Humanitarian purpose of the Independent Institution on Missing Persons in Syria and the political danger

Syrian activists from the Families for Freedom group in Berlin show solidarity with the families of detainees in Syrian prisons and the missing in Berlin - May 7, 2022 (Families for Freedom)

Syrian activists from the Families for Freedom group in Berlin show solidarity with the families of detainees in Syrian prisons and the missing in Berlin - May 7, 2022 (Families for Freedom)


Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

In light of the existence of several political tracks related to the Syrian file and this issue being raised in its agendas, the United Nations General Assembly approved on June 29 a resolution that will establish an independent body to clarify the fate of more than 130,000 missing persons in the war-torn country.

The resolution that authorizes the establishment of an Independent Institution on Missing Persons in Syria, under UN auspices, was an important response “to clarify the fate and whereabouts of all missing persons… and to provide adequate support to victims, survivors and the families of those missing”.

It was adopted by the 193-member world body with 83 votes in favor, 11 opposed, and 62 abstentions.

The file of the missing and forcibly disappeared in Syria has been repeatedly raised in several political tracks, such as the UN initiative through the Syria Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC), and the Astana track, without progress in the file for years.

‘Cooperation not support’

Since the beginning of the arrests and enforced disappearances at the hands of the regime forces in 2011, calls for the establishment of an independent international institution began with a preliminary discussion among the Syrians themselves and the concerned human rights organizations, such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the monitoring group, said to Enab Baladi.

In its first report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria recommended that the regime government establish a mechanism to investigate disappearances by allowing relatives to report details of their cases and ensuring that appropriate investigations are conducted.

Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, stated on June 29, 2022, that the mechanism “which is expected to be issued soon” falls within the humanitarian context and that criminal accountability, the path of justice, or responsibility should not be confused with the search for the disappeared and missing.

Since March 2022, the commission has called for the establishment of an independent mechanism with an international mandate to coordinate and unify claims related to missing and forcibly disappeared persons.

Pinheiro explained at the time that the UN initiative is completely independent of the Syrian regime, and its implementation does not require its approval, pointing to his hope that after the beginning of its work, the mechanism will reach a “kind of dialogue” with the Syrian regime, due to its possession of information about the missing persons.

The director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, lawyer Mazen Darwish, told Enab Baladi that the existence of this UN body is “excellent” in itself, for for the first time, there is a UN body responsible for the file of the missing, and it is an independent body far from the parties to the conflict.

Darwish believes that one of the guarantees of the success of the work of this commission is the cooperation of the parties to the conflict, especially the government of the regime, which helps it reach results that serve the goal of forming it in an “easier and faster” manner, in addition to ensuring a participatory role for the Syrian civil society and the families of the missing and forcibly disappeared, and providing funds and logistical and technical requirements.

Despite the independence of the UN body from all Syrian political tracks and the normalization talks with the regime, Darwish believes that it will be affected by the political position adopted by the parties to the conflict in terms of their cooperation with it or not.

The rights advocate stressed that the UN institution should not be part of any Syrian political track, as it would be at the negotiating table or become a political card between the actors, describing the commission’s function as “above negotiation.”

“Political advocacy”

SNHR’s director told Enab Baladi that the notion of revealing the fate of missing persons is not limited to the forcibly disappeared, who are considered the most prominent of them, but rather includes the drowned and the dead whose fate is unknown to their families and society.

There are about 156,000 people detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria, of whom 112,000 are forcibly disappeared, for whom the Syrian regime bears the greatest responsibility at a rate of 86%. Abdul Ghani also explained that this data documented by the SNHR is the minimum of the actual number of victims.

Regarding the importance of the UN body, Abdul Ghany said that the need for this body comes to advocate for the file of the missing and place it within the table of a political solution, as there is no solution without addressing this issue and highlighting it to the public opinion so that it is included in the agenda of the active countries in the file, and demanding the disclosure of the fate of the detainees and their release.

SNHR director added that the institution will undoubtedly mobilize Syrian and international human rights efforts to support the file of the missing, and it may be able to build a central database and it will form a platform with which tens of thousands of families of the missing can communicate, but its role will not be to release arbitrary detainees.

Abdul Ghany expected that the Syrian regime and the rest of the parties to the conflict would not cooperate with the institution, which would complicate its tasks in revealing the fate of the missing, and that its mandate would not provide for accountability for the perpetrators of violations.

He added that the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria is “higher and stronger” than this newly established body regarding the issue of detainees, but it was unable to release any detainee or reveal his fate.

In turn, the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Darwish, indicated that the tasks of the UN body fall within the “confidence measures” mentioned by the United Nations resolutions on Syria, especially Resolution 2254, as the issue of knowing the fate of the missing and forcibly disappeared is a humanitarian matter that falls within the confidence measures that precedes the negotiation process.

Solving the issue of the missing and forcibly disappeared inside Syria helps to reach social peace because it is a transient issue for all regions, sects, and ethnicities, regardless of the political orientations or the civil or military status of the missing and disappeared.

Reducing the “societal tension” by finding a solution to the issue of the missing will lead to the possibility of the beginning of a phase of sustainable peace in Syria, according to lawyer Darwish.

The SNHR report, issued on July 4, documented no less than 1,047 cases of arbitrary arrest or detention, including 43 children and 37 women, in Syria, during the first half of 2023.

The SNHR indicated that most of the missing persons in Syria are the result of arbitrary detention and that the new UN institution should clearly define this.

On July 5, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that the “Syrian government” and all other parties must release those arbitrarily detained and stop exposing their families to extortion.

All possible measures must be taken, in line with Security Council Resolution 2474 of 2019, to locate all those detained or disappeared, reveal their fate or whereabouts, and ensure communication with their families, the report added. 



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