How is the international mechanism going to reveal the fate of Syria’s missing persons?
Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab
Years have passed since demands for international action to reveal the fate of detainees and forcibly disappeared people in Syria, and to form a serious international mechanism for prosecution and accountability that would contribute to achieving justice for thousands of Syrian victims.
Syrians are awaiting to learn the fate of their missing relatives, amid repeated disappointments regarding the fate of about 112,000 people who are still subject to enforced disappearance, at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria, according to human rights reports.
The international mechanism approved by the United Nations General Assembly, after a vote that was approved by 83 members and rejected by 11 others, last June, is a window of hope to reveal the fate of thousands of forcibly disappeared people in Syria, although there is no expectation of a quick response, or any impact in the near future, according to Diab Sariya, a former detainee and the co-founder and coordinator of the Association of Detainees and The Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP).
The families of the victims hope that the mechanism will help them reveal the fate of the disappeared, determine their whereabouts, and deliver their remains to their families, Maryam al-Hallaq, one of the founders of the Caesar Families Association, told Enab Baladi.
Al-Hallaq added that this work requires a lot of cooperation between many countries and international and Syrian organizations, and the institution is still in its first steps in terms of establishing and building the structure, and then identifying its specializations, “and we hope that its implementation steps will begin as soon as possible.”
The ADMSP director told Enab Baladi that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights based the report on long consultations, and worked to ensure that it was written based on the different viewpoints of organizations united by one goal, which is to reveal the fate of the missing.
Sariya believes that there are many families of victims who do not know what the international mechanism is, and here comes the role of associations and victims’ organizations to inform families of the mechanism and the nature of its work.
The file of the forcibly disappeared is linked to any real political change in Syria that could result in moving the file, according to Sariya.
The mechanism aims to reveal the fate of the forcibly disappeared and detained by the various parties to the conflict in Syria, through the formation of an independent institution with international oversight.
The Syrian regime refuses to acknowledge the crime of enforced disappearance it committed over the past years, and continues to work to keep everything related to detention centers ambiguous to Syrian and international human rights organizations, according to Sariya.
The regime worked to refuse to acknowledge the disappearance of Syrians by politicizing the issue of enforced disappearance and detention, to limit the impact of any steps that contribute to revealing the fate of thousands of detainees in its detention centers.
The mechanism is trying to bypass this politicization by continuing to assert that the mechanism is “neutral,” and its goal is humanitarian towards all parties to the conflict, the ADMSP director told Enab Baladi in a previous interview.
Long term results
Despite the absence of any signs of hope in revealing the fate of tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared persons in Syria, and after the inability of many initiatives to achieve a clear impact on the file, the families of the victims are still seeking to reveal the fate of their children and their families, despite the organizations that called for the mechanism not expecting a quick response or short-term results.
Sariya believes that the road to officially establishing the mechanism is still long, as writing the resolution that would clarify the fate of the disappeared and forcibly disappeared, in cooperation with a group of UN member states, may take months before it is voted on.
According to the former detainee, the mechanism will not have an immediate effect or carry quick answers, and he added that after writing the decision and sending it to the public, the procedures for forming the mechanism begin, and it is likely that the mechanism will be in force by the beginning of 2024.
What is the “international mechanism”?
Talk has emerged about an independent international humanitarian mechanism, concerned with revealing the fate of the forcibly disappeared and detained by the various parties to the conflict in Syria, since the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, welcomed, on April 8, 2022, the United Nations request in Resolution “76/22” to obtain a report to study a mechanism to enhance efforts, to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in Syria, identify the bodies, and provide support to their families.
This came after associations of missing persons and detainees and their families were able, at the end of 2021, to influence the decision of the “Third Committee” in the United Nations General Assembly, by adding a paragraph to the text of its periodic resolution, requesting the Secretary-General of the United Nations to conduct a study on “how to unite efforts to work on the file of forcibly disappeared persons in Syria, including the available mechanisms and the search for new solutions.”
After years of demands for international action on this file, and waiting for a mechanism to be reached under an international umbrella, the United Nations adopted its report in August 2022, as a pillar upon which real steps are built that contribute to revealing the fate of the missing.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), about 155,604 people, including 5,213 children and 10,176 women, are still under arrest or forcibly disappeared by the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria from March 2011 until August 2021.
Mechanism of Action
The mechanism provides for the establishment of an institution with international funding within a specific budget, and includes staff in various specializations and investigators of enforced disappearance, whose task is to collect information from open and private sources, with a focus on the data provided by the families of the disappeared, and assign specialists to search for leaked photos of torture victims.
In addition to calling on all parties to fully cooperate with the mechanism, including allowing entry to detention centers and requesting the release of detainees.
Ahmed Helmi, director and co-founder of the “Ta’afi” initiative in the “Kesh Malek” organization, told Enab Baladi, that the procedures at the present time are to write a memorandum of conditions on which the organization will rely.
In addition to translating the paragraphs that are important to include in the decision to establish the institution, which are related to the participation of the families of the forcibly disappeared in the work of this institution, and implementing them so that their families have full and effective participation. These procedures are expected to take about two months.
Helmi believes that, with the passage of 13 years since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, the UN resolution to establish an institution to detect the forcibly disappeared has been put forward, and it stands in solidarity with a movement within the families of the disappeared to form organizations or links so that they can have an influence on the institution and ensure its proper functioning.
Despite the existence of some international institutions specialized in searching for missing persons, Helmi believes that they are not dedicated to Syria, and their methodology and tools are not detailed for the situation in Syria, and there is no role for the families of the victims in them, and the importance of having a mechanism specialized in searching for missing persons in Syria stands out here.
Regarding the effectiveness of the institution in searching for the disappeared, Helmi said that the matter is related to several factors, including the cooperation of the regime with it and allowing it to enter Syria, which is a difficult matter and could take a long time.
However, the families of the victims are ready to continue pressing and advocating to help the institution reach Syria, enter detention centers and search for missing persons more effectively.
Since 2011, the world has celebrated annually on August 30 the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance, after the United Nations General Assembly announced its adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in December 2010.
The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution in 1992.
The General Assembly defines the enforced disappearance as “The arrest, detention, abduction of persons against their will, or other deprivation of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of government or by an organized group, or private individuals acting on behalf of or with the support, directly, indirectly, or acquiescence of the government or by accepting it, and then refusing to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or refusing to acknowledge their deprivation of liberty, which strips these persons from the protection of the law.”
What is the crime of enforced disappearance?
The UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance aims to prevent enforced disappearances defined in international law.
Article 2 of the Convention defines enforced disappearance as the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State, or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or to conceal the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which deprives him of the protection of the law.
It is the responsibility of the State to take appropriate measures to investigate the conduct defined in Article 2 by persons or groups of individuals acting without the authorization, support or approval of the state and to bring those responsible to justice.
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