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Most significant appeals of CIHRS  to the HRC before its 46th session: Redress for victims and their families and accountability for perpetrators in Syria and Yemen

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

As the United Nations Human Rights Council prepares for its 46th session, scheduled for 22 February to 23 March 2021, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) submitted two written interventions to the council earlier this month on the human rights situation in Yemen and Syria.

The first intervention on Yemen focuses on the importance of international accountability for serious crimes committed in the country and guarantees of compensation and redress for Yemenis victimized over the years of the conflict. CIHRS and Mwatana for Human Rights called on UN member states to swiftly adopt the recommendations of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) including a recommendation to form international mechanisms guaranteeing criminal accountability for international crimes committed in Yemen. The intervention underscored the need to take concrete steps to address the serious gap in accountability and to present a comprehensive, credible agenda to ensure accountability and redress, including compensation, in Yemen.

The intervention urged member states to continue their support of the GEE by providing adequate resources to allow the experts  to continue their work documenting violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Yemen and submitting reports to the UN HRC. The intervention also called on the GEE to form an independent investigatory commission for Yemen to function as an impartial, independent international instrument to help investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for the most serious crimes under international law.

The second intervention on Syria, submitted by the CIHRS and its partners, asserted that the release of detainees and the disclosure of the fate and location of people forcibly disappeared in Syria are urgent priorities not only for Syrian families and survivors of detention, but are crucial to the HRC’s role in realizing justice, accountability, and redress for victims and their families.

The intervention recounted new examples of the rampant detention and torture of tens of thousands of Syrians, pointing to ongoing impunity for arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. The intervention thus called for an end to violations in Syrian detention centers and urged that the Syrian government and other de facto authorities be compelled to honor their obligations to inform the families of the disappeared of the fate of their loved ones, release civilians, and allow humanitarian organizations access to all places of detention. The intervention affirmed that any political efforts must include a plank on survivors, with the goal of realizing victims’ rights to the truth and justice. The intervention further demanded support for an independent, international investigation committee on Syria to investigate human rights abuses and to consider the formation of an independent international instrument to investigate information about detainees and disappeared persons.

This intervention was submitted by CIHRS in cooperation with the Association of Detainees and Disappeared in Sednaya Prison, the League of Caesar Families, Alliance of the Families of ISIS Abductees, Families for Freedom, and the Taafi Campaign.

Human Rights Council
Forty-six session
Agenda item 2
Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General
Written statement submitted by Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a non-governmental organization in special consultative status
The Secretary-General has received the following written statement which is circulated in accordance with Economic and Social Council resolution 1996/31.

To end humanitarian devastation, the time is now for the UN to ensure accountability and reparations for human rights crimes in Yemen

 

  1. Grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law

For over six years, the world has watched as war has torn Yemen apart and devastated its people. Impunity for war crimes and other violations of international law have fueled the conflict, creating the world’s “largest man-made humanitarian catastrophe”[1].

In 2020, the warring parties in Yemen continued their wider assault on human rights in Yemen, with civilians killed, wounded, arbitrarily detained, disappeared and tortured. The warring parties also obstructed humanitarian aid, recruited and exploited children, occupied schools and hospitals, and attacked healthcare and humanitarian workers.

Grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights were committed across the country by all warring parties including the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, the forces of the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and armed groups loyal to it, and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC).

The attack on Aden International Airport on December 30, 2020, which coincided with the arrival of the new unity, power-sharing cabinet formed in December 2020 between the internationally recognized government and the Southern Transitional Council, is yet another on a long and ever-growing list of tragedies underscoring the urgent need to end impunity and ensure accountability for perpetrators and reparations for victims. The attack, which killed twenty-two people and wounded dozens, including ICRC staff members and journalists[2], was called a “transgression of such magnitude [that it] potentially amounts to a war crime”[3] by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Mr. Martin Griffiths.

As 2021 begins, the warring parties continue to commit serious violations, and the fate of millions rests in part upon whether or not the international community will heed the recent calls of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE) and take adequate steps to address this “pandemic of impunity.”

