Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Update to the General Assembly on Missing Persons in Syria
08 April 2022
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
the General Assembly
Colleagues and friends,
In the words of a Syrian woman human rights defender: “Every day of delay puts more victims in danger, and with each day that passes with no action we lose more detainees, who are dying in detention.”
The quest for determining the whereabouts and fate of Syria’s missing persons, including those forcibly disappeared, abducted, and those arbitrarily detained, is emblematic of the pain, fear and enduring suffering caused by the country's long and terrible conflict. But the fact that families of the missing from across the country come together - despite the clear risks they face in demanding and uncovering the truth - is a testament to the strength and courage of the Syrian people.
I welcome the Assembly's request in resolution 76/228 for a report 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.”
The scale of this tragedy is daunting, with people going missing in different contexts, such as during hostilities, displacement or in detention. All too often, this is connected with a range of human rights violations and abuses. As the Secretary-General said in his briefing to this Assembly last year, tens of thousands of Syrians have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in dire conditions and often subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Men and women, as well as children, including boys as young as 11, have suffered sexual violence while in detention.
As we enter into the 12th year of the Syrian conflict, there continues to be a clear lack of progress in addressing the tragedy of missing persons. Despite the relentless work of Syrian victim, survivor and family associations and other civil society groups – and the efforts of many international bodies - the current status, whereabouts, and fate of tens of thousands people remain unknown.
Thousands of families of the missing remain in the dark. It is urgent that they are informed of the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones and be allowed to visit or communicate with them. Human rights and humanitarian agencies should be granted access to all places where detainees and abductees are held.
The impact on women relatives, and children is particularly severe. They face multiple legal and practical obstacles in key aspects of their daily lives. They are forced to becoming the sole breadwinner while undertaking the often terrifying and demoralising search for their loved one. Many are unable to sustain basic livelihoods, access their property, civil documentation, bank accounts, or access inheritance due in part to persisting discriminatory laws and practices pre-dating the conflict. Many have to fight for guardianship of their own children, often without social support and in the face of broader community stigmatisation. This affects their children in various ways, such as limited access to education, due to the financial impact of losing their family’s primary breadwinner.
The obstacles and abuses families face in searching for answers about their relatives only add to the trauma of not knowing. These include fears of reprisals when reporting cases, or extortion and bribes by those who prey on families’ desperation. Particularly horrific is the black market of forged and fake reports of detention and interrogation, further exacerbating families’ suffering.
The families are victims too, and have a right to the truth.
Realising this right is a key step towards accountability and reconciliation.
It is my hope that the Study will drive strong action by States and others to resolve this deeply painful situation.
My Office is committed to ensuring that the voices of victims and their families are central to devising solutions to the issue of missing persons. In preparing the report, OHCHR continues to meet with a wide range of Syrian victim, survivor and family associations, and other civil society organisations. In keeping with Resolution 76/228, this process is guided by a rights-based and victim-centric approach as well as the principles of objectivity, inclusiveness, and do no harm.
Families’ views must inform any option designed to address this issue, and their active participation must be recognised. Not only are they the most affected; but their voice is crucial to identifying the needs of their families and the communities impacted by this tragedy, including financial and psycho-social support.
My Office is also keen to ensure that this work takes into consideration the gendered impact of missing persons. Women’s perspectives are essential to this end. As stressed by a family member during these consultations, “women, despite great suffering on all sides and further victimization, are leading these efforts to find out the truth.” It is time we recognise – and support them for this leadership.
As required by the resolution, bilateral and multilateral consultations are also being held with other relevant actors, such as the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism, the Office of the Special Envoy, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Commission on Missing Persons, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Over 15 international experts are also contributing by sharing good practices from other contexts.
Member States can also powerfully contribute to advancing action in this area – as clearly demonstrated by the several recommendations on missing persons that were formulated during Syria's third Universal Periodic Review in January. My office sent a Note Verbale to all Member States in January 2022, including the Government of Syria, seeking their inputs on the study, and held bilateral and collective meetings with several States. I encourage all States to respond to OHCHR’s request for their views.
This report will draw up actionable recommendations to bolster efforts to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, and to support their families. These may include ways to strengthen the complementarity of existing measures and mechanisms, and options to improve our response, such as the possible creation of a new body dedicated to missing persons in Syria, as requested by several family associations.
Above all, I want to emphasise that the process of preparing this report is in no way an end in itself. It is essential that the international community respond to the magnitude and horror of the violations and crimes committed in Syria with concrete action to more strongly uphold human rights, human dignity and justice.
To paraphrase the words of a Member State from the consultations: we need to move fast, we need to move now, and we need to be proactive.
The victims and their families deserve no less.
Thank you, Mr President.