19 December 2013
Enforced disappearances are being committed on a wide scale throughout Syria as part of a campaign of intimidation and as a tactic of war, according to a report published today by the United Nations panel investigating human rights violations in the country.
"Without a trace: enforced disappearances in Syria", the second thematic report by the independent international Commission of Inquiry on Syria, concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of enforced disappearances were committed by Government forces as part of widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population amounting to a crime against humanity.
The report is an attempt to shed light on this largely overlooked trend which has persisted since the beginning of the uprising in Syria and draws on first-hand interviews conducted by the Commission over the period between March 2011 and November 2013.
Investigations uncovered a consistent country-wide pattern in which people, mainly adult males, have been seized by the Syrian security and armed forces, as well as by pro-Government militias, during mass arrests, house searches, at checkpoints and in hospitals. The Government has perpetuated a system of arrests and incommunicado detention that is conducive to enforced disappearances. In some instances, the disappearances appeared to have a punitive element, targeting family members of defectors, activists, fighters as well as those believed to be providing medical care to the opposition.
In all the cases documented by the Commission, survivors of enforced disappearances described being subjected to torture during their detention. The Commissioners note that this underscores a deeply disturbing trend which sheds more light on the systematic use of torture. Victims were consistently denied their fundamental right to due process and placed outside the protection of the law, at the mercy of their captors.
The Commission also concludes that authorities have refused to provide information about the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared and in some instances there appeared to be a policy of not providing such information to families. Evidence collected also indicates that relatives who approached the security services were themselves arrested in certain cases. As a result, Syrian authorities have further violated the families’ right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person.
The Commission notes that this is an extremely worrying phenomenon which has affected many thousands of family members who simply don't know the fate of their loved ones. Those who wait behind are often the only visible trace of the violation, according to today’s report.
During the pro-democracy protests in March 2011, enforced disappearances were systematically employed by the Government to silence the opposition and spread fear amongst relatives and friends of demonstrators, activists and bloggers. As the unrest devolved into a full-blown conflict, those affiliated or perceived to be affiliated with anti-Government armed groups also became targets for disappearance.
Over the last year, specific anti-Government armed groups have increasingly been taking hostages for prisoner exchange or ransom. Persons perceived to be supporting the Government, human rights defenders, journalists, activists, humanitarian workers, and religious leaders have been seized by various armed groups and held under the threat of death. While such offenses do not amount to enforced disappearances as the fate of the victims is not denied or concealed they do leave families in a state of uncertainty regarding the whereabouts of their relatives. However, in recent months, specific anti-Government armed groups have adopted practices that could be considered tantamount to enforced disappearances, in breach of their obligations under customary international humanitarian law.
The Commission regrets that the Syrian Government did not allow it to undertake investigations inside the country. This limited its ability to investigate violations, especially those committed by anti-Government armed groups.
The Commission of Inquiry on Syria was established by the Human Rights Council in August 2011 to investigate and record all violations of international human rights law and investigating allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Commission is also tasked to identify, where possible, those responsible for these human rights violations with a view to ensuring that perpetrators of such violations are held accountable.
The Commission comprises of Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Ms. Karen Koning AbuZayd, Ms. Carla del Ponte and Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn.
The Commission of Inquiry on Syria will publish its next comprehensive report in February 2014 and present that to the Human Rights Council at its upcoming session in Geneva in mid-March.
Additional information about the Commission of Inquiry and links to all available reports can be found on their website - http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx .
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