Day of the Disappeared: Don't forget the 80,000 who are still missing in Syria
On International Day of the Disappeared, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as armed rebel groups involved in the country’s conflict, to disclose the fate and whereabouts of almost 80,000 missing people.
"Amid the brutality and bloodshed of the Syrian conflict, the plight of those who have vanished after being arrested by the authorities or detained by armed groups is a tragedy that has been largely ignored internationally," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Russia and the United States, in particular, must use their influence to pressure respectively the Syrian government and armed opposition groups to grant independent monitors access to places of detention, disclose the names and whereabouts of those deprived of their liberty, and allow all detainees to communicate with their families."
Even before the crisis began in 2011, Syrian authorities followed a policy of forcibly disappearing people for peaceful political opposition, critical reporting, and human rights activism. The use of enforced disappearances dramatically escalated since the uprising.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), 75,000 people have been subjected to enforced disappearance by the Syrian regime since 2011.
Meanwhile more than 2,000 individuals have gone missing at the hands of armed opposition groups and the so-called Islamic State.
|Even before the crisis began in 2011, Syrian authorities followed a policy of forcibly disappearing people for peaceful political opposition, critical reporting, and human rights activism
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that those nations involved in negotiations to end the conflict should ensure that any transitional process includes an independent body to investigate the fate of the disappeared.
"Syria will not be able to move forward if negotiations fail to adequately address the horrors of detention and disappearance," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
"This should not be ignored. Without progress, each day that passes will likely see more of the disappeared tortured or executed."
Russia and Iran, Assad's most prominent backers, should press the regime to immediately publish the names of all individuals who died in Syrian detention facilities, HRW said, and to inform families of the deceased and return the bodies to their relatives.
They should also press the regime to provide information on the fate or whereabouts of all those forcibly disappeared, end the practice of enforced disappearance, and allow independent humanitarian agencies access to detention facilities.
Backers of non-state armed groups, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the US, should compel groups they support to reveal the fate of detainees in their custody and allow humanitarian agencies access to their detention facilities.
|For any resolution to the conflict to be sustainable, the issue of the disappeared needs to be addressed in a manner that delivers both news of their fate and justice
The UN mediator, Staffan de Mistura, should publicly address the reasons for lack of progress on Syria's disappeared and strengthen efforts to address this devastating problem, HRW added.
"For any resolution to the conflict to be sustainable, the issue of the disappeared needs to be addressed in a manner that delivers both news of their fate and justice," Whitson said.
"There has been total impunity for those responsible for disappearances in Syria," Amnesty's Philip Luther added.
"This issue must be addressed by the international community at every opportunity, including peace talks in Geneva and Astana, or else its consequences will be felt for generations and the prospects for healing and reconciliation will be undermined."
Living in hope and agony
Fadwa Mahmoud has described the agony of not knowing the fate or whereabouts of either her husband Abdulaziz Al-Kheir or son Maher Tahan since September 20, 2012.
They disappeared after being arrested by Air Force Intelligence at a checkpoint in Damascus, although the Syrian regime denies this.
|I never lose hope that they will return. I always imagine that moment when I learn of their release
"The days pass by extremely heavily," she said. "I live on hope, which allows me to go on and pushes me to work hard for their release. I never lose hope that they will return. I always imagine that moment when I learn of their release."
For some families, their quest for information ends in heartbreak. In March 2012, regime forces arrested Bassel Khartabil, a peaceful, free-speech advocate and founder of Creative Commons Syria, a non-profit organisation that helps people share artistic and other work using free legal tools.
In October 2015, Syrian authorities transferred Khartabil from 'Adra prison, where his family could visit him, to an undisclosed location.
On August 1, 2017, nearly two years after his disappearance, Khartabil's wife learned that regime forces had executed him.
'Tens of Thousands'
To mark the International Day of the Disappeared, Amnesty International has launched an art exhibition in Beirut entitled Tens of Thousands, which aims to raise awareness of Syria's disappeared and missing and give a voice to their families.
The exhibition at the Station Beirut gallery features items left behind by individuals who have been forcibly disappeared or abducted, as well as poems written by formerly detained poets describing their experiences in Syrian detention facilities.
There is also a collection of portraits of women detainees by Syrian artist Azza Abou Rebieh. The exhibition will run from August 30 to September 6.
Amnesty International has also launched an online campaigning platform to shine a light on those who have faced enforced disappearance and abduction in Syria and help families in their efforts to find their loved ones.
The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.
According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria.
The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.