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ICJ Begins Court Proceedings Against Syria Under the Torture Convention

ICJ Begins Court Proceedings Against Syria Under the Torture Convention

Topic: International Justice 
Region: Asia 
Adhil Saifudheen
Team International Justice Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence.

Introduction and Background 

On October 10, 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) started hearing the case concerning the Application of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Canada and the Netherlands v. Syrian Arab Republic). The proceedings were initiated by Netherlands back in 2020, and subsequently Canada joined the proceedings in 2021, invoking a legal dispute under the Torture Convention for previous and ongoing torture committed by Syrian government and intelligence apparatus.


Back in 2011, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa witnessed people’s uprising to achieve a democratic political system. The Syrian government responded with massive and systemized use of State violence and torture to crush Syrian people uprising against the regime, which eventually resulted in a prolong civil war. The human rights organizations and UN independent commission reports have repeatedly published reports demonstrating evidence of systematic and widespread torture committed against the political dissidents and protestors in Syria. This proceedings is a part of global efforts of international and Syrian human rights groups seeking accountability for systematic human rights abuses committed by Syria.



Process of the ICJ Proceedings

The Syrian government is a signatory to both Statute of ICJ and Torture Convention, and ICJ has the jurisdiction to adjudicate the merits of torture allegations due to their assent to Art 30 of the Torture Convention. The proceedings would likely take years to conclude, given the fact that Syrian government is non-responsive to the ICJ proceedings. At present, the ICJ is currently hearing the arguments on provisional measures that may give relief, till the final determination of the matter. On the day of oral hearing held on 10th October 2023, the delegation of Netherlands and Canada argued requesting ICJ to issue provisional measures to cease and prevent ongoing acts of torture and other inhumane treatment committed in Syria. The provisional relief by ICJ, in principally only prevents ongoing or future acts of torture, but it does not determine the legality or wrongfulness of the allegations of torture committed by Syria. However, there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating the systematic and widespread acts of torture and other cruel acts committed by Syrian government, which would be presented by the delegation of Netherlands and Syria during the merits hearing, and as a result there is high likelihood that ICJ may rule against the Syrian government. 


The decision by ICJ is binding among the parties, and the Syrian government is legally obligated under international law to comply with the ruling dictum regardless of its outcomes. In case, if Syria refuses to comply with the ruling, the UN Security Council has legal power to enforce the ICJ rulings on the request of the other party. But since Syria is a close ally of Russia, there is less likelihood of securing a UN Security Council Resolution in any scenario, as Russia would undoubtedly veto the resolution.


Conclusion: Impact of the ICJ Ruling in Seeking Accountability for torture in Syria 

The ICJ’s decision could have a far-fetching impact in achieving accountability for human rights abuses and international crimes committed in Syria. There are already organizations, that are working various measures including universal jurisdiction to invoke accountability against State actors involved in the torture, but the ICJ decision could undoubtedly magnify and intensify such global efforts.

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