International Court of Justice orders Syria to prevent torture in milestone decision

The Hague — In a landmark decision on 16 November 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a directive compelling Syria to take immediate action to prevent acts of torture and other human rights abuses. This significant ruling follows a case filed on 8 June 2023, by the Netherlands and Canada, accusing Syria of violating the international Convention Against Torture. The order, legally binding on Syria, is a crucial step towards protecting the rights of civilians in the war-torn country, according to a statement released by Human Rights Watch.

The case, which is not a criminal proceeding against individuals but rather seeks a determination of state responsibility for torture, prompted the ICJ’s decision to issue “provisional measures”. These measures aim to halt ongoing violations and support actions necessary for future legal proceedings.

Human Rights Watch has applauded the ICJ’s order, emphasizing its potential impact on the lives of Syrians in detention centers across the country. Balkees Jarrah, Associate International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “With systematic and widespread torture still a reality in Syria, the implementation of this ruling will be a matter of life or death for many Syrians.”

The ICJ’s provisional measures instruct the Syrian government to take all necessary steps within its power to prevent acts of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Additionally, Syria is ordered to preserve any evidence related to allegations of acts within the scope of the Convention Against Torture.

The decision comes after the ICJ considered reports from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which found “reasonable grounds to believe that the [Syrian] Government continued to commit acts of torture and ill treatment.” However, the court did not order Syria to report on the implementation of these measures.

The ICJ will now proceed towards a full hearing on the merits of the case, a process that may take several years. Importantly, the provisional measures order does not prejudge the merits of the allegations against Syria.