The fate of the thousands of missing or forcibly disappeared “is one of the Syrian war’s greatest tragedies,” stated Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in a report to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly at the end of October in New York.
Over a decade since the war began, millions of Syrian families still don’t know whether their missing loved ones are dead or alive; there are no graves to visit, nor official papers to show what happened to them.
But it’s not just the missing whose lives and fates have been suspended in time. It is also the families left behind, who are forced to grapple with near-impossible bureaucratic procedures concerning their missing relatives, both locally and wherever they seek refuge, in order to proceed with their lives.
This exacerbates the suffering of devastated families, whose vulnerability also leaves them exposed to various forms of exploitation and abuse.
“Over a decade since the war began, millions of Syrian families still don’t know whether their missing loved ones are dead or alive; there are no graves to visit, nor official papers to show what happened to them”
Although Syrian family-led associations and international institutions, like the Red Cross, are working on this issue, there is no unified, neutral and international mechanism to help families uncover their relatives’ fates, deal with knock-on ramifications or access support.
The numbers are huge, and the needs extensive. Such an effort will require coordination, international sponsorship and funds. Victims’ families hope this will change if the UN General Assembly were to adopt a resolution to form a special mechanism to pursue the issue.
‘A new international body’
In August 2022, UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres recommended that the UN establish a “new international body” which contains “a structural element that ensures that victims, survivors and their families – as well as women’s organizations and other civil society organizations – may participate in a full and meaningful manner in its operationalization and work”.
Its mandate would be to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the missing in Syria; and to provide support to victims, survivors, and the families of those missing, including through the establishment of a trust fund. His report followed recommendations made by the Commission in June 2022 in its paper, ‘Syria’s Missing and Disappeared: Is There a Way Forward?’
Syrian family-led associations have played a crucial role in pushing for action internationally. Founding member of Caesar Families Association (CFA) Yasmen Almashan told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (AAJ), The New Arab’s English language sister publication: “We came to New York to keep pressuring member states to implement Guterres’ recommendation”.
Today, Almashan lives in Germany. Five of her brothers were killed opposing the Syrian regime and Islamic State (IS). One of her brothers died in a regime prison, with the family only learning about his death after seeing his photograph in the Caesar files.
An initiative led by Syrian families and survivors
Almashan says Syrian associations began trying to establish an international mechanism three years ago, when several met officials in Brussels to push for action on the issue. The associations were: CFA, Families for Freedom, Ta’afi Initiative (a survivor-centred organisation that supports former detainees), Massar (a coalition of families of people kidnapped by IS) and the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison.
She says they are trying to pressure the international community to act, with a vision of the kind of justice the families are looking for laid out in a paper called The Truth and Justice Charter.
While the Commission has recommended such a mechanism be established since 2016, UN member states have failed to respond effectively – in particular, the Security Council. Despite the council’s adoption of resolution 2474 (2019) “on persons missing as a result of armed conflict”, a consensus on Syria remains absent due to Russia’s support for the regime and its ability to veto decisions.
However, the UN General Assembly could pass a resolution to form such a body because member states cannot veto resolutions there.
Amina Khoulani, a founding member of Families for Freedom, said such a mechanism could additionally “rebuild trust between the warring sides in Syria, at the head of which is the regime, responsible for most of the prisoners in Syria, alongside other groups like SDF, IS, Al Nusra, and other factions”.
It could also rebuild trust between the international community and Syrians, who, “after nearly 12 years of bloody conflict, have completely lost trust in the international community for abandoning them to be fought over by armed factions under de facto rulers.”
The initiative’s power to rebuild trust is enhanced by being “led by the victims and families of the prisoners and missing”. Today, Khoulani lives in the UK. Three of her brothers were killed in regime prisons.
In New York, Khoulani and Almashan met with UN ambassadors and permanent representatives, alongside Red Cross officials. The German mission to the UN in New York also hosted them at a round table to discuss the issue and generate media attention.
Khoulani said complications arose from the absence of a single body through which all existing data on the missing could be accessed. “There’s lots of information held by Syrian and international human rights organisations, but they don’t always coordinate. Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s a kind of competition, which isn’t positive.”
She said the mechanism could gather all the data and give Syrians a place to document their experiences or search for information wherever they were. Khoulani also said this would stop families from having to retell their stories to different institutions and repeatedly revisit traumas.
“If an international, UN-monitored institution was responsible for this, everyone would be obligated, […] to provide their data, and it would become the reference point for information according to criteria and basic principles mentioned in the general secretary’s report,” she said.
“Evidence gathered indicates the Syrian government ‘meticulously’ registers information on all detainees, but withholds this information from family members, as do other parties to the conflict”
Fates are known – but kept from families
According to the Commission’s report, evidence gathered indicates the Syrian government “meticulously” registers information on all detainees, but withholds this “information from family members, as do other parties to the conflict”.
This prolongs the suffering of family members, and leaves “pressing legal issues related to civil status and property rights unresolved, with severe consequences for families’, not least female-headed households’, ability to deal with fundamental aspects of their daily lives”.
Almashan warns that families also face financial extortion and emotional blackmail by those who exploit their desperation to obtain information. They might even be subjected to violations – including rape and sexual harassment – for simply asking about their relatives.
This is a particular problem because a large proportion of the disappeared are men, and in many cases, the immediate relatives left behind are women and children – the most vulnerable segments of society.
Regarding solutions the mechanism could facilitate, Almashan says: “In CFA, we developed an app to compare photos of faces before imprisonment and after death, which helped spare families the pain of searching through the photos […] which was deeply traumatic.” She says the mechanism could promote similar
Another issue it could help with concerns official documentation for wives of the missing. Obstacles to obtaining documentation deprive many families of resettlement rights in other countries, as official papers, for example, death certificates, will be demanded, says Almashan. “But how can certificates be obtained from the regime, armed groups, or IS?”
Moreover, many don’t know the fate of their relatives, leaving women and children further disadvantaged, as “many issues depend on proving the husband’s fate, like education, inheritance, and custody of the children”. Khoulani says a ‘Missing Certificate’ could be provided to help families facilitate their civil affairs as a possible answer, through specialist involvement, a referral system, and coordination with other UN bodies.
The Commission also emphasised the cross-border dimension. “The complex transnational nature of the issue of the missing and disappeared is also apparent in the context of Yezidis missing as a result of genocide, most of whom were originally from Iraq but were last heard of in Syria, adding another transnational layer of complexity. Ten years of conflict have resulted in millions of Syrian seeking refuge outside the country, with many dying or going missing en route.”
“Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention were already serious concerns in Syria prior to 2011 and have been identified as both root causes and drivers of the current conflict”
“Families of missing and disappeared persons, as well as survivors, are largely concentrated in neighbouring countries but form part of a now global refugee and diaspora community,” the Commission added. It also stressed another important point in its report; “enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention were already serious concerns in Syria prior to 2011 and have been identified as both root causes and drivers of the current conflict”.
Almashan and Khoulani believe the UN needs to vote and speed up the implementation of the mechanism Guterres recommended, and that the “families oversee and lead on this.”
Syrian families know that forming this mechanism won’t solve all of their problems, but it will lighten some of their load, and be a step towards some kind of justice in Syria.
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