  1. Ensuring criminal accountability for international crimes committed in Yemen

In its third annual report to the Human Rights Council[4], the GEE said it supported the “establishment of a criminally focused investigation body […] to conduct further investigations and prepare case files to be shared with relevant prosecutorial authorities.” The experts also recommended the Security Council refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court, and encouraged third States to collaborate and undertake universal jurisdiction prosecutions where appropriate. In the longer term, the Group encouraged “further dialogue about the creation of a special tribunal such as a ‘hybrid tribunal’ to prosecute cases of those most responsible.” The GEE also reiterated the importance of victims’ right to remedy, including reparations.

The undersigned organizations call on the UN and its member states to urgently take up the GEE’s recommendations, including by exploring the establishment of international mechanisms aimed at ensuring criminal accountability for international crimes committed in Yemen.

In addition to pursuing concrete steps to “help bridge the acute accountability gap,” such as advancing a holistic and credible accountability and redress agenda for Yemen, states should continue supporting the GEE, including by providing sufficient resources to continue its work documenting and reporting on human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen to the UN Human Rights Council.


*Mwatana for Human Rights, NGO(s) without consultative status, also share the views expressed in this statement.
[1] Crises Overview by OCHA See: https://www.unocha.org/yemen/crisis-overview#:~:text=Four%20years%20of%20relentless%20conflict,humanitarian%20crisis%20in%20the%20world
[2] Twitter Statement by CPJ MENA (30 December 2020) See: https://twitter.com/CPJMENA/status/1344345603858456578
[3] Press Release by OSESGY on UN Special Envoy’s Call with Yemen’s Foreign Minister (31 December 2020). See: https://osesgy.unmissions.org/press-release-un-special-envoy%E2%80%99s-call-yemen%E2%80%99s-foreign-minister
[4] Report of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (28 September 2020). See:   https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/GEE-Yemen/2020-09-09-report.pdf


Human Rights Council
Forty-six session
Agenda item 4
Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
Written statement submitted by Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a non-governmental organization in special consultative status
The Secretary-General has received the following written statement which is circulated in accordance with Economic and Social Council resolution 1996/31.

Organizations urge the HRC to seek truth and justice for detained and disappeared Syrians

 

After ten years of conflict in Syria and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the release of detainees and the disclosure of the fate and whereabouts of disappeared individuals remains the most urgent priority for Syrian families and survivors of detention. Yet, nothing has been achieved at the international level to provide truth and justice to victims and their families. An approach centered on survivors and families of detainees and the disappeared in Syria is therefore necessary to ensure victims’ voices are prioritized and their demands and rights fulfilled.

  1. Widespread detention and torture of tens of thousands of Syrians

Syria’s history has been marked by arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance for decades. Even prior to the conflict, the Syrian government under the rule of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad, the enforced disappearance of political opponents was a constant tool of control over the civilian population. Since 2011, the Syrian government has escalated the use of this tool and has conducted a widespread and systematic campaign of arbitrary detention targeting civilians, political opponents, and any individual perceived to be in opposition, amounting to crimes against humanity including extermination, rape, murder, torture, enforced disappearance, and other inhuman acts.

In early 2014, a collection of photographs of corpses was smuggled out of Syria by a military defector code-named “Caesar”, came to public attention demonstrating the magnitude of state-sponsored torture in greater detail. The images, which were taken between May 2011 and August 2013, revealed emaciated bodies with marks indicative of torture. The individuals included in the pictures were later identified as victims of torture while under the custody of the Syrian government. The number of individuals tortured to death by the government have now reached to tens of thousands of individuals.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people are still detained in prisons run by the Syrian government. As of 2021, arbitrary detention continues to be the most urgent challenge to human rights in Syria, with numerous cases of individuals being detained following their return to government-held areas or their forced return and deportation to Syria from their countries of asylum. Additionally, tens of thousands are still disappeared. Families have no way to find out the truth about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, and in many cases paying huge bribes to security officials is the only way to obtain information. These bribes have become one of the most important forms of financing for the Syrian government.

In other parts of Syria, armed groups control the territory. These groups have also detained numerous civilians. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) established detention facilities in several areas under its control and subjected detainees to serious abuses, including torture and summary executions, amounting to crimes against humanity including murder, torture and enforced disappearance. While the real number is difficult to estimate, the disappearance of thousands has been documented.

