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Will a UN Plan to Track Missing People in Syria’s War Materialize? The Jury’s Still Out

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Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Volker Turk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, told the General Assembly that an initiative to help Syrian families find missing relatives from the continuing civil war is a “simple, deeply human need, perhaps one of the few things that unites people who are otherwise bitterly divided,” March 28, 2023. The next step is still under debate among member states. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE  

After many delays brought on by a devastating earthquake, shifting geopolitical alliances and paralyzing indecision among United Nations member states, the General Assembly met on Tuesday to debate the creation of an institution to help Syrian families learn the fate of their missing relatives who have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared or abducted during the Syrian civil war, a conflict that has been raging for the last 12 years.

“It breaks my heart to see such a warm and welcoming people now suffering so much,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, referring to the Syrian people in his opening remarks. Therefore, “I urge all Member States to act and I call on the Government of Syria and on all parties to the conflict to cooperate. [The mechanism] is essential to help Syrians heal and remove an obstacle to securing sustainable peace.”

Like Guterres, Volker Turk, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, briefed the Assembly before the interactive dialogue began, emphasizing the right of all Syrians, “on every side of the conflict,” to know the fate of their missing loved ones.

“It is such a simple, deeply human need,” Turk said, adding, “I stand here before you to amplify their voices.” Turk, who is based in Geneva, also spoke to reporters after the meeting, conceding that although the Syrian government is unlikely to cooperate in developing an institution to find missing people, the problem is a “shared concern” that “could unite the people of Syria.”

Remarks delivered by numerous member states at the debate, however, revealed a sharp divide between those who support the initiative and those countries who see it as a veiled attempt to politicize the plight of the Syrian people and, most of all, ostracize the government.

Venezuela, who spoke on behalf of the group of friends of the defense of the UN Charter, referred to establishing a missing persons mechanism as a “flagrant violation” of the charter and called for “an end to the politicization and weaponization of human rights for the purpose of attacking sovereign states or for the purposes of advancing narrow and self-serving agendas.”

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The mechanism would need the approval of the General Assembly, but no date has been decided on for a vote. Luxembourg said that it was leading a cross-regional plan to present to member states.

Belarus, also a member of the group of friends, rejected the mechanism, adding that “country-specific approaches” focused on human rights “violate the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-discrimination, and they result in greater confrontation.”

Russia predictably described the debate as “an egregious example of political pressure and a manifestation of double standards.” At the same time, China blamed Syria’s “fragile” socioeconomic conditions on “the long-running illegal unilateral sanctions imposed by a [inaudible] certain country.”

Established in July 2021 by Venezuela, the coalition says that it supports the implementation of the UN Charter through multilateralism and dialogue, a vague concept that most UN members ascribe to. The group includes Cuba and North Korea, who also spoke at the debate.

Notably not attending was Syria. However, in his remarks at a March 23 Security Council meeting on his country, Bassam Sabbagh, the ambassador to the UN, referred to the “campaign organized” by Westerners to raise the issue of the missing persons in Syria as a “politicized attempt . . . to distort facts and increase pressure on a country that has been fighting terrorism on behalf of all the peoples of the world.”

More than 30 countries representing most regions except Africa spoke at the informal Assembly event. Olof Skoog, the European Union envoy, delivered remarks on behalf of the 27-member bloc and “candidate countries,” including Türkiye, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Georgia, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino. Martin Bille Hermann, Denmark’s ambassador, also spoke for Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

“We must do everything in our power to fight for justice and for the [Syrians’] right to truth,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the UN. “That’s why the United States strongly supports the Secretary General’s recommendation to establish a new standalone entity to focus on this work.”

The last speaker, Luxembourg, confirmed its full backing for creating “a new international institution” to determine the fate of missing Syrians and announced its intent “with a trans-regional group of member states” to present a draft resolution to endorse the mechanism in a yet-to-be determined date.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which has been monitoring and documenting human-rights violations in Syria since 2011, more than 150,000 Syrians have been arbitrarily detained or disappeared by the government and by ISIS terrorists and other militants as the ongoing chaos in Syria became a breeding ground for several warring factions.

Calls to create a UN-backed mechanism to assist Syrians in determining what happened to disappeared or detained relatives began with the Truth and Justice Charter group, a coalition of 10 organizations run by Syrian families.

The group lobbied UN member states for months, leading to the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 76/228 on Dec. 24, 2021. The document strongly condemns “the widespread practice” of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture and 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. It also asks for a report on the results of the study to be done within the first half of 2022, as PassBlue has reported.

Guterres appointed Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, to produce the study just as she was wrapping up her term. It was sent to member states on Aug. 2, 2022, and 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.

On Nov. 11, 2022, the UN’s Third Committee, the General Assembly body responsible for the protection of human rights, published a follow-up report, requesting an “interactive dialogue,” to be held with Guterres before Feb. 28, 2023.

Although initially the delay in scheduling the dialogue reflected hesitancy among countries to move ahead on the project — potentially complicating funding for the mechanism this year — the plan was decisively interrupted on Feb. 6, when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through parts of Türkiye and northwest Syria. The devastation shifted the UN’s focus to providing the region with urgently needed humanitarian aid.

For many Syrians, the destruction caused by the earthquake is reminiscent of the chaos that plagued the country during the peak of the civil war, which began in 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad ordered his military into the streets to silence pro-democracy protesters, igniting the armed conflict that has not let up. Assad’s brutal crackdown led to sanctions and widespread condemnation from the international community, including the Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2011.

However, Assad has leveraged the earthquake and the country’s desperate need for humanitarian help and financing to stage the inklings of a diplomatic comeback, consulting recently with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, all of who appear welcoming to the dictator.

Additionally, Assad met with his staunchest ally and partner in the civil war, President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 14, the anniversary of the conflict. The UN’s human-rights office estimates that between March 1, 2011 and March 31, 2022, more than 300,000 Syrians were killed in the war.

Ivan Simonovic, Croatia’s envoy, said that his country “knows from experience that in the search for missing persons, time is working against us.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

At the UN’s press briefing on March 17, PassBlue asked Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson, whether Guterres supported normalizing relations with Assad without any attempt to hold him accountable for potential war crimes committed under his leadership during the civil war.

In response, Dujarric referred PassBlue to earlier statements by Guterres on the issue of accountability and called on member states “to depoliticize the humanitarian operations . . . to support the people” in Syria impacted by the earthquake.

“We also hope that these natural disasters can be an opportunity to redouble the efforts to find a political solution . . . that the parties within Syria [and] the parties from outside who have an influence can use this moment to move forward together with the support of our Special Envoy on Syria to bring people back to the table, to find the political solution that’s needed,” Dujarric said. “We have seen in the past natural disasters being kind of sparks or accelerators to finding political solutions to areas that have been in conflict for a long time.”

Further, on March 27, in a letter addressed to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a bipartisan group of nearly 40 former US officials and experts called on the US to consider a “new policy framework” toward Syria that actively opposes “normalization” with Assad, prioritizes accountability and will “address the causes and drivers of the Syria conflict [and] not simply the symptoms (e.g., the terrorism and human suffering the conflict generates”).

Beginning in March 2011, the US slapped the Syrian regime with “calibrated sanctions” aiming to deprive the regime of resources to continue its violence against civilians and to pressure the government to enable a “democratic transition as the Syrian people demand,” according to the US State Department’s website. That has not happened.

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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Will a UN Plan to Track Missing People in Syria’s War Materialize? The Jury’s Still Out
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