On Friday, August 30, the United Nations will observe the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. For Syrians, this day serves as a stark reminder of the tens of thousands who remain missing after years of conflict. While widespread disappearances are a defining aspect of the present conflict, the Syrian government is responsible for the disappearances of thousands of people going back to the 1970s. Despite the UN Security Council having hosted a briefing on this topic earlier this month, concrete action has yet to be taken. Releasing detainees in Syria, and reforming the security sector to end this pattern of abuse, needs to be a top priority for the UN, and particularly the Security Council.
A dark history of detention and enforced disappearances
In the late 70s, Syria’s then president Hafez al-Assad began wide-scale arrests and disappearances of his political opponents. When his son, Bashar al-Assad, took power in 2000, he released around 600 political prisoners, and in 2001, he announced the closing of the infamous Tadmor (Palmyra) prison. The new government appeared more tolerant of political activism, and families hoped that their imprisoned loved ones would be granted amnesty. Some hoped that Assad might follow the lead of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who announced a truth commission to look into human rights violations committed during his father’s years in power. Despite that, thousands remained missing in Syria.
However, such hopes were misplaced. In the aftermath of the closing of Tadmor, families of prisoners who did not emerge from captivity were left to assume that their relatives had died, with no official documentation or acknowledgement from the government. Silence regarding the fates of prisoners became government policy and continues to this day.
Since 2011, Bashar al-Assad has carried out enforced disappearances at an unprecedented rate, dwarfing even the scale of his father’s grim legacy. While the number of missing persons in Syria today is unknown, SJAC’s documentation, including government intelligence documents, shows the widespread use of detention on erroneous charges, including the detention of women and children.
The difficulty in estimating the number that remain missing is a direct result of the Syrian government’s efforts to conceal the issue. The government uses unregistered detention facilities, and declines to make records of prisoners available to the public or to the international community. It further obfuscates matters at many prisons, by adopting a “revolving door” policy of arresting, releasing and re-arresting the same prisoners again and again, making it difficult for independent documentation groups to verify the location of detainees at any given time.
United Nations Action
Earlier this summer, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2474, the first-ever UNSC resolution specifically addressing missing persons in conflict. The UNSC called upon parties to armed conflict to actively search for persons reported missing and enable the return of their remains. The resolution was a powerful signal of the importance of missing persons in conflicts worldwide, however the obligation for states to ensure that people do not go missing and to report missing persons already exists under international law. Building upon the momentum of Resolution 2474, the UNSC held the first ever briefing on detainees and missing persons in Syria on August 7th. Heartbreaking accounts were presented by Amina Khoulani and Dr. Hala Ghawi of Families for Freedom, whose loved one’s were disappeared by the Syrian government. Despite the work of these activists, detainees still wait for the UNSC and Special Envoy to take definitive action.
Movement on this issue will be a prerequisite to any serious peace negotiations or the wide-scale return of refugees. While this issue should be a priority at the upcoming UN General Assembly, members of the UN Security Council must also ensure that momentum built at this month’s briefing does not go to waste. Members should use their authority to push for a UNSC resolution on the missing in Syria, calling for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, for access by international monitoring organizations and medical professionals into all detention facilities, and for the release of the names and locations of all remaining detainees. In addition to a resolution, the discussion of detainees must be removed from Astana, which has focused on small-scale exchanges of prisoners of war, and be returned to Geneva, where the Special Envoy should refocus the discussion on civilian detainees. While the Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, has made public reference to the issue of detainees, he has made little effort to provide updates on his work, either publicly or directly to civil society organizations and member states. Regular updates from the Envoy, as well as his Special Advisor on detainees, would allow civil society organizations to more effectively engage in the process and advocate for the missing.
Syrian communities should no longer fear that their loved one may not come home from work, or disappear for years into government prisons. The obligation under international law to report missing persons must be upheld in Syria. This cycle must be broken.