Will latest push for accountability for Syria torture succeed?

Effort by Canada and Netherlands under UN Convention Against Torture will be slow but sends strong message, experts say.

Syrian campaigner Wafa Mustafa sits between pictures of victims of the Syrian government, holding a picture of her father, outside the trial of two former Syrian intelligence officers accused of crimes against humanity, in Germany, in June 2020 [File: Thomas Lohnes/AFP]

Montreal, Canada – As the world marked 10 years since the start of the uprising in Syria last week, renewed efforts are under way to hold President Bashar al-Assad’s government accountable for abuses in the war-torn country.

Canada announced this month that it is joining the Netherlands in an international effort to seek justice under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, a process that ultimately could trigger a case at the UN’s top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

“The Syrian regime has cruelly and systematically repressed and committed crimes against its own population, causing unimaginable suffering,” the Canadian and Dutch foreign ministers, Marc Garneau and Stef Blok, said in a joint statement on March 12.

But how exactly do Canada and the Netherlands intend to hold the Syrian government accountable for torture, what does the process entail, and what could accountability look like in this case?

Long road

Seeking negotiations under the Convention Against Torture – which Syria, Canada and the Netherlands are all parties to – is the first of a multi-step process, explained Amanda Ghahremani, an international criminal lawyer based in Canada.

The Dutch government first said in September that it sought to hold Syria responsible for “gross human rights violations” under the convention.

If Syria does not respond to the initial request for negotiations, or if those talks are not successful within a reasonable timeframe, Canada and the Netherlands can submit a request for arbitration.

Then, if no agreement on arbitration can be reached within six months, any of the parties can refer the issue to the ICJ. The court settles disputes between states. It is not a criminal court, does not issue judgments against individuals, and does not have an enforcement mechanism.

In this case, Ghahremani said the court could declare Syria to be in breach of the convention and order it to take steps to get in line with the UN framework, or award compensation on behalf of people affected by the breach.

She pointed to a 2009 case in which Belgium went to the ICJ to argue that Senegal was violating the Convention Against Torture by failing to prosecute or extradite former Chadian military ruler Hissene Habre for torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In its ruling, the court established that the parties to the convention have an obligation to each other to abide by it, Human Rights Watch has explained. The ICJ concluded that Senegal needed to take “the necessary measures to submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution, if it did not extradite Mr. Habre”.

Habre was eventually tried in a special tribunal in Senegal and sentenced to life in prison in 2016.

“This gives you an example of what the powers of the court are, what it can do, and then … how it can push them to even go so far as prosecuting an individual if that’s how they need to stop violating the treaty,” Ghahremani said.

But she said the process will be “time-consuming” and “slow” – and in the case of Syria, it remains unclear whether the Canadian-Dutch effort would be successful, particularly since al-Assad’s government has denied accusations of widespread rights abuses.

“But certainly, it does send a message,” Ghahremani said.

Torture reports

The office of Syria’s permanent representative to the UN did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment in time for publication.

In September, after the Netherlands announced it would seek negotiations under the torture convention, Syria’s foreign ministry rejected the effort, saying the Dutch government “is the last one who has the right to talk about human rights”.

The Syrian government has denied it tortures prisoners. Since the war began, it has rejected attempts to hold it accountable for abuses, instead accusing human rights groups, UN experts, foreign governments and others of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

Nevertheless, Reem Salahi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said since an effort to bring Syria to the International Criminal Court failed at the UN Security Council in 2014, countries – particularly in Europe – have sought creative avenues to seek justice.

Syrian children carry pictures of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, who activists say was tortured and killed by security forces, at a rally in Beirut in 2011 [File: Jamal Saidi/Reuters]

Police in the United Kingdom recently launched an investigation into Asma al-Assad, the Syrian president’s wife, who is also a British national, for allegedly inciting “terrorist” acts in Syria.

A German court last month sentenced a former Syrian intelligence officer to more than four years in prison for complicity in state-sponsored torture. Another defendant accused of crimes against humanity is also on trial.

Salahi said if the Dutch and Canadian effort ends up at the ICJ, there will be no shortage of evidence of torture in Syria, as rights groups have documented atrocities for years. A Syrian military police defector known as Caesar smuggled tens of thousands of images of torture victims out of the country in 2014.

Most recently, this month the UN Human Rights Council said in a report that “the use of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, including through sexual violence, involuntary or enforced disappearance and summary executions, has been a hallmark of the conflict” in Syria.

Torture was used to extract confessions from detainees, and the UN said “at least 20 different horrific methods of torture” were employed by the government, including electric shocks, burning body parts, pulling out nails and teeth, mock executions, and suspending people from one or two limbs for long periods of time.

“Torture methods were both physical and mental, and had severe long-term consequences for detainees, and frequently led to their death. Inhuman conditions documented across government detention centres often in and of themselves amounted to torture,” the report found.

Global attention

With no enforcement mechanism, the ICJ cannot issue arrest warrants or bring suspects to trial, but a ruling would represent an international rebuke of the Syrian government and acknowledgement for the victims.

It would be “a very important tool because it will be happening at one of the highest levels, showing that Syria is engaging in extreme torture and human rights violations,” Salahi told Al Jazeera.

“It will be the first ruling in the international court against the Syrian state on this basis, and it can support additional efforts that are happening in national courts through universal jurisdiction. It can be used as the grounds or the basis to call for another referral to the ICC.”

Bessma Momani, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, agreed that countries and other stakeholders have been forced to find unique ways to demand accountability in Syria – and the push by Canada and the Netherlands is one such attempt.

While the process may be long, in the meantime, it helps bring the war in Syria back into focus. “It’s useful because it attracts global attention to a crisis that, unfortunately, a lot of people have gotten tired of talking about,” Momani told Al Jazeera.

“I think the Assad regime strategy has always been about running down the clock. In other words, continue to evade, eventually, the world will give up … It’s important, I think, also to remind the Assad regime that the world hasn’t forgotten.”

Source: Al Jazeera