The most recent wave of atrocities in Syria has been going on for more than a decade, and one of the most disturbing aspects is the disappearance of tens of thousands of people. This cruel tactic is used mainly by the Assad regime to intimidate and silence anyone they deem to be a threat.
According to a statement released on March 15, 2023, by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with headquarters in The Hague in the Netherlands, there were more than 130,000 cases of people missing in Syria since 2011 with numbers still on the rise.
“It is critical that those responsible, including the Syrian regime, demonstrate the political will to release prisoners and find missing and disappeared persons”ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger
The statement included a quote from ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger saying: “It is critical that those responsible, including the Syrian regime, demonstrate the political will to release prisoners and find missing and disappeared persons in line with international law.”
Most of the cases of enforced disappearance are attributed to the Assad government and the victims include men, women, and children, with some missing for years.
It is well-known that the Assad regime operates a system of detention facilities known as “black places” where people are arrested without trial, held incommunicado, and often subjected to torture and other forms of serious ill-treatment. Families of missing persons often remain unaware of the whereabouts of their loved ones and often do not even make inquiries due to fear of retaliation.
“I am like thousands of mothers in Syria whose loved ones disappeared without any information about them”Fadwa Mahmoud
Consequently, the impact of enforced disappearance on families is devastating. Not knowing the fate of a loved one can be heartbreaking and constant uncertainty takes a toll on a family’s mental health.
Fadwa Mahmoud told Syriawise: “Since September 20, 2012, my husband Abdulaziz Khayer and my son Maher Tahan have been detained. Since that date, I have not heard any news about them. I am like thousands of mothers in Syria whose loved ones disappeared without any information about them. Are our beloved one numbers to say that hundreds of thousands have disappeared? No, they are not numbers, they are humans and they are the elite of our Syrian youth. Their only sin was that they demanded dignity and freedom, the lifting of injustice and suffering from Syria, and to be able to live as humans should live. Oh tyrants, Syrian youth are not to be in detainment or jails or prisons. They are the lifeblood of Syria.”
Yasmen Almashan, Communication and Coordination Officer of the Caesar Families Association, and sister of a bother who died under torture, whom she recognized through Caesar’s photos, as well as four other brothers also killed by the Assad regime, told Syriawise that the tragedy of the high number of enforced disappearance cases in Syria “prompted us to do something and we are currently in the process of working on a UN General Assembly resolution to establish an institution concerned with revealing the fate of the disappeared and missing persons in Syria.”
Haitham Maleh, lawyer, former judge, and political prisoner, as well as president, and founder of the Human Rights Association, now living outside Syria, told Syriawise that after declaring the state of emergency in 1963 following a military coup by Baathist military officers, “a new era of state dictatorship began, with numerous security agencies enjoying unlimited powers and legal protection specially designated for them.”
“The detainee became absent in prison without the right to enjoy the legal protection arranged by the Criminal Procedure Code, and thus thousands of prisoners were liquidated during the eras of Hafez Assad and of his son, Bashar,” Maleh said adding that things took a more tragic course after the 2011 revolution, as “tens of thousands have disappeared, both women and men, whose fates are still not known, in addition to thousands of detainees who have been liquidated outside the framework of the law, without informing their families of their death, or their place of detention, and the striking example is documented in the Caesar photos.”
Assad certainly will not help in providing information on the whereabouts of those who have disappeared, will not help in releasing those who have not been charged, and consequently will not allow families to meet their loved ones. Therefore, the international community must do more to pressure the regime to end this brutal practice.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic which was set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on August 22, 2011, to investigate human rights violations, has repeatedly called on the Assad government to end enforced disappearances and bring those responsible to justice. However, the Assad government continues to ignore these calls and the situation of missing persons remains grim.
The tragedy of enforced disappearance in Syria has been going on for too long. The world cannot continue to ignore this human rights crisis as it is a clear violation of international human rights law and those responsible should be held accountable.
Wafa Ali Mustafa, a Syrian activist and daughter of Ali Mustafa who was forcibly disappeared by the Assad regime in 2013, wrote on her Twitter account on May 5: “Today is my father’s birthday. If he’s still alive in #Assad prisons, he turns 61. Living in a limbo of waiting for a decade, I realized I’ve lived as a shadow of my dad. Today, I brought him a cake, sang Happy Birthday with a broken heart & cried. ‘Happy’ birthday, Dad.”
For more information on the question of enforced disappearance in Syria, please visit Free Syria’s Disappeared site.