GENEVA (11 March 2021) – With Syria about to enter its 11th year of violence and conflict, the pursuit of truth, justice and reparations for victims must not only continue but be stepped up, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said today.
“The violence that spiralled into an armed conflict has left hundreds of thousands Syrians dead, millions displaced both within and outside the country, and many Syrian families struggling to establish the truth of what happened to their loved ones,” said Bachelet.
The recent conviction of a former Syrian intelligence officer by a German trial court for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity was an important step forward on the path to justice, the High Commissioner said. This decision follows a series of criminal judgments in recent years in national courts outside Syria addressing cases of grave criminality committed over the last decade of conflict. The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism established by the General Assembly and the Commission of Inquiry on Syria established by the Human Rights Council have also played a key role in bolstering such proceedings.
“There have been repeated attempts to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court but with such efforts stalled, it remains vital that national courts continue to conduct fair, public and transparent trials and reduce the accountability gap for such serious crimes. These trials should be complemented by other initiatives which further realise victims’ rights, including the rights to truth and reparation,” she said.
The High Commissioner particularly stressed the need to address the issue of missing and disappeared people, already a serious concern in Syria prior to 2011. Given the UN Human Rights Office’s lack of access to Syria, it is difficult to establish with any precision the number of missing men, women and children, but the figure is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
The missing include those forcibly disappeared and detained in official and makeshift facilities run by Government forces across Syria, as well as victims of detention and enforced disappearances by non-State armed groups.
With the overwhelming majority of victims being men, families’ daily existence can become a huge struggle. Women can face practical, financial, legal and emotional challenges in supporting themselves and their children. They often take on the responsibility of searching for the missing relative, potentially exposing themselves to risk when they seek information from officials. Individuals also prey on families, offering to supply information about the relative or secure his or her release in exchange for money.
“Enforced disappearance is a continuous crime that has an appalling impact on the individual whose fate is unknown and on their family, causing continuing trauma for them and severely curtailing the enjoyment of their human rights,” the UN Human Rights Chief stressed.
Bachelet joined the call for the creation of an independent mechanism with an international mandate to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people, identify human remains, and provide support to their families.
“As we mark this tragic milestone, I also urge all parties to the conflict, and those States with influence over them, to halt arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances, and ensure that those being arbitrarily detained are immediately released,” she stressed.
The High Commissioner further called on the Syrian Government to disclose all places of detention, official and unofficial, provide complete lists of names and ensure formal registration of all those held in these facilities. Those detained should be allowed to communicate with their families.
“If an individual has died, then their body or remains should be returned to their family, in accordance with international law and in full respect of the deceased and their loved ones,” she said.
“I remind the Syrian Government of its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law to investigate violations, among them enforced disappearances, and to ensure those responsible are held accountable, including through criminal prosecutions,” Bachelet said.
The High Commissioner also urged States to ensure there is the political will to address the question of missing people, including as part of efforts to settle and resolve the Syrian conflict.
See also a video statement by Michelle Bachelet on Syria’s missing and disappeared people
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