Paulo Pinheiro, Chair, CoI Syria
Side event: Moving Forward on Truth and Justice: Addressing the crisis of missing persons and detention in Syria
Madam High Commissioner
Friends, I want to focus my remarks on those who are missing or forcibly disappeared in Syria today, but in order to do that I should begin by speaking about the detainees. As has been said before to be detained in Syria today is tantamount to going missing.
Over these past ten years, tens of thousands of people have been unlawfully deprived of their liberty in Syria.
The vast majority have been held incommunicado - without possibility of communicating with their family, nor with a lawyer. Often their whereabouts are unknown.
This is why the issue of detention is so intimately linked with the issue of the missing and the disappeared in Syria.
The fate of tens of thousands of civilians who were forcibly disappeared by the Government forces, many nearly a decade ago, remains unknown. Many are presumed to have died or been executed – and are buried in mass graves -while others remain held in inhuman conditions of detention and facing torture or ill-treatment. The Government of Syria is not the only guilty party here. As we are seeing in cases being prosecuted outside Syria today, other parties have also been involved in committing such crimes.
What is clear is that the Government and other parties are deliberately prolonging the suffering of hundreds of thousands of family members by withholding information on the fate of those missing and/or disappeared.
It is long overdue that parties to the conflict cease these violations. It would go a long way to protect those in detention if independent humanitarian organizations have access to all detention facilities operated by the Government: regular prisons as well as those holding security detainees and operated by the security branches; those run by the factions affiliated to the Syrian National Army in the north; and those operated by the UN-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham and their “Salvation Government”. It is equally urgent that they have access to all places of detention in the northeast, where the Syrian Democratic Forces are currently holding more than 10,000 suspected former ISIL fighters including an estimated 800 boys between the ages of 12 and 18.
But access is only one essential step in helping families locate their relatives. The other is by creating an independent mechanism with an international mandate to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding missing persons, including persons subjected to enforced disappearance.
We warmly welcome the UN General Assembly's request in resolution 76/228 for a study to examine how to bolster efforts to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in the Syrian Arab Republic, identify human remains and provide support to their families.
As you know, OHCHR is now preparing the study, and in doing so is meeting with a wide range of Syrian victims, survivors and family associations, and other civil society organisations, many of whom are gathered here today.
From the Commission’s side, we are doing what we can to support this initiative and stand ready to support such a mechanism with the information we have gathered over the years.
An effective mechanism is needed as soon as possible: experience globally indicates that the longer it takes to establish such a mechanism, the more difficult it will be to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and disappeared. We know this from Latin America and other regions.
Whatever shape the mechanism takes, it needs to be able to address missing persons from all parties to the conflict without distinction.
And it must ensure the participation of the families of missing persons in Syria, and be accessible to them. They are also victims, and the mechanism should be seeking to strengthen their voices – as they seek information or access - through advocating for change with the relevant parties – and with States and others who have influence on those parties.
A mechanism could also offer technical advice and support to all parties who operate detention facilities in Syria on how to improve the situation and use these recommendations as benchmarks that can show progress or otherwise.
With the majority of the disappeared in Syria comprising men and boys aged 15 and above, women across the country have been forced to become the primary breadwinners of their family, while at the same time searching for their missing loved ones. In Syria, this search is fraught with danger, danger of being arrested, extorted, abused. In addition, with the custodial deaths of many detainees going undocumented, many women have been left in legal limbo, unable to gain inheritance rights, custody rights or move forward with other legal aspects that are necessary for daily life. These are day to day challenges for families of the missing that the mechanism may be able to highlight, champion and advocate for improvements.
June this year marks three years after the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2474 calling upon parties to armed conflict to take all appropriate measures to actively search for persons reported missing and to account for persons reported missing without adverse distinction. The Security Council further called upon Member States to take measures to ensure thorough, prompt, impartial and effective investigations and the prosecution of offences linked to missing persons as a result of armed conflict.
Ten years after the war started in Syria, it is high time that Member States step forward and provide such assistance to the Syrian people.