Members of the Security Council,
Thank you for the opportunity to brief the Council on the crucial issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons in Syria.
I’d like to welcome Dr. Hala and Ms. Khoulani to today’s briefing.
In June this year, this Council unanimously adopted resolution 2474 on “Missing persons in armed conflict”. The resolution establishes a clear link between solving the issue of missing persons and resolving conflicts. In conversations with us, many Syrians see resolution 2474 as a glimmer of hope.
Given the continued lack of access to places of detention and to detainees in Syria, the UN has no official statistics on those detained, abducted or missing. What we know comes from accounts recorded and corroborated by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, mandated by the Human Rights Council, and human rights organizations since the start of the conflict in 2011. While the UN is not able to verify, reports suggest that more than 100,000 people have so far been detained, abducted, disappeared or went missing, largely, but not only, by the Syrian government.
Many families have no information on the fate of their loved ones. Detainees, including women and children, are held without due process or access to legal representation or their families. Places of detention are not accessible to the UN or international monitors. Records from hospitals or burial sites are not public. Some families have been forced to pay enormous sums of money in hope of obtaining information—often in vain.
Deaths in detention have continued to occur, allegedly many as a result of torture, neglect or inhumane conditions. For the families of detainees, their tragedy is compounded by the difficulty of obtaining death certificates or remains. Even if they obtain the certificates, the real causes of death remain hidden.
Women, besides being direct victims, are also impacted when their husbands or male relatives disappear. Syrian women risk losing legal rights, including their housing, land and property rights. This happens if they cannot explain their husband or male relative’s whereabouts and lack legal documentation or a death certificate. Many women under these circumstances carry the heavy burden of sustaining their entire families. For refugees or those internally displaced, these challenges are multiplied.
The Commission of Inquiry has documented since 2011 how the Syrian government has, and I quote, “perpetrated the crimes of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, and imprisonment in the context of its widespread and systematic detentions of dissidents, as well as those perceived to be sympathetic to armed groups”.
Perhaps the most prominent evidence of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in government detention centers is the more than 50,000 photos smuggled out of Syria by a military defector and made public in 2014. These photos show nearly 7,000 dead bodies bearing marks of torture.
Following the government’s reassertion of control in some areas previously held by armed groups, the UN has continued to receive reports of civilians arbitrarily detained or disappeared, including in areas subject to so-called “reconciliation agreements”.
Human rights organizations have reported cases of detention and enforced disappearance of refugees who return to Syria or IDPs who return to their places of origin. Surveys by UNHCR indicate that fear of detention is among the factors preventing refugees from return.
These abuses are not limited to Government forces. According to the Commission of Inquiry, ISIL and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, both designated by the Council as terrorist organizations, have committed heinous abuses.
Armed groups affiliated with the opposition have also committed serious abuses. They allegedly established makeshift places of detention in different areas of their control where captured government soldiers, suspected collaborators with the government or members of opposing armed groups were held and sometimes executed. Reporting from human rights organizations indicates that armed opposition factions currently controlling Afrin have conducted arbitrary detention, torture and abduction of civilians. The Syrian Democratic Forces have also conducted arbitrary detentions, including the arrest of men attempting to evade forced conscription.
The Government of Syria claims that the number of those detained by armed groups is estimated at 16,000. However, without access to all detention centers in Syria, the UN cannot verify the accuracy of this information.
Justice and accountability for these abuses must be ensured, regardless of the perpetrators.
The UN is also concerned that thousands of foreign nationals—many women and children who are family members of alleged ISIL members—are currently being detained in the Al Hol camp. We call on Member States to ensure that their nationals are repatriated for the purposes of prosecution, rehabilitation or reintegration, as appropriate, and in line with international law and standards.
Special Envoy Pedersen has prioritized the case of detainees, abductees and the missing. Meaningful action on this file would build confidence and move the political process forward.
The Special Envoy continues to seek progress within the working group on this issue where the UN is a member, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey. The International Committee of the Red Cross is an observer.
Since it was established in December 2017, the working group has facilitated four exchange operations, including one last week. The releases of detainees so far, while welcomed, are insufficient in scale – nowhere near commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. Only 109 people in total have been released thus far.
We stress the need for the parties to move beyond “one for one” exchanges. All sides should engage in unilateral releases, in the true spirit of resolution 2254. Furthermore, meetings of the working group should occur regularly and with more frequency. I urge the working group to also adopt the procedures on missing persons which have been submitted by the United Nations.
And I reiterate the invitation by the United Nations to host the next meeting of the working group in Geneva.
In its resolutions 2139, 2254, and 2165, this Council called for the release of those arbitrarily detained, particularly women and children. These calls must be heeded especially by those with influence on the Syrian parties. The UN stands ready to provide all necessary support.
The parties must fulfill their obligations under international law, to unilaterally release all arbitrarily detained or abducted, and most urgently, women, children, the sick and elderly. They must collect, protect, and manage all the relevant data and documents on detainees, abductees and missing persons and establish a mechanism with the ICRC to manage this information in coordination with the Office of the Special Envoy. Furthermore, they must provide families with information; identify the dead and return remains, wherever possible, to their relatives. Last, they should provide, without delay and through appropriate channels a list of all places in which persons are being detained and arrange for immediate access to such locations by a neutral third party.
Accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights is central to achieving and maintaining durable peace in Syria. In this regard, all parties to the conflict must cooperate fully with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism and the Commission of Inquiry.
Finally, Madame President, I reiterate the Secretary-General’s call for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.