Despite the magnitude of these crimes and the large number of victims affected, families of Syria’s disappeared have been left alone to search for their relatives, often at great personal risk. After ten years, the Syrian government, armed opposition groups and the States with most influence over them – Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the United States – have failed to take any action to assist the relatives of the disappeared and missing who have been fighting for years to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

  1. Ongoing impunity for arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance

Until today, the Syrian government has failed to disclose the fate, names, and locations of individuals arbitrarily detained and disappeared by Syrian security forces. In summer 2018, the Syrian government released some death certificates and updated the records of civil registries by changing the status of individuals disappeared to “deceased” due to natural causes, which has denied families the right to know the true circumstances of death and the location of their loved ones’ remains, as affirmed by the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. By releasing the death certificates, the Syrian government attempted to close the discussion about the disappeared and claim that their fate had been revealed. The Syrian government has failed to fulfill its obligations under international law for both detainees and their families.

In the case of ISIS, families’ demands and rights remain neglected. After ISIS lost the territory under its control, the de-facto military authorities the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Democratic Council, its civilian authority,  (supported by the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS) gained access access to evidence, including mass graves, former detention-centers and former members of ISIS, but have failed to meet their responsibilities to find the disappeared and have consistently failed to cooperate with the families of disappeared.

The families of the disappeared have also been sidelined by the international community. In international efforts to solve the Syrian crisis, the release of detainees and disclosure of information on the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared have been ignored. For example, the Astana Talks between the Syria opposition and the Syrian government, under the auspices of Iran, Russia, and Turkey, have attempted to monopolize the efforts on detainees and the disappeared by establishing a working group on the issue. The families have opposed the work of the Astana Working Group, because they were never consulted or informed about its work. Moreover, the working group has focused on the exchange of prisoners between warring parties rather than the unilateral release of civilians being detained, prioritizing warring parties’ interests over families’ rights and demands.

As a result, Syrian families and survivors of detention have mobilized and created their own coalition in order to enhance their participation in decision-making efforts regarding detainees and the disappeared in Syria, to advance their demands for truth and justice, to ensure that their rights are prioritized and centered in political and military negotiations and any victim-centered resolution of the conflict. In the past year, the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of Sednaya Prison, Caesar Families Association, the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS (Massar), Families for Freedom, and Ta’afi have developed a survivor-centered vision on truth and justice in Syria, placing the voices and demands of survivors, victims, and their families at the foundation of truth and justice – which should be the basis for any sustainable political solution in Syria. The priorities on truth and justice and the guidelines on victims’ participation in any decision-making process constitutes a much-needed road-map for a political solution to the conflict where Syrian survivors’ and families’ voices are centered.

  1. Conclusion and recommendations

As reiterated by the Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence in a recent communication to Syria, “[f]ailure to include in peace negotiations measures aimed at addressing those violations and promoting access to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of nonrecurrence contravenes international standards and risks undermining peacebuilding efforts and the achievement of sustainable peace.”

In light of the aforementioned, our organizations urge Member States of the Human Rights Council to:

  • Call for an end to violations in Syrian detention centers and demand the Syrian government and other de-facto authorities fulfill their obligations on the right to truth for families of disappeared, including the release of civilians and access for humanitarian organizations to all place of detention;
  • Ensure that any current and future political efforts regarding the Syrian conflict adopts a survivor-centered approach and aims to fulfill victims’ rights to truth and justice;
  • Urge an end to the Astana Track’s monopoly over the release of detainees and truth about the disappeared and demand that the release of detainees and disclosure of their fate should not be subject to political negotiations between parties to the conflict;
  • Support the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’s efforts to investigate human rights violations in Syria and vote in favor of renewing its mandate at the 46th session of the Human Rights Council.
  • Consider establishing an international, independent mechanism to investigate information about detainees and the disappeared, with a view to disclosing the fate and whereabouts of those who have been forcefully disappeared or arbitrarily detained and ensuring accountability and redress for victims and their families in cases where violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have been committed.

*The Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of Sednaya Prison, Caesar Families Association, the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS (Massar), Families for Freedom, and Ta’afi, NGO(s) without consultative status, also share the views expressed in this statement.

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