On Tuesday, Syria refused to attend a hearing at the highest court of the United Nations, where the Netherlands and Canada presented accusations against Damascus for carrying out a systematic and prolonged campaign of torture against its citizens.
The focus of the hearing was on a preliminary request from the Netherlands and Canada asking the court to impose immediate orders, known as provisional measures, on Syria. The aim is to stop torture and protect potential victims while their case against Damascus, accusing them of violating the torture convention, moves forward in the International Court of Justice.
Rene Lefeber, a lawyer representing the Dutch government, emphasized the importance of each day.
Lefeber highlighted the urgent necessity for the court to take immediate action in response to the ongoing and repeated use of torture in Syria. This action should aim to address the threats posed to people’s lives, as well as their physical and mental well-being.
The administration of Syria President Bashar al-Assad is being accused by Canada and the Netherlands of violating the United Nations Convention Against Torture. They claim that the conflict resolution mechanism of the convention grants jurisdiction to the court based in The Hague to handle this case.
The conflict in Syria began in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrations against Assad’s regime. However, it escalated into a violent civil war following the government’s harsh suppression of the protesters. The situation took a turn in Assad’s favor in 2015, when Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah provided significant military support to Syria’s government, tilting the balance against rebel groups.
Canadian government lawyer Teresa Crockett underscored the request’s urgency, saying that “Syria has systematically committed torture and subjected its population to other ill treatment on a massive scale. Since 2011, tens of thousands of have died while in Syrian custody.”
She stated that if Syria is not monitored, it will persist in committing violations.
When the case was presented in the court’s Great Hall of Justice, the group of 15 judges were confronted with a line of vacant white chairs that were designated for Syria’s representatives.
Joan E. Donoghue, the president of the court, expressed disappointment over the absence of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Alan Kessel, the leader of Canada’s legal team, stated that Syria’s choice to not take part in the current proceedings does not provide protection against the court’s instructions.
Kessel informed reporters outside the court that Syria had been offered a chance to be present on this occasion, but unfortunately, they chose not to attend. However, it is important to note that this does not imply the absence of the entire world.
He added that both Canada and the Netherlands share the belief that the Assad government should take responsibility and put an end to the widespread torture occurring in that nation.
A gathering of Syrians assembled outside the court prior to the trial, displaying images of individuals they allege have been subjected to torture and forced disappearance. They also held banners with the messages “Put an end to torture immediately!” and “Where have they gone?”
Yasmen Almashan, aged 43, revealed that she suffered the loss of five siblings in Syria.
“We just asked for freedom,” she said. “Assad’s regime is criminal. This trial maybe (will) bring a little bit of justice.”
In June, the Netherlands and Canada submitted a written statement to the court detailing the acts of torture in Syria. These acts encompass severe physical assaults involving beatings, whippings, and the use of various objects such as fists, electric cables, metal and wooden sticks, chains, and rifle butts. Additionally, the torture methods include administering electric shocks, burning body parts, pulling out nails and teeth, conducting mock executions, and simulating drownings.
Lefeber brought attention to another form of torture called “dulab,” where a person is coerced into a car tire and subjected to beatings, often lasting for several hours. He also mentioned the utilization of sexual and gender-related violence as a means of torture that specifically targets individuals of all genders and ages, including women, girls, men, and boys.
Opportunity for scrutiny
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.”
Lefeber pointed out the evident prevalence of torture in Syria by highlighting the significant number of victims and the uniformity in the methods of torture used across the country.
There is no doubt that this practice of torture and ill treatment is widespread throughout the Syrian government, considering the recurring patterns observed across the country.
The court’s orders have legal force, but countries involved in proceedings do not always comply with them. In a previous case, the judges issued a similar order to Moscow, urging them to stop the fighting in Ukraine.