Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Türk calls on UN General Assembly to establish new, independent institution on missing persons in Syria
28 March 2023
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk
77th session of the UN General Assembly
Vice-President of the General Assembly,
The conflict in Syria, now in its 13th year, is a human rights tragedy. Millions of ordinary people have suffered – and continue to suffer – death or injury; sexual violence; abduction, disappearance and torture; displacement; deprivation; and grief. The tragic earthquake last month is yet another blow to people who have already been through so much. My most fervent hope for all Syrians is that the suffering comes to an end.
It is impossible to establish with certainty how many people have been disappeared in Syria. The figure of 100,000 is often cited; the real number may well be far more. What is certain is that families on every side of this conflict have been devastated. Families on every side of this conflict want to know what has happened to their loved ones. I stand here before you to amplify their voices.
It is such a simple, deeply human need -- perhaps one of the few things that unites people who are otherwise bitterly divided. It is also their right to know the truth.
Children are growing up with a gaping absence where their father should be. Wives, mothers and sisters are struggling to support their families. Without proper documents, they have no rights to property; they may not even be able to travel with their children or even send them to school. There is also stigma: the fear that associating with the family of a missing person could bring down yet more violence on the community.
Searching for their loved one exposes them to risks of exploitation, physical threat and extortion, demands for payment for information about their whereabouts that may later prove to be false, or even reprisals.
Survivors, who have been released after arbitrary and incommunicado detention in Syria, have spoken to us about how deeply scarred they are by the experience. Torture, including sexual violence, is rampant, and death has been a close and constant neighbour. But although most of the disappeared are men, the experience is especially traumatizing for women. After their release, many women and girls are rejected by their families because of the assumption that they have been raped – and therefore supposedly “dishonour” their relatives. This harrowing accumulation of trauma has led many women survivors of disappearance to disappear again – by leaving the country – or even to try to kill themselves.
In terms of the sheer number of people affected, and the magnitude of its impact on survivors on every side of this conflict, the crisis of missing persons in Syria is crushing in its enormity.
Decisive steps by the international community are needed, to provide an effective path to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people, to pursue the release of those who continue to be detained, and to provide support to families. There will be no enduring peace in Syria without progress on these issues that are fundamental to families, communities and society as a whole. The pain, the loss, and the injustice are simply too great.
Pursuant to this Assembly’s resolution 76/288, and at the request of the Secretary-General, my Office has led a broad consultative process with international and Syrian institutions and civil society organisations working in the area of missing persons. They included numerous associations of victims, survivors and their families, many of them women-led. I take the opportunity here to honour the courage and determination of so many individuals whose right to know the truth about what has happened to their loved one is the driving force behind this initiative.
These consultations have been absolutely clear. Those most affected do not believe that incremental improvements to existing mechanisms and processes will be adequate to meet the scale and severity of this crisis.
Currently, a wide range of actors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Commission on Missing Persons and multiple Syrian associations, register claims by families; seek out information to identify human remains; and assist families in various ways. But while each of them conducts activities that are important and profoundly valuable, no individual actor can address the full range of needs. Even together, they are not able to provide meaningful answers and adequate support commensurate with the immense number of families who are searching for missing relatives.
Most of the actors that we consulted agreed that a new, dedicated entity should be established, with a mandate to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people, and provide families and survivors with answers and adequate support. A number of Member States have also indicated support for such an approach.
Such an institution would work in cooperation and complementarity with existing actors, filling the gaps identified in the Secretary-General's report A/76/890 and providing a framework for them to continue and coordinate their work.
It would serve as a clear, readily accessible and victim-centered point of entry for survivors and families. This clarity should be an important step in building back the trust of victims and survivors.
Several key guiding principles for this institution were emphasised by those consulted:
First, the new institution needs to be centred on victims and survivors. Engagement with families and survivors, as well as Syrian civil society organisations, is critical from the earliest stage and throughout its operations – including extensive consultations with them on its design and functioning. Nothing about them without them. Families and survivors are not just beneficiaries; they are partners. They are the ones who identified the gaps and challenges, and their expertise must guide us as we develop meaningful ways to address the harms that affect them.
Second, the institution needs to emphasise gender-sensitivity, from its design and staffing to its management of cases, and search and support work. All its operations must fully grasp the disproportionate burdens of disappearance on women, and seek ways to alleviate it.
The institution needs to be inclusive and operate without discrimination, whether based on ethnic origin, political opinions, gender, refugee status or any other such characteristic.
It needs to be guided, in all search activities, by the working presumption that the missing person is alive and in urgent need of help.
Disappearance is not a partisan issue. There are disappeared people on all sides. The institution must be non-partisan, impartial and independent of any party.
Finally, the institution needs to be guided by the do-no-harm principle in its operations. This is especially important when engaging with families that have repeatedly given sensitive, personal information to many actors, only to be met by what they feel as insufficient follow-up, leaving them mistrustful, retraumatised, and still in the dark.
Let me turn to the parameters for such an institution effectively to carry out its mandate. While there are a number of options, we propose the following minimum requirements.
First, the new institution needs to cover all persons who have gone missing in relation to Syria, regardless of location or nationality.
All families with a missing person must be informed about where they can report to, what the next steps are, and who to reach out to when they have questions.
The institution must be based in a location where survivors and families feel safe, and it must guarantee robust data protection. To support the global diaspora of Syrian families of the missing, it needs to include outreach to areas in key geographic locations.
In addition to being fully grounded in human rights, this broad-based institution should seek to incorporate multidisciplinary expertise on areas, such as documentation, trauma and gender transformation, and to partner with forensic and other technical experts.
It needs to be transparent, with regular public reporting, and provide effective space regularly to hear from the families it serves.
Regarding working methods, the new institution ought not to replicate the services provided by existing actors. Instead, it needs to work cooperatively with them, avoiding information silos that can arise where multiple entities work on similar issues.
In particular, the new institution should support, rather than displace, the deep and valuable relationships that Syrian associations have forged with families and survivors.
It needs also to be adaptable by design, so that in the future, and as necessary, it can evolve into a hybrid or national mechanism. The goal, ultimately, must be for this institution to become Syrian.
In terms of structure, I suggest two main sections: one focused on search, and the second focused on victim support and participation.
Search work would include prioritizing cases, and consolidating existing claims and data into a searchable database. Some activities, such as case consolidation, could require wider partnerships, and these might also be useful in overcoming practical issues around access.
The victim support component of such an institution needs to assess and respond to the immediate and longer-term needs of families and survivors, with particular attention to women and girls. It will need to build and support a network of resources and service-providers that can be drawn upon for help in a host of issues, from obtaining identity documents to psychosocial or legal support and various other things.
The continuing absence of many tens of thousands of people, from small children to elderly men and women, cries out for strong action. This shared pain -- this widespread loss – in neighbourhoods and villages across the country must be addressed. Reconciliation will remain distant without such work. Steps in this direction can begin to restore trust between divided communities.
I therefore call on the General Assembly to consider the establishment of a new institution that will help bring answers and support to all the families of the many thousands of disappeared, and to survivors – bringing clarity about what has happened to all the people of this wounded and exhausted country, and extending hands of practical support and assistance to those desperately in need of them. We owe the people of Syria no less.
Thank you, Mr Vice-President
For more information and media requests, please contact:
In New York:
Laura Gelbert + 1 917 208 6656 / [email protected]
Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / [email protected] or
Liz Throssell + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected] or
Jeremy Laurence + +41 22 917 9383 / [email protected] or
Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]
Seif Magango - +254 788 343 897 / [email protected]