Will the missing in Syria ever find justice?
In July, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution strongly condemning “the continued use of involuntary or enforced disappearances in the Syrian Arab Republic … which have been carried out consistently, notably by the Syrian regime” . The British Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, who presented the resolution for adoption, referred to “a deliberate act of unspeakable cruelty”, referring to the regime’s knowledge of the fate of the missing but its fierce refusal to share this information with their families.
True and powerful words, but they won’t do much to alleviate the suffering of the victims and their loved ones, nor will they change the situation on the ground. A decade after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime remains firmly in power, and the barbaric acts inflicted on the Syrian people constitute one of the major dividing lines of our time.
Humans reduced to numbers
It is difficult to grasp the scale of enforced disappearances in Syria. According to recent estimates, since 2011 more than 150,000 Syrians have been reported missing or arbitrarily detained (out of a total population of around 17 million), most of them by the regime. By comparison, during the Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, the estimated total of desaparecidos was 30,000 (Argentina had a population of around 27 million at the time).
Additionally, the regime is notorious for brutally torturing those who disappear into its secret, industrial-scale prison system. One of the most famous places is the Saydnaya military prison 30 kilometers north of Damascus. Human rights group Amnesty International and a team of forensic architects from Goldsmiths, University of London reconstructed the Saydnaya complex for an international audience in 2017. No recent photographs exist, so they had to rely on exclusively to memories of former detainees.
The image that emerges is truly shocking: the prisoners are kept in the dark and in complete silence; they are regularly beaten and many die of starvation or lack of medical care. There is severe overcrowding, which means that up to 50 people can be crammed into a nine square meter cell. It is estimated that between 2011 and 2017, up to 13,000 people were arbitrarily sentenced to death and executed in Saydnaya.
Since August 2013, when a military forensic photographer codenamed Caesar defected and smuggled more than 50,000 images out of Syria, we also know that the regime is meticulously documenting its crimes.
The corpses depicted in Caesar’s photographs – prisoners who died in captivity – had been assigned three numbers: a number indicating the detention center where they were being held; an inmate number from said establishment; and a death number issued by the medical examiner who examined the body.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of government documents smuggled out of Syria indicate that Bashar al-Assad himself oversees the chain of command for state torture and enforced disappearances.
It should also be borne in mind that these are far from the only blatant abuses committed by the regime: in June, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in its briefing to the Security Council report that Assad’s forces were probably using chemical weapons on at least 17 occasions. Rights groups again criticized the regime and its Russian allies for deliberately bombing hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure in rebel-held areas, in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.
We can’t say we didn’t know
The Syrian war has been called “the most documented conflict in history”. In addition to the UN Human Rights Council resolution on the missing in Syria, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) – two bodies created by the Syrian Arab Republic. Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Council Assembly, respectively – have gathered ample evidence of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Syria (the latter, according to its mandate, in the aim to “facilitate[ing] and accelerate[ing] fair and independent criminal proceedings ”).
Victims groups, activists and civil society organizations have also done important work in documenting abuses and keeping the issue of the missing on the international agenda.
But these efforts have yielded limited results. In Germany there have been criminal trials of people involved in Syrian state torture, and in September last year the Dutch government announced it would take a case against Syria to the International Court of Justice. for violations of the Convention against Torture, to which Syria is a party.
Yet with Russia and Iran’s continued support for Assad, it is highly unlikely that the regime’s behavior will change or that justice will reach the highest levels of political leadership – in other words, the most responsible. international crimes.
The leaders of the Argentine junta have been prosecuted after the country’s return to democracy under President Raul Alfonsín. Argentines commemorate the anniversary of the coup on March 24 of each year under the name Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia.
As it stands, it will be a long time before Syrians can publicly mourn the plight of their loved ones and their country. Until then, Syria’s 150,000 missing, and countless others tortured and killed, will remain a fault line of our time – a break in the rules-based international order and global commitment to rights. of man.