The Hague, 12 April 2021 – Syrian civil society representatives and other key actors called for the immediate release of all who are missing following arbitrary detentions in Syria during a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).
The 8 April 2021 discussion addressed the harrowing circumstances of detention in Syria and the continued political challenges surrounding efforts to account for detainees held primarily by the Syrian government, but also by other parties to the conflict. Participants underlined the need to address the immediate need to know the location of detainees and other missing persons and noted the importance of accountability and justice for both the victims and their families.
“The families of the detained and missing are at a breaking point,” said ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger. “The measures in place to address detention are not working. We need to explore avenues for new ways to address this horrific issue. We need measures tailored to Syria’s situation that do not rely on current practices, such as political exchanges.”
“The driving force on detention is the vibrant Syrian civil society,” said Lena Alhusseini, Head of ICMP’s Syria/MENA program. “Their voice in this process has been critical to the achievements made so far, including the provision of evidence in courts in Europe,”
Estimates cited by the United Nations in 2021 indicate that over 100,000 persons are missing as a result of the current conflict in Syria. In addition, the country has a legacy of missing and disappeared persons cases linked to human rights abuses and other causes that occurred prior to the conflict, and Syrians who have fled the fighting have gone missing along migratory routes.
It is unclear how many of the missing have disappeared due to arbitrary detentions by Syrian government forces. International and Syrian law ban arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.
“Essentially, tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained by all parties. To be detained in Syria is to be missing because parties do not provide information about the detained. People have died in detention due to the bad conditions: the overall picture is quite horrific and requires immediate action,” one participant said in the meeting, held under Chatham House Rules.
Speakers noted that in addition to appalling conditions and torture, the Covid-19 pandemic poses a serious threat to the detainees, many of whom are likely to have weak immune systems because of malnutrition and the abuse they are exposed to.
Joining others in calling for the urgent release of detainees, one speaker noted: “We would rather see those alive released than receive the remains of deceased detainees.”
All parties in the conflict and their backers are aware of the violations against detainees and their families, a participant said: “Nobody can say: ‘we didn’t know.’”
Participants in the discussion recommended immediate action to reveal the fate of detainees and to ensure families and humanitarian agencies access to detention centers, and a participant called for the establishment of a mechanism to address detainees and other missing persons as a humanitarian issue. They highlighted the need for a centralized data repository to collect data on all missing persons, including detainees.
ICMP, as part of its support for work to lay the foundation for finding those missing from the conflict, including detainees, maintains a centralized, secure data repository that so far includes information from almost 50,000 families of the missing who have reported almost 20,000 missing persons cases related to the Syrian context. The repository is growing with families adding information.
The roundtable discussion was part of ICMP’s broader effort to address the issue of missing persons in the context of the Syrian conflict. It follows a policy process discussion that is summarized in an October 2020 ICMP report. ICMP also facilitates the work of a Syrian Policy Coordination Group that is working to develop recommendations and a general policy framework on missing persons in Syria.
ICMP is a treaty-based international organization that seeks to ensure 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 also supports the work of other organizations in their efforts, encourages public involvement in its activities and contributes to the development of appropriate expressions of commemoration and tribute to the missing.