IDLIB, ERIHA, SYRIAN NORTH, SYRIA - 2018/09/28: A crowd marches with flags and banners in the town of Eriha in Idlib calling for the release of detainees held by the Syrian regime. (Photo by Muhmmad Al-Najjar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Explainers

Putting Families’ Needs at the Center: A Humanitarian Approach to Disappearance in Syria

Families looking for their disappeared loved ones is a painful but familiar trend emerging out of Syria in the past decade. Enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention have become such a widespread situation for hundreds of thousands of Syrian families that, as recalled by the Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, “nearly all Syrians have been victims, one way or another.” 

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, approximately 150,000 people have suffered enforced disappearance or arbitrary detention in Syria since 2011. The majority of detention and disappearances have been committed by the Syrian regime, which have used these violations as a key weapon to spread terror among the population, to silence and annihilate the opposition, and to financially benefit. Families were further distressed after the Syrian regime started registering hundreds of forcibly disappeared persons as dead and issuing death certificates in 2018, without even notifying the families or providing them with the truth and or opportunity to bury them. In addition to the Syrian regime, many of the armed groups fighting in Syria—such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Syrian National Army—have operated detention facilities where torture and extrajudicial execution were widespread. Prior to its defeat, ISIS was responsible for the disappearance of thousands of individuals opposed to the group’s authority and ideology. Dozens of mass graves have been found, but the search for the fate and whereabouts of these individuals have been marred by a lack of prioritization by local and international actors, in addition to the sidelining of family members and uncoordinated and inadequate efforts by actors responsible for the exhumations. 

Against this backdrop, the call for concrete actions to address the detainees and disappeared file has been at the center of the international community’s discourse on Syria—yet statements of solidarity have not manifested in real solutions at the international level. The issue of detainees’ release and disclosure of truth had figured since the beginning of the international community’s efforts on Syria, with the Geneva Communique calling for the quick release of detainees, and provision of list of people detained in addition to unfettered access to places of detention. However, the international community failed to fulfill such demands within the Geneva-based track. Nevertheless, in the recent years—thanks to the unrelenting advocacy and mobilization efforts by associations of victims, survivors, and family members—the international community had started to re-prioritize the issue and highlight the urgent need to establish a mechanism to address the detainees and disappeared file.

In light of this, in May 2021 five leading associations of victims, survivors, and families of the detained and disappeared (namely, the Association of Detainees and Missing of Saydnaya Prison, the Caesar Families Association, the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS – MASSAR, Families for Freedom, and the Ta’afi Initiative) launched a study making the case for the establishment of a humanitarian mechanism to address the detainees and disappeared issue. By adopting a humanitarian approach, the mechanism would focus on fulfilling the families’ right to know the truth and victims’ right to freedom. As such, the objectives of the mechanism consist of “getting the detained released, locating detention facilities, finding the remains of those who are no longer alive and beginning the process of finding out what happened to them rather than pursuing prosecutions” as well as any other long-term criminal justice efforts.

Discussion over the creation of a humanitarian mechanism was anticipated by the release of their Truth and Justice Charter, a ground-breaking milestone in the justice and accountability discourse within the Syrian context. The Truth and Justice Charter is a joint initiative by the five aforementioned victims’ associations which lays out a common vision and framework on the issue of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention in Syria. The general framework detailed in the Charter sets forth the vision of the victims when it comes to justice, redress, accountability, and the future of Syria. In this regard, within the Charter, the victims’ associations differentiate between short-term justice and long-term justice. Short-term justice consists of a number of urgent and immediate measures aimed at putting a halt to ongoing violations and alleviating the suffering to which victims and their loved ones continue to be subjected—namely, the release of detainees, the disclosure of truth about their fate and whereabouts, and the delivery of their remains to the families, in case of death. 

The call for the establishment of a humanitarian mechanism for the detainees and disappeared marks a significant steppingstone in the ongoing quest for truth and justice in the Syrian context; and read together with the Truth and Justice Charter, it attempts to focus on forms of justice that have the most tangible impact on peoples’ lives and put them at the center of the efforts taken by the international community and other actors on Syria. “A grave became a dream,” said Maryam al-Hallak, the mother of a Ayham Ghazzoul, a young Syrian activist killed under torture in 2021. Indeed, in a context where criminal accountability and perpetrator-focused efforts—including criminal prosecutions, sanctions, and other legal efforts taken against the regime—have been prioritized, the victims’ associations reinforce the importance of truth as an immediate form of justice for families and survivors and as a demand that can no longer be postponed. “ Our detained and loved ones are exposed every day to all forms of torture that may cost their lives,” explains Lamis al Khatib, whose partner, the photojournalist Niraz Saeed, had been arrested by the Syrian regime in 2015.  

