Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, the Assad regime has wielded detention and enforced disappearances as weapons of war against its own people to quash, dissent, and stifle opposition voices. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 155,243 individuals, including 5,204 children and 10,171 women, still languish under arrest or remain forcibly disappeared as of June 2023. While all parties to the conflict are implicated in this abominable legacy, the Assad regime bears the lion’s share of responsibility for these unspeakable violations.
The families of the disappeared, survivors of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance, and human rights advocates have for years advocated for the release of Syria’s disappeared. They have sought answers about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. These efforts by Syrian civil society and the families of missing and the forcibly disappeared have recently led to the establishment of the UN Independent Institution on Missing Persons in the Syrian Arab Republic. The Independent Institution is mandated to investigate enforced disappearance committed by all parties of the conflict in Syria, including state and non-state actors, using a victim-centered approach.
While the establishment of the Independent Institution is an important step forward, there are a number of other areas that demand action. As we commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance on August 30, Refugees International calls for the following steps to be taken by the international community:
- Immediate Liberation: Pressure the Assad regime to release all arbitrarily detained or disappeared individuals from its detention centers. Their freedom is non-negotiable, and their voices demand to be heard.
- Urgent Investigations: Public prosecutors across Europe, the United States, and other regions should initiate investigations into crimes against humanity in Syria, including detention, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence. These investigations are necessary to pursue justice for victims and hold perpetrators accountable. These investigations can be launched based on countries recognizing universal jurisdiction. Germany’s use of such jurisdiction serves as a precedent.
- Support for the Missing Persons Mechanism: Member states, UN officials, and civil society must strongly endorse and support the international mechanism for missing persons in Syria and actively engage in and support the identification and location of disappeared individuals to help provide closure and healing for their families and investigate the disappearances of Syrian returnees and deportees within the country.
- Empower with Legal Aid: Provide robust legal and financial aid to empower former detainees outside Syria in pursuing justice against their tormentors. Justice must prevail, granting those who have suffered the opportunity to seek redress.
- Upholding Pressure and Protection: The international community must maintain consistent pressure on Arab states, preventing normalization efforts with the Assad regime from resulting in oppressive measures that force Syrian refugees to leave, guarding against their detention and disappearance by the regime.
To mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, Syrian activist and Refugees International Fellow Wafa Ali Mustafa, whose father has been forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime in Syria for 10 years, released the following statement:
“Today, we share a tale of communal heartbreak in Syria, a narrative shared by countless families torn apart by oppressive forces. Normalizing relations with regimes that commit war crimes is a betrayal to all victims and sends a dangerous message that such actions will go unpunished. We demand justice and freedom, so that those forcibly disappeared can be found, reunited with their families, and the suffering of millions of Syrians can no longer be erased from the pages of history.”
To schedule an interview, contact Refugees International Vice President for Strategic Outreach Sarah Sheffer at email@example.com.
Featured Image: Wafa Mustafa holds a photo of her father, who has been forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime in Syria for 10 years. Photo credit: Mohammed Abdullah.