Payam Akhavan is professor of international law at McGill University and a former UN war crimes prosecutor at The Hague. Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada
It has been nearly two months since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces captured the besieged city of Aleppo, with support from Russia and Iran, wreaking carnage upon the civilian population and thrusting the Syrian crisis back onto the front pages of newspapers.
Attempts to give victims of these atrocities some measure of justice have repeatedly failed. Efforts by the United Nations Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been blocked by Russia's veto power. But the question of accountability remains a vital ingredient of any lasting peace. Eradicating a culture of impunity remains a central challenge, especially for Canada's moral leadership on the world stage.
Today, after the shocking images from Aleppo, a new light has been shone onto another grim, but far more secretive, campaign of mass violence undertaken by the Syrian government, one that's been continuing since the beginning of the uprising and concealed in one of the regime's darkest hideaways.
A new report by Amnesty International uncovers a massive hidden campaign of torture and killing in one of the country's most notorious prisons. For years, on the outskirts of Damascus, inmates of Saydnaya prison have been taken in groups of 20 to 50 people at a time and subjected to mock trials lasting a few minutes before being marched into a basement and killed by hanging. Victims are not made aware of their imminent demise until they feel the noose around their necks.
These mass killings, which prison officials refer to as "the party," have been a regular occurrence since 2011. As many as 13,000 people have been killed in this way at Saydnaya alone. Victims include political dissidents, journalists, humanitarian workers, human rights defenders and students – mostly people who are perceived to oppose the government. It is an appalling campaign of torture and extermination amounting to crimes against humanity.
For most, it is a brutal end to months of excruciating torture endured while detained in the disease-infested prison without access to adequate food, sanitation or medical care. A separate report by Amnesty International last year revealed that torture often begins the moment an inmate enters the prison. So-called "welcome parties" involve severe beatings, often using silicone or metal bars and electric cables.
With the UN Security Council gripped in paralysis, the global community has persistently failed to address the immense human-rights crisis in Syria. In recent months, Canada has stood out for its positive contributions. In December, 2016, it led the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution condemning the outrageous breaches of international law in Aleppo and calling for an investigation of atrocities through an ad hoc mechanism.
Passage of the resolution, with broad international support, served as a symbolic rebuke to the failing Security Council and represented a much-needed moment of international unity on behalf of the millions of Syrian women, men and children affected by the crisis. But there remains a vital need for more vigorous accountability through a judicial mechanism.
Having made important contributions in this regard, Canada can and should show similar leadership by demanding justice and accountability in response to the torture and killing at Saydnaya and elsewhere in the country. One instrument with significant potential is the UN Convention against Torture, to which both Canada and Syria are a party. It is the leading international legal instrument prohibiting the kinds of cruel treatment endured by inmates at Saydnaya.
That treaty contains a clause that allows for Canada to pursue a complaint against Syria before the International Court of Justice, the UN's principal judicial body. Even if, unlike the ICC, the ICJ cannot prosecute individual leaders for crimes against humanity, it can still hold Syria responsible for failing to ensure that such persons are brought to justice. This could have a far-reaching impact on the political legitimacy and fortunes of such leaders, especially during a post-conflict transition in which those most responsible for such atrocities should be removed from the political stage.
For nearly six years now, the human-rights crisis in Syria has unfolded amidst total impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. It is time for more imagination and determination in pursuing all possible avenues for justice.
Launching a formal complaint against Syria under the Convention against Torture would at long last set the wheels of international justice in motion and send a strong message to the countless Syrians who have suffered so terribly. It is a unique opportunity for Canada to promote the cause of international justice.