Dutch government seeks to hold Syria accountable for torture
Dutch initiative is latest attempt to hold Syrian gov’t accountable amid reports it is mistreating its own citizens.
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.
China conducts more exercises near Taiwan as US official visits
China, which claims the democratically-ruled island as its own, says combat drills are to defend its ‘sovereignty’.
Taiwan has said it had to scramble fighter jets to track approaching Chinese aircraft that also crossed the sensitive mid-line of the Taiwan Strait, in an escalation of tensions as a top United States diplomat visited the self-ruled island in a move that angered Beijing.
This came after China’s defence ministry said earlier on Friday it was conducting military exercises near the Taiwan Strait, adding that the drills were in response to the “current situation” and designed to safeguard China’s “national sovereignty”.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its own and has been alarmed by the increasing willingness of the US to defy China’s attempts to isolate the democratically-ruled island. Last week, it held two days of mass air and sea drills.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said 18 Chinese aircraft were involved on Friday, a far larger number than Taiwan has previously announced for such encounters.
“ROCAF scrambled fighters, and deployed air defence missile system to monitor the activities,” it said in an English-language statement on Twitter, referring to Taiwan’s air force.
The ministry showed a map of the flight paths of the Chinese jets and their crossing of the Taiwan Strait mid-line, which combat aircraft from both sides normally avoid passing through.
Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper said Taiwan air force jets scrambled 17 times on Friday morning over four hours, warning China’s air force to stay away. It also showed a picture of missiles being loaded onto an F-16 at the Hualien airbase on Taiwan’s east coast.
“There is intense military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait, ratcheting up tensions,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul in South Korea.
Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang gave few more details about the live-fire drills, which he said began in the Taiwan Strait on Friday and involved the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command.
“They are a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ren said, adding that Taiwan was an internal Chinese affair.
“Recently the United States and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities have stepped up their collusion, frequently creating disturbances,” Ren said, referring to Taiwan’s ruling party.
When the US health secretary, Alex Azar, visited the island last month, Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait.
Keith Krach, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, arrived on Taiwan on Thursday and is due to attend a dinner with President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday evening. He will also go to a memorial service for Taiwan’s former president Lee Teng-hui on Saturday.
Krach is the most senior official from the US State Department to visit Taiwan in 40 years.
His visit was swiftly condemned by China, which baulks at any recognition of Taiwan and has mounted a decades-long policy designed to marginalise the island on the diplomatic stage, which has intensified since Tsai first won office in 2016. She was returned for a second term in a landslide election in January.
Announcing the trip, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the visit was to “honour President Lee’s legacy” and stressed “shared political and economic values”.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Krach, who is accompanied by assistant secretary Robert Destro, would also discuss “how to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation” during his three-day visit.
It described him as the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei.
The US, like most countries, only has official diplomatic ties with China, but it is Taiwan’s main arms supplier and most important international backer.
The top US diplomat for East Asia, meanwhile, said on Thursday China’s recent actions around the world were not those of a responsible global actor, but of a “lawless bully”.
In prepared testimony for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, David Stilwell said the US was not asking other countries to choose sides, but to stand up against China’s “malign” behaviour and to protect their own sovereignty and economic interests.
At the same time, Stilwell said US competition with China need not lead to conflict, and that the US sought to cooperate with Beijing where interests aligned, for instance on North Korea.
Stilwell said in the past several months there had been “particularly egregious examples of Beijing’s conduct”.
These included violence on its border with India and “aggressive” moves in the South China Sea, around Taiwan, and in waters China disputes with Japan.