A grass-roots coalition of Syrian families and advocacy groups has been lobbying United Nations member states and Secretary-General António Guterres to create an international system to help families across Syria learn the status of their missing relatives who have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared or abducted during the Syrian armed conflict, a 12-year-old civil war that remains active, despite waning media attention.
But after years of advocacy amid a backdrop of shifting geopolitical alliances, political jockeying and bureaucratic hurdles, the families may never get what they’ve been fighting for: a UN-backed mechanism that reveals the fate and final whereabouts of their missing loved ones.
The pain of not knowing when or if the mechanism will materialize only complicates the mental anguish that Syrians have carried for years, waiting for news of their disappeared and detained loved ones. Adding to that pain are verbal promises of support and solidarity from the international community that have yet to yield tangible results. For the advocates, as the deadline for establishing a mechanism looms, the idea of the door being shut on this opportunity dashes their long-held hopes and further obstructs the truth.
“We are frustrated with the hesitation of some member states. We are frustrated because we want the secretary-general to step forward, you know, and to facilitate this discussion,” said Ahmad Helmi, a 33-year-old abduction survivor and the founder of Ta’afi, a Syrian-led initiative providing support services to victims of detention, torture and forced disappearance in the country. Ta’afi is one of 10 similar organizations driving the advocacy effort at the UN. Collectively, they refer to themselves as the Truth and Justice Charter Group.
PassBlue spoke with Helmi in two phone interviews from the Netherlands, on Feb. 15 and 16.
In 2012, Helmi, who was studying engineering at Damascus University, in Syria’s capital, was targeted by government security forces — kidnapped, detained and tortured in various prisons for three years. He was released in 2015 after his mother, who Helmi jokingly describes as “stubborn,” paid a large sum of money. That year, Helmi relocated to Türkiye and later to the Netherlands, where he lives now.
“I mean, we have done all the effort. We have brought the momentum to the highest point,” Helmi said, referring to the coalition’s lobbying at the UN, which resulted in the General Assembly’s widely supported adoption of Resolution 76/228, on Dec. 24, 2021. The resolution strongly condemns “the widespread practice” of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture and expressed “grave concern about all persons missing as a result of the situation” in Syria.
It requested the secretary-general to do a study “on how to bolster work, including through existing measures and mechanisms,” to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in Syria and asks for another report on the outcome of the study to be completed within the first half of 2022.
In response, Guterres tasked the job of producing the initial study to Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, at the time. Distributed to member states on Aug. 2, 2022, just as Bachelet was finishing her term, the study recommended the establishment of a “new international body,” or mechanism, whose mandate includes ensuring that victims, survivors and their families are “provided adequate support . . . to clarify the fate and whereabouts of persons reasonably believed to be missing” in Syria.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an organization that has been monitoring and documenting human-rights violations in Syria since 2011 — when President Bashar al-Assad of Syria sent the military into the streets to silence pro-democracy protesters with bullets, igniting the brutal armed conflict — over 150,000 Syrians have been arbitrarily detained or disappeared by the government as well as by ISIS terrorists and other militant groups as the war morphed into numerous warring factions.
Amnesty International describes one of the most notorious centers of detention in Syria, the Saydnaya Prison, as the place “where the Syrian state quietly slaughters its own people.”
Meanwhile, on Nov. 11, 2022, the UN’s Third Committee, the General Assembly body responsible for the protection of human rights, issued the follow-up report to UN members, welcoming the findings of Bachelet’s study and requesting a briefing in the form of an “interactive dialogue,” to be held in the Assembly and scheduled by Guterres before Feb. 28, 2023. The dialogue would be followed by a vote in the Assembly on a draft resolution establishing the long-awaited mechanism, preferably legitimized by cross-regional support. [Update, March 2: A debate in the Assembly has been tentatively scheduled for March 28, but it is not confirmed that Guterres will attend, according to a source familiar with the situation.]
The request for creating the mechanism has won public backing from prominent global entities and people, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Commission on Missing Persons, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism, Syria, and the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen.
Additionally, on Dec. 21, 2022, in a statement provided by Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, Guterres, after meeting with members of the Truth and Justice Charter Group, “expressed his admiration” for their efforts and “reiterated his call on Member States to consider establishing, through the General Assembly” a system “to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the missing in Syria and provide adequate support to victims, survivors and their families, as recommended” in the Aug. 2 report.
But as February draws to a close, Guterres has yet to schedule the Assembly debate as requested by the Third Committee. If the meeting is not held by the end of the month, it could complicate funding for the mechanism this year. Moreover, while many member states, in numerous meetings with the Truth and Justice Charter Group, have expressed their verbal support and at least 50 countries backed the Assembly resolution of December 2021, they appear cautious now in deciding among themselves which member state or regional bloc will table the draft resolution to trigger the mechanism.
Although the system will not require the cooperation of the Syrian government, which, according to the Aug. 2 report, “has established bodies with authority to deal with the issue of missing persons,” it remains unclear why there is widespread hesitation among some UN member states and the UN secretariat at this stage of the process.
As to the scheduling of an interactive dialogue, Farhan Haq, the UN deputy spokesperson, said in a Feb. 17 email to PassBlue that the “request is being discussed, and we’re working to determine a good date for this event, but nothing has been scheduled, so at this stage, it’s not clear if the meeting will be scheduled this month [February] or next [March].”
