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Disappearance and detention to suppress dissent a hallmark of a decade of conflict in Syria – UN report

01 March 2021

Geneva, 1 March 2021 -- After a decade of conflict, tens of thousands of civilians arbitrarily detained in Syria remain forcibly disappeared, while thousands more have been subject to torture, sexual violence or death in detention, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.  

The Commission of Inquiry’s 30-plus page report, released today, based on over 2,500 interviews conducted over 10 years and investigations into more than 100 specific detention facilities, documents historical and continuing detention-related violations and abuses by nearly every major party that has controlled territory in Syria since 2011.

“The wealth of evidence collected over a decade is staggering, yet the parties to the conflict, with very few exceptions, have failed to investigate their own forces,” said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “The focus appears to be on concealing, rather than investigating crimes committed in the detention facilities.”

The report notes the massive scale of detention, disappearances and patterns of crimes and abuses perpetrated by the Government, and the detention practices of armed groups, including under coalitions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Syrian National Army (SNA), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It also examines the record of the UN-designated terrorist groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Commission also outlines how arbitrary detention and imprisonment have been a root cause of, a trigger for, and a persistent feature of Syria’s conflict. Fluctuating waves of arbitrary detention of varying types have been perpetrated by the primary duty bearers – from mass arrests of demonstrators in the early days – to the mass internment of men, women and children today.

Tens of thousands of people in Syria have been unlawfully deprived of their liberty at any one time. Arbitrary detention and imprisonment have been deliberately instrumentalized to instil fear and suppress dissent among the civilian population or, less frequently, for financial gain. Armed groups have also targeted religious and ethnic minority groups.

On the cusp of the conflict’s eleventh year, parties to the conflict continue to mistreat detainees held arbitrarily in notorious detention facilities across the country. These detainees have endured unimaginable suffering. The report concludes that this has been happening with the knowledge and acquiescence of the governments who have supported the different parties to the conflict and calls on them to bring an end to the violations.

The fate of tens of thousands of civilians who were forcibly disappeared by Syrian Government forces, many nearly a decade ago, remains unknown. Many are presumed to have died or been executed, while some are believed to be held in inhuman conditions of detention.

The report outlines how the Government, and to a lesser extent, other parties, are deliberately prolonging the suffering of their family members and loved ones.

“Hundreds of thousands of family members have a right to the truth about their loved ones’ fate,” said Commission of Inquiry Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “This is a national trauma that needs to be urgently addressed by action from the parties and the international community. Greater attention should be paid to the psychosocial needs of the victims and their families.”

The report concludes that no warring party in Syria has respected detained persons’ rights in line with international legal obligations.

The report finds:

  • The Government of Syria arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the context of detention.
  • ISIL, HTS, the FSA, the SNA, and the SDF have all unlawfully and arbitrarily deprived individuals of their liberty inside the Syrian Arab Republic. Furthermore, they have committed war crimes in that context.
  • ISIL and HTS have also engaged in crimes against humanity connected with the deprivation of liberty while ISIL carried out a genocide, in part through detention.

The report includes several recommendations, foremost among them that all parties must halt and prevent violations, immediately release specific categories of individuals, allow independent monitoring of detention facilities and provide support to victims.

“While the Commission has consistently urged such releases based on abhorrent, inhuman conditions of detention, the urgency is even greater now given that overcrowded prisons are likely breeding grounds for COVID-19, where detainees in fragile health may not survive,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally.

The Commission also urges the Government to take urgent, comprehensive steps to reveal the fates of those who have been forcibly disappeared. It also recommends that the international community pressure warring parties to prevent violations, establish a mechanism to account for the missing, and support victims, including Syrians and foreigners held in displacement camps.

The report also makes recommendations on ensuring accountability for the crimes it outlines - including by recommending that Member States enact effective legislation to enable the prosecution of individuals, such as that which led to last week’s ground-breaking verdict in Koblenz, Germany, where a former Syrian State official was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in the form of torture and deprivation of liberty.

The Commission’s report is set to be presented on 11 March during an interactive dialogue at the Human Rights Council. A more comprehensive report with extensive information on these violations will follow.


The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which comprises Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Ms. Karen Koning AbuZayd, and Mr. Hanny Megally, has been mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate and record all violations of international law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The full report and supporting documentation can be found on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’s Twitter and its webpage.

Media contact: Rolando Gómez, Media Officer, OHCHR, Human Rights Council Branch, [email protected] at +41 22 917 9711 / + 41 79 477 4411 or Matthew Brown, Public Information Officer, Human Rights Council Branch, [email protected]at +41 22 917 8366 / +41 79 201 0125