Humans not Numbers: The Case for an International Mechanism to Address the Detainees and Disappeared Crisis in Syria
On 25 May 2021, five Syrian victims and survivors-led associations briefed the public on a study to address the detainees and disappeared crisis in Syria. This followed their launch -earlier this year- of the Truth and Justice Charter, which outlines Syrian victims’ vision for dealing with detention, disappearance, and their country’s future. The study, conducted by Professor Jeremy Sarkin, former chair of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), explores options for the creation of a dedicated new mechanism to deal with this crisis. Based on the findings of this study, the convening Syrian victims associations call for the establishment of an effective body or institution to secure the release of detainees, discover the fate of the disappeared and missing and find the remains of those who are no longer alive. The public release of this study aimed to catalyse solidarity from international actors on the detainees and disappeared crisis in Syria into concrete action, by educating stakeholders about the urgent case for creating a new mechanism and building support for its establishment.
The five Syrian victims' organisations are partners of Impunity Watch. We provided assistance and advice to these victims' organisations throughout the process leading to the production of this study.
According to estimates, more than 150,000 persons have been disappeared or are still detained in Syria. This crisis is widely recognised as a major obstacle to peace and justice in Syria. Addressing it has been one of foremost demands of victims and civil society over the past decade. Lately, following intensive advocacy efforts by victims and families’ associations, the crisis has received significant international attention. Nonetheless, very little has been done so far to address victims and families’ demands including the release of detainees and finding the whereabouts of the disappeared.
In response to the crisis, a group of five Syrian victims groups have developed the Truth and Justice Charter, which was launched in February 2021, and outlines their vision and demands to deal with the question of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention in Syria. The Charter states: “We… differentiate between short-term justice and long-term justice. In the short term there are immediate measures that must be taken to put a halt to ongoing violations and alleviate the suffering of survivors, victims and their families. In the medium- to longer-term we have additional demands to ensure comprehensive justice and non-repetition of the crimes we have suffered and continue to suffer from.”
Therefore, in line with their vision laid out in the Charter, the signatory victims organisations commissioned a study on means to address the problem of detainees and disappeared in Syria in the medium-term, even while a comprehensive peace agreement remains absent. This study puts the goals of the five groups at its heart and recommends that any mechanism set up to deal with the disappeared and detainees is victim-centred and focuses on obtaining the release of detainees, searching for the disappeared and missing, and finding and identifying the remains of those who are no longer alive. The study reviews current available procedures and their limits, before proposing the creation of a new international mechanism dedicated to address Syria’s detainees and disappeared crisis. The convening victims associations jointly call for international efforts and cooperation to establish such a mechanism to search for the missing and disappeared in Syria, drawing on the ideas outlined in the study.
Every detainee is a human soul with a full life to live. We’re not talking about numbers. We’re talking about humans, about our sons, about our loved ones.”
Fadwa Mahmoud, Families for Freedom
“When we escaped detention, we took on the responsibility, as survivors, to be the hope of those left inside. As victims’ associations, we are both rights holders and active agents.”
Ahmad Helmi, Ta’afi Initiative
“We know from the experiences of other countries that the only way to even a minimally acceptable solution involves addressing the humanitarian issue of the detainees. Otherwise there will be no lasting peace, no solution, and no stability.”
Khalil Alhaj Saleh, Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS (Massar
“Detainees are a humanitarian issue, not a negotiating card. A solution for the detainees must be the foundation of any solution for Syria.”
Mariam Alhallak, Caesar Families Association
“Knowing the truth, the whole truth, will enable us to move forward to a future Syria and address the violations of the past.”
Diyab Serrih, Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP)
We are five associations of Syrian victims, survivors and their family members who have suffered immeasurably from the crimes of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and many other detention-related abuses. Like the families of the countless Syrians who have been disappeared by all parties to the conflict since 2011 and before, we still suffer the daily pain of not knowing the fate of our loved ones, as well as other forms of hardship resulting from their absence.
As victims and survivors, we have rights. We have therefore developed the Truth and Justice Charter, where we lay out our vision and demands for truth, justice and the role we must play in rebuilding our country. We have clear and achievable demands, accompanied by measures to make our vision a reality.
We must know the truth about the fate of our loved ones. Those still alive must be released immediately. We want to receive the remains of those who have lost their lives, to give them a dignified burial and enable us to grieve in peace. And we want guarantees that this will not happen again to prevent others suffering what we have suffered. We have been working tirelessly for these simple aims.
But despite years of activism, documentation and international outcry, there is still no effective body or institution that can help us discover the fate of our missing daughters, sons, spouses, parents and siblings. We therefore requested Professor Dr Jeremy Sarkin to study the available options for a new mechanism dedicated to this purpose. Through this study, we seek to lay out ways forward in order to turn the support we have received from international actors into concrete action. We now call for international cooperation to establish a mechanism to search for the missing and disappeared in Syria, drawing on the ideas outlined in this study. After ten years of conflict, detention and disappearance, it is time to act.
• Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP): an independent mutual solidarity association seeking to uncover the truth and deliver justice to former political detainees and ensure the release of those who are still in detention. It also works on revealing the fate of missing and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria in general and in Sednaya in particular.
• Caesar Families Association: a group of families that have lost their loved ones under torture or as a result of extra-judicial execution while in detention. These families identified their relatives in the infamous Caesar photos which were leaked by a Syrian regime defector. CFA aims to unify the families’ voices, demanding truth, justice, and restitution for the victims of torture and enforced disappearance in Syria.
• Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS (Massar): a group of family members of those abducted by ISIS during its control over Syrian territory. It seeks to reveal the fate of people kidnapped by ISIS and to deliver justice to them. It also aims to assist families of kidnapped persons in the process of seeking reparation.
• Families for Freedom: a Syrian movement led by Syrian women who lost members of their families as a result of arrest or enforced disappearance. It seeks to put an end to the enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention committed by the Syrian regime and all other parties to the conflict.
• Ta’afi Initiative: a Syrian victim-led and victim-centred initiative and network that supports and protects victims of detention, torture, and enforced disappearance upon their release and settlement at a safe location, so that they can continue to peacefully support human rights change in Syria and pursue justice and accountability.