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Security Council stalemate frustrates families of Syria’s missing detainees

In Idlib, Syria, a displaced woman sits on the floor outside the damaged school that she now lives in.
In Idlib, Syria, a displaced woman sits on the floor outside the damaged school that she now lives in.

Security Council stalemate frustrates families of Syria’s missing detainees

Peace and Security

Families of the more than 130,000 people believed to be detained and forcibly disappeared in Syria, are deeply frustrated by the Security Council’s failure to unite and make progress on the issue, the 15-member organ was told on Thursday.

Wafa Ali Mustafa, a Syrian journalist, activist and member of Families for Freedom, which campaigns for the release of Syrian detainees, said their numbers are still growing as the Syrian government and armed groups continue to use detention “as a weapon to terrorize civilians” in violation of international law.

Among those detainees is her father, Ali Mustafa, a human rights defender who has not been seen or heard from, since he disappeared in July 2013.  “We have never been told why he was taken from us or where he’s being held,” she said.

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‘A pain unlike any other’

“To have a loved one who’s detained or disappeared, and not to know their fate, is like waking up one day and realizing that you have lost a limb,’ said Ms. Mustafa, briefing a video-teleconference Council on political aspects of the war in Syria that erupted in 2011.

“I can tell you, it is a growing pain, a pain unlike any other”, she said.

She said that families of detainees are “deeply frustrated” by the Council’s collective inaction and abdication of responsibility to address a crime against humanity.

“My colleagues have shared our stories and demands with you, but to this date no progress has been made,” she said, emphasizing that the COVID-19 pandemic – and the risk of the virus spreading fast in detention facilities – is cause for added urgency.

“We hear excuses about the need to prioritize other humanitarian or political issues in Syria, that now is not the time to focus on detainees.  But all these issues are connected – and this Council can and must address them all at once.”

Release the names

She urged the Council to put pressure on the Syrian authorities and others to immediately release the names of all people in detention, along with their locations and situations.

“Torture and mistreatment must immediately cease, and detainees must be allowed routine contact with their families”, she said, adding that the families of any detainees who have deceased must be informed of the circumstances of their passing and given access to burial sites.

Follow international law: Pedersen

Geir O. Pedersen, the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Syria, also briefing the Council, said the issue of detainees, abductees and the missing requires sustained and meaningful action, in line with international law.

Such action – on a topic that touches all Syrian families – can help build confidence in society, as well as between the parties and international stakeholders, he said, speaking ahead of a planned reconvening of the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva in August.

‘Vastly insufficient’ progress on constitutional reform

“Frankly, progress on this file has been vastly insufficient, to the frustration of many Syrians, inside and outside Syria,” he said.

That is a pity because it is a cause that all Council members can get behind, he added, recalling their unanimous adoption a little over a year ago of resolution 2474 (2019) on missing persons in armed conflict.

During her briefing, Ms. Mustafa came out strongly against the idea of prisoner exchanges between warring sides, saying that is no substitute for a comprehensive solution to the crime of unlawful detention and enforced disappearance.

At the same time, she welcomed the start in the western German city of Koblenz in April, of the trial – under the principle of universal jurisdiction – of two alleged former Syrian intelligence officials on torture charges.

The two men, identified by prosecutors only as Anwar R and Eyad A, were arrested in Germany in February 2019, as part of a joint investigation with French judicial officials following a series of criminal complaints filed by human rights activists and torture survivors, according to news reports.

Demanding answers

Ms. Mustafa encouraged other countries to follow Germany’s lead in pursuing justice, adding however that the real hope is to see perpetrators brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“I frequently receive messages from families of the detainees – sometimes dozens a day,” she said.

“They have not given up on demanding answers about their loved ones.  I wonder how many members of this Council can also say they have not given up on their responsibility to protect civilians, defend human rights and see justice done.”