The Dutch government has announced it is seeking to hold Syria responsible under international law for “gross human rights violations”, in a process that could ultimately trigger a case at the United Nations’ highest court.
The Dutch initiative, invoking the UN Convention against Torture, is the latest attempt to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government accountable amid widespread reports it is committing serious crimes against its citizens against the backdrop of the country’s grinding civil war.
“The Assad regime has not hesitated to crack down hard on its own population, using torture and chemical weapons, and bombing hospitals,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in a statement on Friday.
“The victims of these serious crimes must obtain justice, and we are pursuing that end by calling the perpetrators to account,” Blok said.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syrian authorities arrested approximately 1.2 million people since the country’s conflict began in March 2011. As of the beginning of June, 12,325 were documented as having died under torture in Syrian government prisons, the SNHR said in a report released earlier this year.
At least 12,989 are still imprisoned or missing, their fates unknown, according to the report. Another 16,000 are missing in detention by other factions in Syria’s war.
A UN Security Council resolution backed by more than 60 countries to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court was vetoed by Russia and China in May 2014.
The Dutch initiative was triggered on Friday with a diplomatic note handed to Syrian diplomats in Geneva in which the Netherlands “reminded Syria of its international obligations” to halt violations of the torture convention and to compensate victims, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The note asked Syria to enter negotiations on the issue. If the two countries cannot resolve the dispute, the Dutch government can propose arbitration and if that fails, the Netherlands “will submit the case to an international court”, the ministry said.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the Dutch move.
“For years, thousands have been systematically starved, beaten, and tortured to their deaths in Syria’s prisons. By using the Torture Convention to demand justice for their plight, the Netherlands is standing for countless victims in an action that could ultimately trigger a case at the world’s highest court,” Balkees Jarrah, the rights group’s associate international justice director, said.