‘What is Right and Just:’ A Call to Action for the Disappeared in Syria


“Vetoes and excuses get in the way of what is right and just.” With those words, Amina Khoulani, Cofounder of Families for Freedom, spelled out the failings of the United Nations Security Council, as she described in lurid detail the harsh realities facing families of the disappeared in Syria. Actors with the power to stop the killing of detainees and to free those still imprisoned are forsaking their responsibilities. 

Last month, after nine years of atrocities, devastation, and unspeakable horror, the UN Security Council finally opened its doors and listened to the voices of victims. Yet judging from the lack of any response, their testimony appeared to give those listening little pause. Despite more than 100 months and more than 3,000 days during which Syrians have suffered the most heinous crimes, the world’s highest-level political forum remains impotent, paralyzed by the intransigence of its five permanent members who have the power to act but not the will.

Since peaceful protests began, Syrians have been murdered in indiscriminate attacks. Hospitals, schools, and civilian neighborhoods have been targeted with banned weapons including chemical ones. Many have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and killed in detention or forcibly disappeared. Still more have been displaced or have fled the country risking their lives in a dangerous journey to seek refuge. However, in far too many cases, these refugees have not been welcomed. Instead, they have found only obstacles, rejection, and marginalization. The rights established in the 1951 Refugee Convention seem hardly worth the paper they are written on for many Syrians. The Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the UN General Assembly in December 2018, has so far provided little help.

As the Syrian regime and its allies regain military control in most of the country and their forces continue to attack with a ferocity unrestrained by any sense of responsibility for civilians or respect of international law, many analysts affirm that the war is moving closer to its likely end. Yet as the international community dispatches even more humanitarian aid workers to the region, the regime and its allies are already working to cash in on the immense human suffering they have caused by using it as a form of leverage to extract money for reconstruction projects.

For the regime, the war will not necessarily end when the shooting stops, and its campaign of exterminating and torturing anyone who questions its violent, totalitarian rule will in all probability continue. There are many reports stating that in conflict areas retaken by the government, instead of scaling back operations, the intelligence branches are arresting members of the media, aid workers, and activists and are harassing their families. Some individuals who entered into reconciliation agreements with the government during a six-month grace period have been killed, adding another profound breach of trust to the many already committed. Particularly troubling are reports that the government is accelerating the torturing and execution of prisoners in its custody.

The regime continues to wage a campaign of murder, repression, revenge, and dispossession of property against all those whom it perceives as “enemies,” with no end in sight. As of today, impunity reigns. And little hope of justice can be expected in the near future.

In this context, urgent attention must be given to clarifying the status of the tens of thousands of detainees and countless missing persons. Although the issue of detainees, the disappeared, and the missing is one of the main priorities in the UN-mediated political negotiations and is the focus of the Working Group on Detentions and Abductions, created under the auspices of the Astana peace process, little real progress has been made. The suffering of the victims and their families continues day after day.

There have been a few prisoner swaps and releases, and the government did confirm the deaths of a small number of detainees in the spring and summer of 2018 and again this past June, when the civil registry offices released limited information in small batches to families. However, this information covered only a few thousand persons and consisted of only a few details recorded in ledger form on a single sheet of paper that included the name of the deceased, the place and time of death, and a purported cause—for example, “natural causes,” “heart attack,” or chillingly “execution.”

For many families, this news was the first they had received since their loved one’s arrest and detention years earlier, despite repeated entreaties for information and sometimes the payment of large sums of money. Although these notices provide families with some of the answers the government owes them, they are almost always inaccurate and incomplete. Families are not being told the complete truth about how and why their loved ones died or the whereabouts of the remains. Moreover, proper death certificates were not provided to all families; some received only informal confirmations of death. Without a death certificate, families may not be able to start inheritance processes necessary for transferring homes, land, and other property and for updating civil and family records (marital status, custody of children, and so on) that enable families to subsist and carry on with their daily lives.

Yet for most of those who are imprisoned or are otherwise incommunicado, nothing is known. This situation is unacceptable given the scale of the problem. Although exact figures are almost always uncertain in an armed conflict, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria has documented at least 72,667 cases of arrests and kidnapping since March 2011 and the Syrian Network for Human Rights has reported more than 140,000 of such cases. While the Syrian government has long denied operating a secret torture and detention program, its existence is well documented. Many who survived it and fled the country have described its horrors in disturbing detail. Ample evidence has also been smuggled out of the country and been made public, including internal government memos and photographs, such as those taken by the former police photographer “Caesar” showing the widespread and systematic nature of the crimes perpetrated by the state as a part of a policy, not only during the conflict but over the many decades of the Assad family’s rule.

For those in detention and the relatives of the missing, time is of the essence and waiting is not an option. There is a unanimous outcry asking for action. Victims, civil society groups, and national and international organizations are demanding a response. During various briefings at the UN Security Council, many concrete actions and strategies have been floated. In June, it unanimously adopted a resolution calling on all parties to armed conflict “to take all appropriate measures,” including actively searching for the missing, returning their remains, and accounting for them using appropriate channels to inform  their families. As such, there is no shortage of proposals or initiatives that can be implemented for identifying who is detained, who is missing, and who unfortunately may have already perished, as well as for addressing the many practical and legal challenges that the families of the missing and disappeared face in their daily lives.

What will the Syrian regime do now? How will it resolve the status of those who were arrested and are still in detention? How will it respond to the claims of the families of those who are still today unaccounted for? Will it ever respect the rights of its citizens when it comes to due process and fair trial standards? Will it meet minimum rules for the humane treatment of prisoners and prison conditions? After over eight years of gruesome war, is it possible that there might be a shift in the state’s conduct? Or can we expect that the regime will interpret supremacy of arms on the battlefield as a license for continued or even greater brutality, including against civil society and the families of the missing and disappeared if they raise questions about their loved ones?

So far, the Syrian regime has not shown itself willing to lead on these and other issues relating to detainees, the missing, and disappeared. The magnitude of the challenges ahead is daunting, including for the government which will have primary responsibility for responding to requests from families for information about the fate of their loved ones and for resolving the many legal and administrative procedures necessary to help them rebuild their lives. As Special Envoy Geir Pedersen characterized the challenges, “The scale of this issue is of unprecedented proportions” and will take “months if not years of meticulous and committed work.” Because much of this work is likely to be met by resistance from the government, which is responsible for the bulk of disappearances, any real progress is sure to be slow.

Given these realities on the ground, it is essential to reflect on what needs to be done now and in the near future to protect the lives and rights of those in detention, those who have gone missing, and the families of both.  Any window of opportunity to salvage some last measure of “what is right and just” is fast closing.

PHOTO: Rama Mahmoud gives an emotional testimony about the hardship she and her family experienced during the war at a public hearing hosted by the Save Syrian Schools project in Geneva, Switzerland, in March 2018. (ICTJ)