The Hague, 22 January 2024 – At a meeting facilitated by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) this weekend in Istanbul, Türkiye, representatives of Syrian civil society organizations discussed measures to account for missing persons from Syria.
Proposals include bringing together families of the missing and CSOs across political and conflict lines; promoting measures to ensure that States hosting Syrian refugees work with Syrian groups, including supporting data collection from refugees; and undertaking systematic investigations inside Syria by developing cooperation with, and among, Syrian human rights and first responder organizations. This last proposal includes human identification work undertaken to the highest scientific standards. Other recommendations include the creation of a Syrian law on missing persons, the establishment of an inter-ministerial Commission, and the development of a Syrian Central Record on missing persons.
Participants noted that the creation of the UN Independent Institution on Missing Persons (IIMP) has the potential to deliver results but emphasized that creating a strategic vision to tackle the issue – and the progress that can be achieved as a result of this – will depend on Syrian civil society and its interaction with the IIMP, and on cooperation with other international organizations. It will also be necessary, in due course, to transition from an international to a domestic entity responsible for accounting for the missing.
The group also supported the need to create a unified data system that incorporates the extensive knowledge and data collected by a variety of organizations, and emphasized the need to preserve the privacy rights of families of the missing and the integrity of the data they provide. And they explored ways of increasing the effectiveness of European Union (EU) and global efforts to locate Syrian migrants and victims of human trafficking, noting that Europe today has the highest number of dead and missing migrants and refugees in the world.
As many as 200,000 people are estimated to be missing as a result of atrocities committed in Syria before 2011 and in the conflict that has continued since then. These include persons missing as a consequence of summary execution, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, kidnapping and abduction, enslavement, sarin gas attacks, and forced displacement and migration, as well as other human rights abuses. The fighting and day-to-day ravages of war have also resulted in combatants and civilians of many nationalities going missing.
The Istanbul meeting was in-person and followed a series of virtual events over the last two years in which members of this group have participated. Organizations taking part were: Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Syrian Forum, The Day After, Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assistance Coordination Unit, Syrian Forum, Local Administration Councils Unit, Syrian Legal Development Program, Musawa Organization.
Under international law, the state is responsible for finding missing persons, investigating their disappearance, and securing the rights of families of the missing to justice, truth and reparations. The Syrian regime has failed to meet these obligations and has instead used enforced disappearance as a weapon against its own population. Participants noted that the regime’s contempt for the rule of law has made it virtually impossible to carry out serious, large-scale, systematic missing persons investigations inside Syria, especially in regime-held areas. Significant efforts, however, have been made to report and analyze abuses and document cases, including the names, locations and circumstances of disappearance, and possible perpetrators. This has been done by collecting data directly from families of the missing or from witnesses, or by triangulating open-source information and satellite/aerial imagery.
The meeting was funded through the generous support of the United Kingdom FCDO, which provides support to ICMP’s Syria/MENA program.
ICMP is a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with Headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands. Its mandate is to secure the cooperation of governments and others in locating missing persons from conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, migration and other causes and to assist them in doing so.
ICMP is actively involved in laying the foundations for a missing persons process that can be rolled out as part of a peace settlement in Syria. It maintains a centralized secure data repository that so far includes information from almost 70,000 families of the missing who have reported almost 27,000 missing persons cases related to the Syrian context.