Iran takes Canada to UN court over civil damages claims

The Peace Palace houses the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands [File: Peter Dejong/AP Photo]

Tehran accuses Ottawa of violating international obligations to uphold the ‘principle of sovereign immunity’.

Iran has filed a complaint against Canada at the United Nations’s top court, accusing the North American country of violating its “international obligations” by allowing people to seek civil damages against Tehran.

The International Court of Justice — known as the World Court — announced the case on Wednesday, saying that Iran is asserting a violation of its sovereign immunity, which generally shields states from civil lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions.

Iran “requests the Court to adjudge and declare that ‘by failing to respect the immunities of Iran and its property, Canada has violated its international obligations’”, the ICJ said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — in a grey suit and purple tie — stands at a glass podium. Behind him is a wall of black-and-white photos depicting the lives lost in the plane crash.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marks the third anniversary of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, an attack that has sparked civil claims against Iran [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Millions in court damages awarded

Last year, a Canadian court awarded 107 million Canadian dollars ($84m) to the families of six victims who were killed when Iranian forces shot down a Ukraine International Airlines flight near Tehran in January 2020.

The same judge — Justice Edward Belobaba of Ontario’s Superior Court — had labelled the incident an “act of terrorism” months earlier, a ruling Iran rejected as “shameful”.

Iranian officials have said the shooting of the plane was an accident caused by “human error” in operating a surface-to-air defence system.

Iranian forces were on high alert on the day of the downing of the plane. They had fired missiles at bases housing United States troops in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of top general Qassem Soleimani.

All 176 people on board the plane were killed. More than 100 of the Iranian victims had Canadian citizenship or residency.

Late in 2020, the Iranian government announced it would give $150,000 to each of the victims’ families.

‘Terrorism’ law paves way for cases

Governments are usually protected from civil lawsuits in other countries but a 2012 Canadian law limited the legal immunity of countries on its list of “foreign state supporters of terrorism”, including Iran and Syria.

“Iran, as a sovereign State, is entitled to sovereign immunities from jurisdiction and from enforcement under customary international law,” Iran’s ICJ complaint read.

“The principle of sovereign immunity, which derives from the fundamental principle of sovereign equality, prohibits private parties from suing another State before the courts of the forum State and from seizing its property.”

Canada’s foreign ministry was not immediately available to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Iran’s case at the ICJ, based at The Hague in the Netherlands, is likely to take years. The court’s rulings are final and legally binding.

A close US ally, Canada has imposed numerous sanctions on Iran over human rights abuses. Earlier this month, Canadian sanctions targeted Iranian judges that Ottawa accused of “gross and systematic human rights violations”.



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