On June 29, 2023, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 301/77, which established the “Independent Institution for Missing Persons” and was delegated the task “to clarify the fate and whereabouts of all missing persons in the Syrian Arab Republic and to provide adequate support to victims, survivors and the families of those missing, in close cooperation and complementarity with all relevant actors.”
The General Assembly requested that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and in consultation with all relevant actors – including the full and meaningful participation of victims, survivors, and families –develop the terms of reference of the institution within 80 working days.
This paper presents some ideas and recommendations from a group of civil society and human rights organizations to the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights to contribute to the development of the terms of reference of the new institution.
1- Leadership of the institution:
While working to uncover the fates of missing persons in Syria requires diverse technical expertise, from investigators, open-source investigation experts, and satellite imagery experts, all the way to forensic specialists, the dilemma of missing persons in Syria is primarily a political issue. The refusal to release detainees and reveal the fates of missing persons in Syria is a political position taken by the parties involved in this crime, most notably the Syrian government, which has attacked the mechanism and condemned the decision to establish it.
The organizations signing this paper consider it necessary for the presidency of the new institution to have a high-level rank in the United Nations (Deputy or Assistant Secretary-General), and to be a well-known international figure with diplomatic weight appropriate to the magnitude of the challenges associated with the work of the institution. The success of the institution’s work requires building political will and political consensus between several international and regional parties, as well as negotiating with the parties to the Syrian conflict and with many countries on complex files, including international sanctions on Syria, reconstruction, and international accountability. The success of the institution cannot be imagined without it taking on a leadership role with institutional leadership that brings great diplomatic weight.
2- The temporal mandate of the new institution:
The issue of enforced disappearance in Syria is as old as modern Syria and is not limited only to cases of enforced disappearance after 2011, nor does it affect Syrians alone. In Syria, thousands of political detainees went missing in the 1980s, including Palestinian and Lebanese political prisoners, some of whom were kidnapped from Lebanon and became missing.
The situation of missing persons in Syria after 2011 is more prominent for many reasons, perhaps including the intense media coverage that the “Caesar Photos” file received, the advocacy efforts of the families of missing persons in Syria, as well as the large numbers who went missing after 2011 and the efforts of Syrian human rights organizations to document these cases. However, this does not mean that the role of the new institution should be limited to post 2011.
Likewise, the disappearance in Syria was not limited to Syrians only, but included foreigners from neighboring countries, foreign fighters who arrived to fight in Syria, and a number of foreign hostages who worked in the media or as volunteers in international humanitarian institutions.
While the organizations signing this paper note that Resolution No. 301 suggests that the temporal mandate of the new institution be limited to those missing in Syria after 2011, they also see the necessity of searching and discovering the fate of those missing in previous years. Accordingly, we propose establishing a sub-team specialized in cases of missing persons before 2011. Thus, the mechanism maintains its jurisdiction in accordance with the UNGA resolution, but does not exclude cases of missing persons prior to 2011.
3- Comprehensive and diverse representation of the families of missing persons and victims
The General Assembly’s decision to establish the independent institution indicates the inclusion of a “structural element that ensures the full and meaningful participation and representation of victims, survivors, and the families of missing persons in the Syrian Arab Republic in its operationalization and work and that it shall engage with women’s organizations and other civil society organizations in a regular and sustained manner”.
The organizations signing this paper appreciate the insistence and clarity of the General Assembly’s resolution on the full and meaningful participation and representation of victims, survivors, and families of the missing, and stress the need for this representation to take into account the diversity of communities of missing Syrians and thus the multiplicity of groups of victims and families of missing persons, and demand ensuring comprehensive and fair representation of groups of victims and families of missing persons, from various geographical, religious, national, and political backgrounds, and allowing the voices of the victims and their foreign relatives who went missing on Syrian territory to be heard.
The organizations signing this paper see the need to establish an “advisory council” that allows victim groups to participate effectively in the operation of the institution, while ensuring the diversity and plurality of victim groups participating in this council. The signatory organizations also see the need to establish clear criteria for selecting representatives from the victim communities to ensure transparency and clarity. The organizations also demand that the role of victim representatives be voluntary to ensure no conflict of interest and stress the need to respect the principles of confidentiality and informed consent related to sharing data of missing persons by families or by organizations working in documentation and gathering evidence.
4- A technical track dedicated to organizations working in documentation and evidence collection and women’s organizations
Organizations working in documentation and evidence gathering and some international organizations have played a notable role in documenting detention in Syria, including documenting cases of enforced disappearance, conducting contextual investigations, and uncovering multiple crimes in which victims were hidden, burned, and buried, in some cases in mass graves.
The organizations signing this paper appreciate the inclusion in the General Assembly’s resolution of the need for the independent institution to work “with women’s organizations and other civil society organizations in a regular and sustained manner” and see the need to establish a dedicated, specialized technical track, separate from the other tracks of the institution’s work, that allows organizations working in documentation and evidence collection to share data and evidence directly with the institution and respects the rules of confidentiality, security, and informed consent. Such a track would allow organizations to discuss work methodology and investigations and assist the institution by collecting specific evidence, each organization according to its work and technical or geographical specialization. This track should include both international and Syrian organizations. The track will also allow women's organizations to provide the necessary technical support to ensure that the organization's work reflects the gender dynamics of missing persons and the disproportionate impact of the crime of enforced disappearance on women.
5- Managing expectations regarding the support for victims, survivors, and families of missing persons, and preventing economic support from affecting the credibility of documentation.
The suffering of missing persons is not limited to periods of detention and disappearance. Some Syrian men and women who survived the darkness of enforced disappearance committed by various parties inside Syria succeeded in reaching safe third countries where access to medical and psychological support is more available than those who remained in Syria or in neighboring countries.
The suffering of the families of the missing is not limited to the disappearance of their loved ones and relatives, but rather extends to families being left without adequate support, including legal support, which may include registering births of children born to missing father, issuing identification papers, and authorizing legal travel outside the country for minors, and complex legal procedures related to property, inheritance, and transfer of real estate ownership.
The organizations signing this paper appreciate the clarity of the General Assembly’s resolution regarding the institution’s role to “provide adequate support to victims, survivors and the families of those missing, in close cooperation and complementarity with all relevant actors” and see the need to clarify the support that can be provided to victims, survivors, and their families at the early stage of the institution’s work, as well as the need to manage expectations of parties eligible of support. The signatory organizations stress the need to design support programs to include the groups most in need of support and those with the least access (for example, in refugee camps, among the displaced, inside Syria, and in neighboring countries).
The organizations signing this paper are concerned about the impact that forms of economic support, if provided, will have on the credibility of the documentation and collection of information about missing persons. It is no secret to anyone that the economic situation in Syria is deteriorating, but the provision of economic support by the institution will constitute a financial incentive for some to come forward and document a person in their family as missing to become eligible to receiving economic support.
The signatory organizations believe that limiting support to technical, psychological, medical, and legal support may be a safer path for the work of the new institution and avoid any impact that the financial factor could cause. However, if the institution decides to proceed in providing economic support, it is possible to do so through partner mechanisms and organizations that provide economic assistance without affecting the course of documentation processes. Also, the institution must be clear that obtaining such temporary support does not constitute a reparations program, nor does it provide the recognition of forced disappearance that a national reparations program might provide.
The Signatory Organizations:
Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC)
Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ)
Justice for Life (JFL)
The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP)
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
The Day After
Association of Lebanese Political Prisoners in Syrian Prisons
The Association of Detainees in Adra Prison
Lilon Association for Victims