In February of this year, a coalition of Syrian organizations led by survivors and families of the missing in Syria released the new Truth and Justice Charter, laying out their vision for a just peace. The first demand in the document is “the immediate release of detainees, and revealing the fate of the forcibly disappeared.” The document goes on to request “neutral international actors” be able to access detention facilities so as to reveal the truth in collaboration with victims, survivors, and family members.
In May, the same coalition, now known as the Charter group, expanded on this demand by issuing a paper in collaboration with an independent researcher, Jeremy Sarkin, that lays out a plan for an independent, international mechanism to investigate the fates of those missing in Syria. The organizations involved stated that they recognize the difficulty of achieving accountability, so are prioritizing learning the truth about their loved ones. This priority for truth over accountability reflects the level of frustration among families over the lack of progress made on the accountability front and mirrors the preferences of many families of missing persons around the globe. This preference should drive international policy on the issue. However, it is not clear that the creation of a mechanism is the best way to create progress on this file.
Limitations of a Missing Persons Mechanism
An international mechanism focused on missing persons could act as an important advocacy tool, bringing prominence to the issue through its creation, and perhaps through subsequent briefings and reports. Additionally, it could better ensure collaboration between organizations currently involved in documenting for identification, including through the maintenance of a centralized database. However, there are severe limitations on the concrete progress such a mechanism could achieve.
Unknown thousands of Syrians have gone missing during the conflict for many reasons; however, the majority of missing persons were forcibly disappeared by the Syrian government, with another, sizable number disappeared by non-state groups, including ISIS. In order to begin discovering the fates of individual detainees, investigators will need physical access to detention facilities and/or detailed prisoner records from throughout the conflict. For detainees held by the government, and in the absence of a political transition or the government’s loss of physical control over detention facilities, this will require government cooperation. Hence, the primary challenge of a missing persons mechanism would be obtaining that cooperation.
Yet, were the mechanism to be created through the UN General Assembly or the EU as Sarkin proposes, it would be seen as politicized by both the Syrian and Russian governments, the two entities whose cooperation will be most integral to investigations. This would prevent access to detention facilities and even the country itself, leaving the mechanism operating from abroad. While both the UN IIIM and the Commission of Inquiry (COI) have been able to undertake valuable work despite sharing this limitation, their mandates are vastly different from the proposed mechanism. The IIIM and the COI collect extensive evidence from state parties and a wide array of Syrian CSOs documenting inside Syria. While a missing persons mechanism could likewise centralize documentation from CSOs and individual activists, this documentation is not going to include the types of government records that will be integral to establishing the whereabouts and fates of detainees, much less lead to their release. If such a mechanism operated from outside the country, it would be just another international reporting mechanism with a different scope.
The Way Forward
The mechanism best placed to make concrete progress on detention in government-held areas is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC has been a leader in missing persons investigations since the creation of its ‘Central Tracing Agency’ more than fifty years ago. It has extensive experience in reconnecting families with their detained loved ones and is at the forefront of the field of forensic anthropology. It shares the humanitarian, truth-seeking focus that the Charter group is currently demanding, and, most importantly, maintains relations with the Syrian government. The ICRC has offices in Damascus and throughout the country and is actively working on the issue of detention in Syria. Furthermore, it is well placed to serve as a central repository of data on missing persons from the conflict, already having collected missing persons reports from thousands of families. While the ICRC is not able to feed this data into accountability mechanisms, the IIIM is already well-placed to complement its efforts by collecting documentation for the purposes of pursuing criminal accountability for enforced disappearance and related crimes.
While it would be naive to claim that a breakthrough on the detention file is forthcoming, the ICRC is best placed for the type of progress families are seeking. Instead of focusing on the creation of a new mechanism, activists should focus on increasing funding to ICRC’s Syria program so as to expand its efforts both in searching for the missing and family accompaniment. The ICRC also needs to work to increase transparency where possible, so that families have an understanding of what the organization can and cannot reasonably achieve. This should include direct meetings between ICRC staff and members of family organizations to provide updates on their work.
For true progress to happen, however, there will need to be extensive political pressure on the Syrian government to increase its cooperation with the ICRC. While the international community has attempted to pressure the Syrian government on this issue since before the conflict even began, they have seen little success and new strategies are needed.
There is reason to believe that Russia may be more open to progress on the detention file than it is on other issues. Russia does not benefit directly from Syria’s horrific system of detention, which in fact hinders the flow of reconstruction aid that Russia desperately wants to see. Fear of detention is also one of the main impediments to return, further blocking normalization for Syria on the international stage, to Russia’s detriment. Widespread releases and increased transparency about those who remain or have died in custody could be a first step in a process that would relieve Russia of the economic burden of supporting its ally. For this reason, the international community should focus its efforts in this area on Russia and propose conditioned sanctions-relief steps in exchange for progress on this issue.
Second, while the extensive resources that would be poured into establishing a new missing persons mechanism would not justify the limited benefits in regards to advocacy, there are other ways to ensure a high profile for this issue. First, the UN Security Council should pass a standalone resolution asking for information on the fates of those missing in Syria, a request that is long standing by families of the missing and would serve as a test of Russia’s position on the subject. Second, an Envoy-level UN representative could be appointed to provide regular updates to the UNSC on the issue of missing persons and detainees in Syria. While the UN Special Envoy on Syria Geir Pedersen often includes such updates in his briefings, the issue should be decoupled from political discussions.
Finally, the recommendations here focus specifically on government-held territory as the government is the primary perpetrator behind enforced disappearance and the primary barrier to progress. However, the current search for those missing in northeast Syria, including by the First Responders Teams in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, provide an important opportunity to develop capacity for a Syrian-led response and formulate practices and partnerships, including collaboration with the ICRC, that could eventually be used country-wide.
SJAC shares the Charter group’s sense of urgency to see progress on this issue. Revealing the fates of missing persons must be at the center of justice processes for Syria, and every day without answers leaves thousands of detainees languishing in deplorable conditions and family members waiting for answers. However, while an international mechanism may create a brief moment of publicity and celebration, it would ultimately make little concrete progress. It would instead provide sponsoring governments an ‘out,’ allowing them to claim they are supporting the search while absolving them from engaging in the protracted political pressure that will be needed to gain real answers on the fates of Syria’s missing.