Thursday marks the day when the highest court in the UN will deliver its ruling on an accused Syrian torture program, reportedly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. This represents the initial international case addressing the brutal civil war that commenced in 2011.
Canada and the Netherlands have called on the International Court of Justice to “urgently” order a halt to torture in Syrian jails, arguing that “every day counts” for those still in detention.
The ruling comes a day after France issued an international arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused of complicity in crimes against humanity over chemical attacks in 2013.
In October, judges at the ICJ in The Hague heard searing testimony from Syrian detainees describing gang rape, mutilation and punishment involving contorting people into a car tyre and beating them.
The court has been asked to issue “provisional measures” to stop torture and arbitrary detention in Syria, open prisons to outside inspectors and provide information to families about the fate of their loved ones.
Torture in Syria is “pervasive and entrenched… and continues today”, Canada and the Netherlands wrote in their submission to the ICJ.
Victims endure “unimaginable physical and mental pain and suffering as a result of acts of torture, including abhorrent treatment in detention… and sexual and gender-based violence”, the submission added.
“Tens of thousands have died, or are presumed dead, as a result of torture,” the two countries added, citing a report from the UN Human Rights Council.
Damascus snubbed the October hearing but has previously dismissed the case as “disinformation and lies” and said the allegations “lack the slightest degree of credibility”.
“It is our sincere belief that the lives and well-being of Syrians are at stake and require the court’s immediate attention,” said Rene Lefeber, top representative for the Netherlands, at the hearing on October 10.
While there have been individual war crimes cases linked to the Syrian war in some countries, there has long been frustration in Western capitals at the lack of any wider plan for international justice.
The Dutch first launched a bid in September 2020 to hold Syria responsible for alleged breaches of the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which Damascus is a signatory.
Canada joined the case the following March.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) — a war crimes court which, like the ICJ, is based in The Hague — has been unable to deal with Syria because Damascus never ratified the Rome Statute, the tribunal’s founding treaty.
The situation has gained renewed attention after the return of Assad to the international fold in May, when he attended an Arab League summit.