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UN report: Tens of thousands of Syrian detainees forcibly disappeared

Tens of thousands of arbitrarily detained civilians in Syria remain unaccounted for, according to a newly published report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

The 30-plus page report is based on investigations into more than 100 detention facilities and over 2,650 interviews conducted over the duration of the conflict.

The release of this report comes as Syria prepares to mark ten years of fighting; with over 590,000 Syrians killed and more than 12.6 million displaced, the war has steadily formed one of the 21st century’s worst humanitarian crises. Government use of arbitrary detention to silence and intimidate perceived opponents has been called a “root cause and a trigger of the conflict”.

The commission’s report is set to be delivered to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 11 March, documenting tens of thousands of forced disappearances and comprehensive accounts of “torture, sexual violence or death in detention.”

Despite rival groups regularly seeking to attribute atrocities to their opponents, the detention practices of almost every major party that has controlled territory in Syria have been condemned, with the commission’s findings implicating the Government, Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Army, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

A focus on the concealment of abusive detention practices was described by Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd, who said that:

“The wealth of evidence collected over a decade is staggering, yet the parties to the conflict, with very few exceptions, have failed to investigate their own forces”

Additionally, UN-designated terrorist groups such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and ISIL were found to have perpetrated extensive human rights violations against perceived opponents. Former detainees reported frequent denial of vital medical care, a lack of clean water, and torture. Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said that these groups have been:

“depriving people of their liberty, committing heinous violations against them, often with sectarian undertones.”

The report also raised concerns regarding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the conditions within detention facilities, with Commissioner Hanny Megally stating that “overcrowded prisons are likely breeding grounds” for the virus.

Commissioners issued recommendations to ensure accountability for the crimes highlighted in the report – proposing the introduction of “effective legislation to enable the prosecution of individuals” responsible for the contravention of human rights in Syrian detention facilities. It also suggested that the international community:

“pressure warring parties to prevent violations, establish a mechanism to account for the missing, and support victims”

The report also appeals to the Syrian government to disclose the status of those who remain missing, demanding the installment of “comprehensive steps” to reveal their fate.

A German court’s recent use of “universal jurisdiction” to convict a former Syrian intelligence officer of complicity in crimes against humanity was praised by the commission.

Notoriously poor conditions and treatment of inmates in Syrian prisons have been documented frequently in recent years, with the Sednaya Prison, near Damascus, often coming under fire for its inhumane treatment of inmates.

In 2017, Amnesty International released their “Human Slaughterhouse” report on Sednaya, revealing the constant use of torture as a means of punishment and degradation. The Syrian Network for Human Rights also released a report, identifying 72 torture methods practiced by the Syrian regime at the prison.

Following the publication of this report, member states of the Human Rights Council have an obligation to implement the recommendations proposed by the commission. The international community must ensure that the Syrian government declares the status of those who have been forcibly disappeared and that warring parties do not continue to implement cruel and unnecessary detention practices.

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