The Netherlands and Canada are taking Syria’s government to the United Nations’ highest court on Tuesday, accusing Damascus of massive human rights violations against its own people.
Launching the case at the International Court of Justice in June, the two said: “Since 2011, Syrians have been tortured, murdered, sexually assaulted, forcibly disappeared and subjected to chemical weapon attacks on a mass scale.
“Twelve years on, human rights violations at the hands of the Syrian regime persist.”
Syria did not attend the hearing Tuesday, the delegation’s seats in court were empty as the case got underway.
The court’s president, Joan E. Donoghue said: “The court regrets the non-appearance of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
A group of Syrians gathered outside the court before the hearing, carrying photos of people they claim are victims of torture and enforced disappearance, and holding banners emblazoned with the text “End torture now!” and “Where are they?”.
Syria’s conflict started with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad’s government in March 2011 but quickly morphed into a full-blown civil war after the government’s brutal crackdown on the protesters.
The tide turned in Mr Assad’s favour against rebel groups in 2015, when Russia provided key military backing to Syria, as well as Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
In a written filing to the court, the Netherlands and Canada said torture in Syria includes “severe beatings and whippings, including with fists, electric cables, metal and wooden sticks, chains and rifle butts; administering electric shocks; burning body parts; pulling out nails and teeth; mock executions; and simulated drownings”.
Two days of hearings, which open on Tuesday, focus on the Dutch and Canadian request for judges to issue an interim order for Syria to “immediately cease the torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of its people,” while the case proceeds through the world court, a process likely to take years.
Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said the case “provides an important opportunity to scrutinise Syria’s long-standing heinous torture of countless civilians”.
Mr Jarrah said in a statement the court “should urgently put in place measures to prevent further abuses against Syrians who continue to suffer under nightmarish conditions and whose lives are in serious jeopardy”.
In their filing with the court, Canada and the Netherlands level the blame directly on Mr Assad’s government.
They argued that consistent uses of different torture methods at different locations throughout Syria “demonstrates the systematic and widespread nature of the practice, which extends from the highest levels of the Syrian government”.
Orders by the court are legally binding but are not always adhered to by countries involved in proceedings.
Last year, the judges issued such an order in another case calling on Moscow to cease hostilities in Ukraine.
Canada and the Netherlands are accusing the Assad administration of breaching the United Nations Convention Against Torture and argue that the convention’s conflict resolution mechanism gives the Hague-based court jurisdiction to hear the case.
The war in Syria has so far killed half a million people, wounded hundreds of thousands and destroyed many parts of the country.
It has displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, including more than 5 million who are refugees outside Syria.