The Netherlands and Canada are bringing a case against Syria’s government to the United Nations’ highest court on Tuesday. They are accusing Damascus of extensive human rights abuses against its own citizens. In June, when they initiated the case at the International Court of Justice, both countries stated that since 2011, Syrians have endured widespread torture, murder, sexual assault, forced disappearances, and large-scale chemical weapon attacks.
“Twelve years on, human rights violations at the hands of the Syrian regime persist,” they added.
Syria’s conflict started with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad’s government in March 2011 but quickly morphed into a full-blown civil war after the government’s brutal crackdown on the protesters. The tide turned in Assad’s favor against rebel groups in 2015, when Russia provided key military backing to Syria, as well as Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
In a written filing to the court, the Netherlands and Canada said torture in Syria includes “severe beatings and whippings, including with fists, electric cables, metal and wooden sticks, chains and rifle butts; administering electric shocks; burning body parts; pulling out nails and teeth; mock executions; and simulated drownings.”
Two days of hearings opening on Tuesday focus on the Dutch and Canadian request for judges to issue an interim order for Syria to “immediately cease the torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of its people,” while the case proceeds through the world court, a process likely to take years.
Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said the case “provides an important opportunity to scrutinize Syria’s long-standing heinous torture of countless civilians.”
Jarrah said in a statement the 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.”
In their filing with the court, Canada, and the Netherlands level the blame directly at Assad’s government.
They argued that consistent uses of different torture methods at different locations throughout Syria “demonstrates the systematic and widespread nature of the practice, which extends from the highest levels of the Syrian government.”
Orders by the court are legally binding, but are not always adhered to by countries involved in proceedings. Last year, the judges issued such an order in another case calling on Moscow to cease hostilities in Ukraine.
Canada and the Netherlands are accusing Assad’s administration of breaching the United Nations Convention Against Torture and argue that the convention’s conflict resolution mechanism gives the Hague-based court jurisdiction to hear the case.
The war in Syria has so far killed half a million people, wounded hundreds of thousands and destroyed many parts of the country. It has displaced half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million, including more than 5 million who are refugees outside Syria.