On September 18, 2020, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Netherlands, Stef Blok, announced that the Netherlands had taken a decision to hold Syria responsible under international law for gross human rights violations and torture under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN Convention against Torture).
The Netherlands has sent a diplomatic note to the Syrian government reminding it of its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture and opening the door for a dialogue concerning the violations. As both countries are parties to the UN Convention against Torture, the Netherlands can propose the case for arbitration if the negotiations fail. Similarly, if the arbitration fails, the Netherlands can then proceed with a case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. Syria is yet to respond.
According to the statement released by the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Netherlands, over the past decade, at least 200,000 Syrian civilians have been killed in the conflict in Syria. (This data is very conservative as already in 2016, the UN assessed the killings at 400,000). Over 100,000 believed to be missing. More than six million Syrians are internally displaced and 5.5 million have fled the country.
Over the recent years, we have seen several damning reports on the atrocities in Syria, including by the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syria Arab Republic (IICoISAR) and International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM). The IICoISAR was the first monitoring mechanism for Syria, established by the UN Human Rights Council, for the observance of all human rights violations since 2011. The IIIM was established by the UN General Assembly to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses and to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law standards, in national, regional or international courts or tribunals that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes, in accordance with international law.”
While both bodies have been collecting the evidence of the atrocities, they do not have the power to bring to account those responsible for the atrocities. In May 2014, the UN Security Council voted on a draft resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The resolution was cosponsored by 65 countries and received 13 votes in favor. Two of the permanent members, Russia and China, vetoed the draft resolution. Therefore, the draft was not adopted, and the ICC did not gain the necessary jurisdiction to initiate investigations into the atrocities in Syria. While the 13 members of the UN Security Council who voted in favor emphasized that the situation in Syria would not resolve itself and required external intervention, Russia and China were more optimistic that the atrocities would cease without UN Security Council or ICC action. The representative of the Russian Federation, Mr Vitaly Churkin, called for a political solution, rather than a judicial one. Russia and China believed that the Syrian government could resolve these issues without external intervention.
However, a political solution has not helped. This is why the Netherlands is now taking a more pro-active approach. As Minister Stef Blok emphasized “As the evidence continues to mount, the Netherlands has decided to formally hold the Syrian state accountable.” The coming months will show whether negotiations will prove effective and whether the case will need to go before the ICJ.