to establish a special court to prosecute these crimes. Russian mercenaries have been accused of targeting civilian areas as President Vladimir Putin has backed Assad for the past decade.

As Syria tries to restore diplomatic relations, pressure on the international community to do something to hold the country accountable has grown. Syria’s membership in the Arab League was reinstated last month after a 12-year suspension. Although international attempts have so far failed, several regime leaders have been convicted and sentenced in domestic courts. Germany has convicted several former regime leaders for torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction. The men had all submitted asylum applications to the German government.

French judges gave the green light last month to three former high-ranking members of the regime to face prosecution for crimes against humanity related to the deaths of two Syrian nationals with dual French nationality. They are not detained by the French authorities. The complaint filed by the Netherlands and Canada is only the second case alleging violations of the convention since 1984. Belgium filed a protest against Senegal in 2009, claiming the West African nation had breached the treaty because she had refused to prosecute the former exile. President of Chad, Hissène Habré. After waiting three years, the ICJ finally ordered Habré to face justice in Senegal. While in prison for life for the murder of nearly 40,000 people, he contracted COVID-19 and died in 2021.

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