Syria: Crisis of Detained and Disappeared Must be Addressed by UN Member States

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

On Wednesday 30 June 2021, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) hosted a side event to the 47th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, titled “Humans not Numbers: The Case for an International Mechanism to Address the Detainees and Disappeared Crisis.” Held in collaboration with the Charter for Truth and Justice victim based organizations[1] and the International Service for Human Rights, the event featured a discussion on the need for an international mechanism to centralize efforts to locate the detained and disappeared and bring answers to thousands of Syrian families.

The panel included Walid al Dabak from the Caesar Families Association, Dr. Jeremy Sarkin former chair of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and Heba Swid from the Ta’afi Initiative. Elizabeth Rghebi, the Levant Researcher at CIHRS moderated the discussion.

Walid al Dabak spoke about his two brothers who were detained in Syria. A photograph of his brother Bashar was released in the “Caesar photos,” but Osama’s fate remains unknown. Al Dabak underscored the urgent need for the international community to ensure justice and accountability as perpetrators in Syria remain free and the human rights abuses, including torture, continue.

Dr. Sarkin made the case for establishing an international mechanism for the missing in Syria, based on lessons learned from past mechanisms and the requirements of the unique context in the country. He argued that such a mechanism must not be limited to revealing the fates of the detained and disappeared, but it must also work to secure the release of those whose lives remain at serious risk in detention, especially with the added threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heba Swid, a former detainee of the Syrian regime, described her experience of being denied the right to health in detention, as she was denied the required medication for diabetes. As a result, her health deteriorated significantly. Detainees also suffer in horrific conditions which include torture, malnutrition, lack of proper ventilation, and overcrowding.  She also highlighted how so many families seeking information about the location of their relatives or to secure their release are vulnerable to financial exploitation by officials and con-artists. Families pay a lot of money in order to obtain information much of which is either false or incorrect. She called on the international community to protect those that remain imprisoned in Syria and to prioritize locating the missing.

Syrian organizations have been leading a campaign to establish an international mechanism to locate those missing in Syria as a result of detention and enforced disappearance. In its most recent report, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria echoed these calls and recommended that UN member states facilitate the creation of a mechanism “to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding missing persons, including persons subjected to enforced disappearance… and effectively track and identify those missing and disappeared; help consolidate claims filed with a wide variety of non-governmental and humanitarian organizations” in order to “locate the missing or their remains, including those found in mass graves.” Subsequently, this call has been reasserted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The European Parliament also passed a resolution passed in March 2021 which supported the establishment of such a mechanism.

It is critical that such a mechanism is created with the meaningful participation of victims and their families as the Charter for Truth and Justice victim-based organizations outlined in the recent report Humans not Numbers: The Case for an International Mechanism to Address the Detainees and Disappeared Crisis. This is a necessary and urgent step to save detainees and the disappeared and bring answers to families about the fates of their loved ones.


[1] Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS, Ta’afi Initiative, Caesar Families Association, Association of Detainees and the Missing in Saydnya Prison, Families for Freedom

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