To: The Syrian negotiating parties
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG)
The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura and his team
We, the signatories to this memorandum, are Syrian organizations working on human rights documentation, accountability, and transitional justice in Syria. After our participation in the first round of the “Geneva III” talks last February, and our meeting with Mr. Staffan de Mistura, the UN Envoy to Syria, and discussing the issue of Syrian detainees with him and his team, we issue this memorandum to the Syrian negotiating parties, to Mr. de Mistura and his team, and to the sponsors of the negotiations. This memorandum describes what we see as best procedural practices to resolve the crisis of detainees in Syria and what we believe is essential to begin implementation promptly:
- The need for independent observers and immediate access to prisons and detention centers:
Political negotiations in Geneva were launched, suspended, and restarted with no development of the Syrian detainee issue. The vast majority of detainees still are being held incommunicado, making them vulnerable to torture and death.
Despite the reference to the issue of detainees in Security Council Resolutions 2245 (paragraph 9) and 2268 (paragraph 12), no member of the negotiating parties, the UN Special Envoy team, or the ISSG exercised serious pressure regarding detainees in Syria. The issue of detainees is instead treated as a secondary issue, rather than an essential component of a lasting peace agreement.
Our organizations renew our demand for independent observers or a neutral party to have immediate, unconditional access to all detention centers and prisons in Syria, including those informal centers run by the Syrian government security services and those run by the armed opposition factions. We also demand visitation rights to allow families to visit their detained relatives immediately.
- The immediate issuance of formal lists to determine the persons currently detained by all parties, in preparation for creating an inventory of missing persons:
During our meeting with Mr. de Mistura and his team last February, it was brought to our attention, when we discussed the issue of detainees in Syria, that Mr. de Mistura had asked the Syrian opposition delegation to deliver lists of names of detainees held by the Syrian government but that the Syrian opposition delegation failed to provide such lists.
We strongly warn the Special Envoy of the consequences and risks of this approach in resolving the issue of detainees in Syria.
In Syria today, it is impossible to determine the exact number of detainees held by each party for several reasons. First, it is unclear who was arrested in the first place and by which party as some individuals are forcibly disappeared without notice. Second and most notably, deaths in detention centers occur frequently but are often unreported by prison or detention officials. Third, families sometimes pay bribes or use their special relationship with security officials to have detainees secretly released. Finally, the Syrian government has completely blocked outside observers, including the UN Commission of Inquiry, from visiting detention centers or accessing the list of detainees held by the military or security agencies.
As a result, it is impossible for a non-governmental group like the opposition to provide accurate lists of names and numbers of detainees, and the UN Special Envoy’s approach could prove very dangerous because it risks hundreds and perhaps thousands of detainees being abandoned if their cases were not documented by human rights groups and were unknown to the opposition.
Therefore, we reiterate our call for the United Nations and the Special Envoy to adopt a completely different approach that prioritizes 1) pressuring all parties to deliver their own official lists of detainees, and 2) identifying the location of all detention centers so that they are publicly known. We view this as a starting point which can be built upon.
- The need to establish a clear mechanism to resolve the crisis of detainees that includes the participation of human rights organizations:
A clear plan for the release of all political prisoners or arbitrarily detained individuals is unrealistic if the UN Special Envoy team continues with its aforementioned approach. It is impossible for any one party to audit the names of more than one hundred thousand prisoners within a reasonable period of time and there is a lack of trust between the negotiating parties to audit one another’s lists.
Thus, we emphasize the need to establish, during the course of the negotiations, a clear mechanism to release all individuals arbitrarily detained on political, ideological, religious or sectarian grounds, including the incorporation of a special technical team of experts and lawyers who will work with the Special Envoy’s team to provide recommendations and expertise on this issue. We also emphasize the need to involve representatives of the undersigned organizations as experts and observers on a permanent basis to contribute to enriching the Special Envoy’s work on detainees. The issue of detainees must be the highest priority for Mr. de Mistura and his team.
The suffering of hundreds of thousands of Syrians continues on a daily basis in large part because of the arbitrary arrests and disappearances of loved ones and the inability to access news about their conditions or whereabouts. The images of torture and death which are leaked from inside detention centers amplify the distress of family members. Even today, despite the launch of negotiations, neither the Syrian government nor the armed opposition has released a single detainee in conjunction with the negotiations over the past two months. Moreover, despite the Cessation of Hostilities agreement, neither the armed opposition nor the government have stopped conducting arbitrary arrests or have modified their detention procedures.
The undersigned organizations emphasize that the issue of detainees must be included as part of Mr. de Mistura’s confidence-building measures which are needed for a final agreement between the negotiating parties to be possible. We are ready to meet with you through our representatives at any time, and we invite you to discuss these points in more detail.