On March 9, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria released a new report, ‘Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Way Forward.’ The report offers an overview of the detainee crisis in Syria: tens of thousands of Syrians held with no due process, families with no knowledge of their loved ones, and prisons where sexual violence and extrajudicial killing are rampant. In addition to accusing several parties to the conflict of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, the report makes recommendations for how to address the suffering of detainees and their families through the UN-led negotiation process. Indeed, Syrian civil society has long demanded that the issue of detainees be central to negotiations, and the report endorses the notion that concrete proposals on the detainee issue could not only address the immediate needs of victims but also further the negotiations themselves.
In the report, the COI states, “Just as progress on negotiating a political agreement is dependent on a ceasefire or reduction in violence, and on urgent access for humanitarian assistance, it is abundantly clear that no progress can be made in reaching a political settlement without tackling the issue of detainees and, by extension, those missing or disappeared.” The COI not only argues that there must be a solution for detainees and their families, but that detainee releases could move negotiations forward by becoming a new confidence building measure. Historically, the UN process has focused on local ceasefires as the stepping stone to negotiations. While ceasefires are integral to both short-term humanitarian relief and a future political solution, the strategy has proven largely unsuccessful at building trust due to continuous ceasefire violations by the conflict parties – even UN humanitarian convoys have repeatedly struggled to reach besieged areas during humanitarian ceasefires. The time has come to explore different approaches to the negotiations, and the suggestions laid out in the COI report regarding detainees are a good starting point.
The report lays out a detailed plan for how to forward the issue of detainees, including the unilateral release of the most vulnerable detainees, unconditional access for humanitarian organizations to all official and unofficial holding facilities, and the creation of a mutual timetable for the release of detainees on both sides. Such steps may be particularly effective confidence builders, as they require less mutual trust than a ceasefire, during which parties open themselves up to the potential of large losses on the battle field. They also allow for a number of options the parties may be willing to accommodate, from the release of all detainees to limited information about a small number of detainees, and a number of step-by-step measures in between. While efforts to secure ceasefires should also continue, detainee releases would diversify the confidence building measures being used by negotiators and build the trust needed to uphold such agreements. Syrian opposition leaders have stated that a government release of detainees would be a ‘game-changer’ for negotiations because it would signal that the government is serious about finding a solution to the conflict and reenergizing a process which has made little progress.
In the past few months, there has been some increased attention to detainees in the UN process. The Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has previously acknowledged that Syrians have requested an increased focus on the issue of detainees, and in his most recent briefing to the UN provided two updates on the UN’s recent efforts to address the issue. First, he offered an update on the first meeting of the Working Group on Detainees and Missing People, which was proposed during the Astana talks. SJAC and other civil society groups have been calling for such a mechanism to address detainees, and this is an encouraging step. However, there are concerns that since the talks in Astana are centered on armed groups and ceasefires, allowing the detainee issue to be handled in Astana could lead to a focus on former-combatants instead of “any arbitrarily detained persons, particularly women and children,” as mandated by UNSC Resolution 2254. Second, de Mistura shared that the UN is also prepared to create a permanent secretariat in Geneva in order to move the issue forward. Such a person could help to ensure that the issue of detainees not be shifted completely form Geneva to Astana.
The COI report on detainees is not only a comprehensive overview of one of the most pressing humanitarian issues facing Syria today, but it offers important recommendations for how the UN can begin to shift its focus and strategies to better address the immediate needs of the Syrian people. These attempts to focus on the issue of detainees should be the basis of a larger effort to emphasize humanitarian and human rights concerns through the negotiation process. Through such a shift in focus, the UN could ensure that the negotiation process is being driven by the demands of the Syrian people.
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