The Netherlands takes first step in holding Syria’s torturers to account

The Dutch Foreign Ministry says it will hold Syria responsible for "gross human rights violations" in a process that could make its way to the UN's International Court of Justice.

al-monitor Attorney Patrick Kroker (C) and co-plaintiffs Wassim Mukdad (L) and Hussein Ghrer (R) answer journalists' questions outside the courtroom during a break in a trial against two Syrian defendants accused of state-sponsored torture in Syria, on April 23, 2020 in Koblenz, Germany. Prime suspect Anwar Raslan, an alleged former colonel in Syrian state security, stands accused of carrying out crimes against humanity while in charge of the Al-Khatib detention center in Damascus between April 29, 2011, and Sept. 7, 2012. Fellow defendant Eyad al-Gharib, 43, is accused of being an accomplice to crimes against humanity, having helped to arrest protesters and deliver them to Al-Khatib in the autumn of 2011.  Photo by THOMAS LOHNES/AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 18, 2020

The Netherlands is laying the groundwork for a case against Syria at the United Nations' highest court, announcing today it will be holding the Syrian government responsible for the widely documented human rights violations carried out inside its torture chambers. 

“The Assad regime has committed horrific crimes time after time. The evidence is overwhelming. There must be consequences,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in a statement.

The Dutch government sent a diplomatic note to the Syrian government today reminding Damascus of its obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and requesting negotiations over its violations. 

By invoking the torture convention, of which both countries are signatories, the Netherlands can propose to submit the case to arbitration should negotiations with Syria fail. If that doesn’t work, the Dutch can then refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. 

It’s important to manage expectations, said Roger Lu Phillips, legal director at the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. The International Court of Justice, which only hears disputes among states, doesn’t have the authority to impose criminal sentences and victims’ testimonies are unlikely to be heard by the court.  

Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won’t be the named defendant, the case could succeed in further isolating him on the world stage. 

“It could find that there’s a state policy of torture, which is the practice of authoritarian regimes, not those that should be accepted into the international community,” said Phillips. 

There could be a symbolic recognition of wrongdoing, much like the way Serbia's government was held responsible by the court in 2007 for failing to prevent the genocide at Srebrenica. A judgment on Syria could also further embolden foreign governments to impose sanctions, as well as help establish a basis for extradition of Assad and Cabinet officials once they are no longer in power, Phillips said.  

Mai El-Sadany, the managing director and the legal and judicial director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, acknowledges there are challenges in enforcing a potential International Court of Justice judgment but said, "The very process of signaling an intent to bring this case achieves a form of accountability."

“This is the Netherlands reminding the international community that we can’t normalize torture,” she said. “That even though Syria is no longer in the headlines as it was years ago, this is something we can’t accept.” 

More traditional avenues for accountability aren’t available in the case of Syria. Finding justice in Syrian government-run courts is out of the question, and Assad’s veto-wielding patrons on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, have blocked referrals to the International Criminal Court. 

The Netherlands is the latest European government to provide some hope of justice for Syria's victims. A landmark torture trial against two suspected members of Assad’s intelligence services is ongoing in Koblenz, Germany. Federal prosecutors brought the case under the country’s universal jurisdiction law, which allows for the prosecution of grave crimes committed in another country, regardless of whether the suspects or victims are German nationals. 

In June, Germany arrested a doctor accused of carrying out torture in one of the Syrian regime’s notorious detention centers. Both Germany and France have also issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, the chief of Syria's air force intelligence directorate. He and eight other high-ranking officials are the subject of a criminal complaint filed by a group of former Syrian prisoners in Germany. 

Human rights monitors and former detainees have compiled an overwhelming body of evidence to be used in these cases. Since the uprising began in 2011, the Syrian government is believed to have extrajudicially executed thousands of people considered disloyal to the regime and tortured countless more.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which briefs the UN on potential rights abuses, has documented 72 different methods of torture used against detainees in government-run prisons, including the use of scalding hot water, electric shocks and burning detainees with chemical acids and insecticides. Sexual violence, including forced nudity and rape, is also rampant in regime prisons.

After more than nine years of war, some 130,000 Syrians detained or forcibly disappeared by regime forces are still unaccounted for, the group says.

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