The suffering caused by being left in the dark about the fate and whereabouts of loved ones, in addition to the cruel refusal of the perpetrators to provide any information, is considered a form of torture in international law. “I have been detained for three years and have been subjected to every sort of torture. But nothing of what I have suffered can compare to the continuous and never-ending suffering that families are suffering when they don’t know the fate of their loved ones,” says Ahmad Helmi, a survivor of three years of arbitrary detention in Syrian regime prisons. Not knowing the truth also affects families of the disappeared in their attempts to build a dignified life: in many cases, wives of the disappeared find themselves facing insurmountable legal challenges caused by the absence of a man of the family—something that can create complications as it relates to property rights, financial matters, social welfare, and family law. Within this context, knowing the truth would not only allow families to finally know what happened to their loved ones, but also allow hundreds of thousands of families, wives, and children, to address their basic needs to conduct a more decorous life. “There will be no sense of justice served at any time if the fate of disappeared and detained relatives and friends remain unknown,” according to the victims associations’ study.

Indeed, it is not right to continue to sideline truth-seeking measures in favor of other perpetrator-focused efforts, as this will not only risk to add to—and prolong—the continuous torture inflicted upon family members, but also to forget the hundreds of people still detained. Another tangible impact of the humanitarian mechanism, as set out by the victims’ associations, would be the possibility to fulfill the families’ right to have a future with their loved ones, with the primary goal of saving those still detained. In many cases, international efforts pertaining to disappeared people have been limited to issues concerning exhumations, collecting ante-mortem data and DNA from families, and locating mass graves. While these efforts are of fundamental importance for families whose loved ones have been declared dead through death certificates or were identified in the Caesar Pictures, a monopoly of attention by the international community on disappeared people only as deceased victims risks forgetting the hundreds of thousands of people still alive, abandoned in detention centers at the mercy of the Syrian regime and other parties. 

In this regard, the victims’ associations have frequently called for any step on the issue to start by investigating and tracing the disappeared and detained in order to secure the release of those who are still alive. Their release—and thereby the restoration of freedom, dignity, and family life to hundreds of thousands of people—is the first and foremost priority for family members and fellow survivors of arbitrary detention and torture. Indeed, families do not have the luxury to wait for their family members to die before the international community takes action: “I don’t want for my dad to get killed and then go to a German court to ask for justice,” said Wafa Mustafa during a sit-in in front of the Koblenz court. Wafa’s father, Ali Mustafa, disappeared in the Syrian regime prisons in 2013. At the same time, for survivors it is unthinkable to break the promise they made, time ago, to their fellow companions in detention that they would not forget them, and they would make anything to get them out. For the international community, forgetting this essential element of the reality that family members and survivors face on a daily basis, or simply considering it too complex, would in essence mean betraying the right of hundreds of families to have a future with their loved ones. 

The launch of the victims’ associations’ study marks an important milestone in the struggle to achieve the full truth on the detainees and disappeared file in Syria. By focusing on the importance to consider truth as immediate form of justice, the need for a humanitarian mechanism and the call to save the rest first, this new effort puts victims’ needs and perspectives at the center of the discourse. But first and foremost, this study and the steps taken by the victims’ associations before and after its launch tell another important story: that family members, survivors, and victims must play a pivotal role in any truth-seeking efforts in the future. Rather than being merely witnesses and sources for documentation, victims’ associations are the main actors for the ability to identify which form of justice should occur in Syria, to provide concrete recommendations on which way truth should be achieved and, overall, to play a central role and participate in any stages and aspect of truth and justice efforts for Syria. The importance of victims’ participation was already enshrined by the recent resolution on the human rights situation in Syria at the Human Rights Council in March 2021; however, more efforts are called for by the international community to ensure the genuine, meaningful, and real participation of victims and family members. States aligning with the principles identified by the victims’ groups to finally solve the detainees and disappeared crisis in Syria is a first step in that direction.