Why not sue Syria for torture?

icjDevoid from much of the U.S. debate about whether to use military force against Syria is any exploration of nonviolent ways to condemn the use of chemical weapons and to push for an end to Syria’s multiyear civil war. (Prior posts.)

While it’s true that Russia, in particular, says it will veto action in the U.N. Security Council, we’ve not seen any public effort to apply effective pressure on Russia to do otherwise. No threat of a Western boycott of the Sochi Olympics – to hearken to one tool used during the Carter Administration – or any other action that similarly might sting the Putin regime. (By no means am I advocating a boycott, which does unwarranted harm to athletes. I mention it, rather, as an example of the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we haven’t seen voiced in this runup to a possible Syrian intervention. As posted months ago with respect to Syria, in this sense diplomacy hasn’t been tried.)

And while there’s been much hand-wringing over Russia’s apparent opposition to a Security Council referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, we’ve heard no exploration of another Carter-era tool – a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice. (photo credit) My students and I have just studied that suit, brought against Iran after the November 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The ICJ’s May 1980 decision in the Diplomatic & Consular Staff Case (U.S. v. Iran) pronounced the wrongfulness of Iran’s failure to protect the embassy and its personnel during and after the takeover. The court’s order that the two sides negotiate an appropriate remedy fueled a bilateral settlement which resulted in the release of the 52 U.S. hostages and the establishment of the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, which to this day arbitrates disputes between the 2 countries.

Why not pursue a similar course in the current crisis, in lieu of or in tandem with other avenues?

A possible vehicle for such a suit would be the 1984 Convention Against Torture. Article 1(1) defines torture as

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Surely, this definition is satisfied by the conduct alleged against the Syrian government: attacking civilians with chemical weapons – nerve agents that bring long-lasting injury or death to human beings – for the purpose of exacting punishment against or coercing capitulation by rebel forces.

The Convention Against Torture may serve as a vehicle for litigation because Article 30(1) contains a clause conferring ICJ jurisdiction:

Any dispute between two or more States Parties concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention which cannot be settled through negotiation shall, at the request of one of them, be submitted to arbitration. If within six months from the date of the request for arbitration the Parties are unable to agree on the organization of the arbitration, any one of those Parties may refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice by request in conformity with the Statute of the Court.

The United Nations’ online treaty database indicates that when Syria joined the Convention on August 19, 2004, it did not limit the effect of Article 30. That seems to open a path for a state party – if not the United States, which did place some limitations on its own joinder, one of the many other countries calling for action against Syria – to insist on negotiation of this dispute over chemical weapons use, with an eye to suing in the ICJ 6 months’ hence if negotiations come to naught.

An ICJ judgment that explores the relation of a chemical attack to the universal ban against torture could do much to enhance the current claim that such an attack crosses an “international redline.” Even if some snag prevented the issuance of a judgment as unequivocal as that in the Diplomatic Staff case (maybe a lex specialis concern, to name one), resort to negotiation/litigation might enable a more deliberate, less violent resolution to this grave situation.

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