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At Long Last, the UN Votes to Create a System to Find the Fate of Missing Syrians in the War


Olivier Maes, Ambassador of Luxembourg to the UN
Olivier Maes, the ambassador of Luxembourg to the UN, said of the June 29 vote by the General Assembly to back an independent body to determine what has happened to the disappeared and missing Syrians in the war, said, “By today’s action, we are telling the Syrian families that we understand their suffering and that we have heard their call.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

Syrians who have spent years agonizing over the whereabouts of their jailed or disappeared relatives are one crucial step closer to clarifying the fate and whereabouts of their missing loved ones, as the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution to establish an independent institution to find the fate of missing persons in Syria.

The resolution is a result of a grass-roots coalition of Syrian families and advocacy groups who for years have been lobbying UN member states and Secretary-General António Guterres to create an independent body to help families across Syria learn the status of their missing relatives who have vanished during the Syrian war, now in its 12th year.

“This [resolution] is a historical win for Syrian victims,” said Ahmad Helmi in a text message to PassBlue after the vote on June 29. “My self, now, and only now, I might have the guts to look at my friends who I left behind in prison and tell them I’m sorry I left you there, but I’m doing all in my power to get you out.”

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In 2012, Helmi, who was studying engineering at Damascus University, in Syria’s capital, was targeted by government security forces. They kidnapped, detained and tortured him in various prisons for three years. He was released in 2015. Helmi is the founder of Ta’afi, a Syrian-led initiative providing support services to victims of detention, torture and forced disappearance in the country.

“This is a historic moment for family members,” said Khalil al-Haj Saleh, whose brother, Feras al-Haj Saleh, was kidnapped and disappeared by ISIS, the terrorist group, in July 2013 in Raqqa, northern Syria. Saleh told PassBlue that Feras would be proud to know that his own son’s future will be safer than his life has been.

Yasmen Almashan, the founder of Caesar Families, an association based in Berlin of families forcibly disappeared by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, described Thursday’s results in the General Assembly as a “real triumph” for the victims and their families. Almashan, who was born in Deir Ezzor, a city located about 200 miles northeast of Damascus, has lost all five of her brothers during the war.

After she learned that the resolution was approved, Almashan told PassBlue in a text that she “addressed” her brothers’ “souls in heaven” and promised not to give up. “This achievement is our assurance that we will not forget you,” she said.

Of the 156 countries that voted on Thursday, 83 favored the resolution, 11 voted against and 62 abstained.

Luxembourg led the initiative to table the draft resolution with a core group consisting of Albania, Belgium, Cabo Verde, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and North Macedonia.

“By today’s action, we are telling the Syrian families that we understand their suffering and that we have heard their call,” said Luxembourg’s UN ambassador, Olivier Maes. “We are demonstrating that the international community stands by Syrian families to ensure their right to know the fate of their missing loved ones.”

In a statement released after the vote, United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield reiterated her country’s “strong support” for the “long overdue resolution,” adding: “We stand behind this resolution and its demand for clarification on the fate and whereabouts of Syria’s missing persons. And we stand behind the Syrian human rights defenders, survivors, and families who, despite immense suffering, tirelessly lead the charge.”

The yes votes predominated among Europe and Latin America, while many of the abstentions came from African nations, such as South Africa and Kenya, as well as from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, who have recently restored diplomatic relations with al-Assad.

In their remarks before the vote, several of the 11 member states who voted against the resolution, including China, Russia and Syria, blasted the effort as a dubious attempt by the US and its allies to hijack a humanitarian cause for political gains.

“Once again, the General Assembly of the United Nations is called upon to consider a new draft resolution that is politicized and targets the Syrian Arab Republic,” said Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the UN.

“This is one example of a politicized . . . resolution that targets specific states under the pretext of protecting human rights,” he said, adding that the “Syrian Arab Republic categorically and wholly rejects the contents of this draft resolution.” He urged member states to vote no to “preserve the credibility of the General Assembly.”

Hours before the vote, the Security Council met to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria as well as the July 10 deadline to renew the cross-border mechanism at Bab al-Hawa, on the border of Türkiye. The channel allows the UN to deliver crucial aid to thousands of Syrians in the northwest of the country. The UN humanitarian relief chief, Martin Griffiths, who recently met with al-Assad in Damascus, briefed the Council and referred to the suffering of Syrians as “more than we can truly appreciate.” He added that a 12-month extension of the cross-border channel would be a “critical step” toward improving the profound humanitarian challenges in the country.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has been documenting human-rights violations in Syria since 2011, when the war began. It says that more than 150,000 Syrians have been arbitrarily detained or disappeared by the government and by ISIS terrorists and other militants as the country became a breeding ground for several warring factions. But despite the cooling conflict in recent years, the number of arbitrarily arrested and detained Syrians is growing. In May 2023, the network documented 108 arbitrary arrests, including two women, by the Syrian regime. Of those arrested, 21 individuals have since been released from detention while 87 have been categorized as forcibly disappeared.

UNGA vote on the Draft resolution to create an Independent Institution on Missing Persons in the Syrian Arab Republic
The General Assembly tally to approve the mechanism: 83 yes, 11 no, including by China, Russia and Syria, and 62 abstentions. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Calls to create a UN-backed institution 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. Ahmad Helmi, Khalil al-Haj Saleh and Yasmen Almashan belong to the group.

They lobbied UN member states for months, first leading to the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 76/228 on Dec. 24, 2021. It 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 asked for a report on the results of the study to be done by 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 institution, 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 the dialogue was delayed due to hesitancy among countries to move ahead on the project and was further interrupted on Feb. 6, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through parts of Türkiye and northwest Syria — shifting the UN’s focus to providing the region with urgent humanitarian care — the General Assembly met on March 28. Then, Guterres and Volker Turk, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, briefed the Assembly before the interactive dialogue began on the proposed mechanism.

Notably not in attendance on March 28 was Syria. Just days earlier, the country’s ambassador told the Security Council that creating an independent body was a “politicized attempt” driven by the West “to distort facts and increase pressure on a country [Syria] that has been fighting terrorism on behalf of all the peoples of the world.”

The UN’s human-rights office estimates that from March 1, 2011 to March 31, 2022, more than 300,000 Syrians were killed in the civil war. On June 25, Russia, which since 2015 has been backing al-Assad’s war on his own people, launched an airstrike on a crowded vegetable market in Idlib, a rebel-held city in northwest Syria, killing at least 11 civilians and wounding dozens of others.

Despite the relentless deadly attacks on civilians, al-Assad has leveraged the earthquake and the country’s desperate need for humanitarian help and financing to stage a diplomatic comeback, consulting in the last few months openly with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who have all have welcomed the dictator — without conditions or accountability — back into the Arab fold and the Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in 2011. The United Arab Emirates has invited Syria to the annual UN climate change conference, to be held in the Gulf state, in November.

During a Security Council briefing in April, a US deputy envoy to the UN, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, said that the US would not “normalize” relations with al-Assad and “strongly discouraged others from doing so.”

The article was updated to reflect that Mozambique and Venezuela did not vote.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the new Syrian missing persons tool?

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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At Long Last, the UN Votes to Create a System to Find the Fate of Missing Syrians in the War
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