PassBlue sent emails to some of the countries that have been supporting the mechanism all along to ask about the negotiations on its viability, but only a few replies were sent. PassBlue asked for a response about the possible General Assembly debate from the United States mission to the UN, which backed the December 2021 resolution, and in an Oct. 25, 2022 statement from Nate Evans, spokesperson for Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, it said the US “supports the call for the establishment of a stand-alone entity focused entirely on clarifying the fate and whereabouts” of missing Syrians. But in a Feb. 14 email, another US spokesperson replied that there was no comment “at this stage.”
Additionally, in an email response to PassBlue, a diplomat with the German mission to the UN said that the country “welcomed the Secretary General’s [Aug.2] report on how to bolster efforts to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in Syria and to identify human remains . . . and is working closely with international partners to explore ways to operationalize a humanitarian mechanism on missing persons in Syria.”
Hanny Megally, a member of the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry, told PassBlue: “Member states from around the world have a rare opportunity to put their weight behind this meaningful humanitarian effort through a UNGA resolution to establish a mechanism. Families have waited too long for action at the international level. The time to act is now.”
For the Truth and Justice group, the hesitancy of member states and the recent silence from Guterres is leaving them increasingly frustrated and further throws into question the fate of the system that Helmi and his fellow Syrians — many of whom, after so long, still don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones — have been fighting to be realized.
Helmi described his family’s anguish.
“The pain of the torture I endured during my years in prison was nothing to compare with my mom waiting for me,” he said. “You know, getting alarmed with every voice she hears with every phone ring. With every time the doorknob moves, thinking that I might be at the end of that voice or that movement. Everything I have been through is nothing to compare with the ambiguous pain and the agony my mom went through when I was disappeared, and thousands of Syrian families are going through right now.”
Many Syrian families’ old wounds were slashed open on Feb. 6, when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake rumbled through parts of Türkiye and northwest Syria, leaving mountains of pulverized concrete and gnarled metal, killing over 40,000 people and counting. In northwest Syria, home to millions of civilians displaced by the armed conflict and partly a rebel stronghold, UN humanitarian assistance was incredibly slow to arrive, hindering the search for survivors trapped under the rubble and leaving Syrians feeling forgotten by the world once again. (Two more earthquakes rocked the area on Feb. 20.)
In a tweet on Feb. 12, Martin Griffiths, the UN emergency relief coordinator, admitted that the UN’s lax response “failed the people in north-west Syria,” adding: “They [Syrians] rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”
At the #Türkiye–#Syria border today.— Martin Griffiths (@UNReliefChief) February 12, 2023
We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria.
They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.
My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.
That’s my focus now.
Yasmen Almashan, 42, founder of Caesars Families, an association based in Berlin of families forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime, described the UN’s earthquake response as “shocking.”
Born in Deir Ezzor, a city located about 200 miles northeast of Damascus, Almashan lost all five of her brothers during the war.
“In 2012, one brother was tortured to death by the Assad regime, and three were killed by a sniper,” she told PassBlue in a video interview with an Arabic interpreter, “and in 2014, the last brother was kidnapped by ISIS, and we don’t have any information about him.” Almashan left Syria for Germany in 2015 with her husband and five children. Along with Helmi, she is a member of the Truth and Justice group.
On Feb. 8, Almashan learned that her cousin, living in Türkiye, died in the quake along with four of her five children.
“I’ve lost trust in the international community because of what happened in Syria all those 12 years ago,” Almashan said. “It’s disappointing. We’re going to lose more souls because of these hardships and hassles.”
For many Syrians, the recent earthquakes compound the suffering that they still endure for family members who vanished during the peak of the Syrian war as they now wait for news of people lost under the mountains of rubble in northwest Syria.
Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser on Syria at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace (USIP), described the conflict in Syria as “frozen.” USIP is a nonpartisan institution founded by the US Congress that promotes conflict resolution and prevention worldwide by working closely with federal agencies, foreign governments and civil society.
“In my view, we’re beyond the era of large-scale offensives and large population displacements,” Yacoubian told PassBlue, referring to Syria. “The peace negotiations, as informed by UN Security Council 2254, are very much stalled. You could even say they’re in a deep freeze.” Negotiations for peace are no longer about pushing for a transitional government, she added. Instead, they’re “focused on how to take what is now a de facto cease-fire nationwide and formalize it. . . . Assad is essentially here to stay.”
Unanimously adopted by the Security Council on Dec. 18, 2015, Resolution 2254 called for a cease-fire and political settlement in Syria and remains the basis on which all negotiations by the UN envoy, Geir Pedersen, are conducted with the Assad government and Syrian civil society.
As to the fate of the UN mechanism for disappeared and displaced Syrians, Mohammad Al Abdallah, a former detainee and director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a Syrian human-rights organization, said that what’s missing now is political leadership. Syria is not a “big priority for anyone,” he said, referring to the UN member states. “This is a political will discussion . . . that nobody is leading on, and nobody wants to put the political capital behind it.”
Helmi says he won’t stop pushing for the mechanism, however. “I don’t think Syrian families will take no for an answer,” he said. “We will continue lobbying and annoying member states. Believe me, Syrian families know how to be annoying.”
Souad Rodi translated the interview with Yasmen Almashan.
The article was updated on March 2.
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The United Nations often seems to be blind, deaf and voiceless in matters such as this. While not ignoring many positive actions taken by the overall UN system, it has developed a reputation for not achieving the desired effects of justice and freedom from harsh regimes or substantial national development and human rights for many developing countries.