Nearly 111,000 Syrian Citizens Forcibly Disappeared Since March 2011, Mostly by the Syrian Regime, Constituting a Crime against Humanity
Press release: (Download the full report below)
Paris – The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) issues its 11th annual report on enforced disappearance in Syria on the occasion of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, which takes place on August 30 each year. In this latest report, SNHR reveals that the number of people detained since March 2011 who still remain forcibly disappeared as of August 2022 has now reached at least 111,000 individuals, the vast majority of whom were detained by the Syrian regime, constituting a crime against humanity.
The 48-page report, which provides details on a large number of enforced disappearance incidents, as well as testimonies from victims’ families, reveals that the phenomenon of enforced disappearance in Syria is organically linked to the phenomenon of arbitrary arrest, with most of those subjected to arbitrary detention going on to be classified as forcibly disappeared. The report adds that the Syrian regime has targeted participants in political demonstrations against its rule with widespread arbitrary arrests since the early days of the popular uprising in March 2011, and has systematically used enforced disappearance as one of its most notorious tools of repression and terrorism aimed at crushing and destroying political opponents simply for expressing their opinion; the regime has also harnessed the capabilities of the security services and its tens of thousands of personnel to this end.
The report explains that the first years of the mass uprising saw the highest percentage of enforced disappearances because the demonstrations were taking place intensively, and within areas under the Syrian regime’s control, with the massive scale of the arrests and disappearances making the Syrian regime the worst perpetrator globally in the twenty-first century in terms of forcibly disappearing its citizens. The report further adds that the fate of the disappeared persons in al Tadamun neighborhood in Damascus is a stark example of the killing and execution that may have been the fate of thousands of persons ‘disappeared’ by Syrian regime forces even before they could be taken to detention centers.
As the report reveals, all parties to the conflict and the controlling forces have practiced widespread arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances of Syrian citizens in connection with the armed conflict, within the areas under their control, with the aim of intimidating political opponents and subjugating society in those areas. As the report further explains, the repercussions of the crime of enforced disappearance are not limited to the victims only, but also extend to their families, who suffer from loss, stress, years of waiting, and absolute helplessness, in the absence of any legal procedures they can take to assist their loved ones.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, SNHR’s Director, says:
“More than eleven years have passed, and we are still documenting the disappearance of Syrian citizens in Syrian territory, mainly by the Syrian regime, though also by the other parties to the conflict, with the new cases added to the many thousands of previous ones. The catastrophe is escalating, and there is no prospect for revealing the fate of tens of thousands of missing persons any time soon. Without achieving a political solution that ends the domination of the security services, there will be no release for any detainees, or even any disclosures about the fate of any of the forcibly disappeared persons, with the international community bearing the responsibility for prolonging the armed conflict for nearly twelve years.”
The report outlines the record of victims of enforced disappearance since the beginning of the popular uprising for democracy in March 2011 up to August 2022, focusing mainly on the violations documented by the SNHR team between August 30, 2021, and August 30, 2022. The report also details the Syrian regime’s continuing manipulation of laws through registering some of the disappeared persons as dead through its Civil Registry Departments. In addition, the report also provides the names of the most prominent leaders of the Syrian regime’s security services, army, military and security committees involved in the crime of enforced disappearance of tens of thousands of Syrian citizens.
The report relies mainly on data from the SNHR’s database, which the SNHR has been working on and building continuously for 11 years to date, as well as on the interviews we conducted with families of victims who were forcibly disappeared from different Syrian governorates. The report provides 18 first-hand accounts, which were obtained directly rather than from open sources.
The report recalls that the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) was the first body to call for the establishment of an independent mechanism with an international mandate to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding missing persons, including persons subjected to enforced disappearance. This is an old demand, first proposed in COI’s first report issued in 2011. The SNHR has supported all the demands of the COI for the essential establishment of an international mechanism whose mission is limited to the issue of the missing persons, including persons subjected to enforced disappearance, given the large number of those affected in Syria; as the record of the forcibly disappeared persons alone shows, the immense number of people in this category makes the need for such a mechanism an urgent and imperative necessity for all missing victims and their families. In this regard, the report notes that the SNHR has submitted a report to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) about SNHR’s vision for this mechanism, and stresses that the SNHR will cooperate with it if it is established, and is ready to provide it with all the necessary information and data that it has documented on its database for eleven years to date.
The report reveals the regular periodic exchanges of correspondence conducted by the SNHR team with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, as well as with the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The report notes that since March 2011, the SNHR has been able to provide the WGEID with details on at least 568 cases of disappearance, including dozens of women, children, and families, and that it still has hundreds of cases whose data it has yet to register and process using SNHR’s methodology, which will then be submitted to the WGEID
The report notes that at least 154,398 of the individuals arrested between March 2011 and August 2022, including 5,161 children and 10,159 women (adult female), are still arrested/detained or forcibly disappeared at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria. Of these, 135,253 individuals, including 3,684 children and 8,469 women, are still detained or forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime, while a further 8,684 individuals, including 319 children and 225 women, are still disappeared by ISIS, and 2,373 additional individuals, including 46 children and 44 women, are still detained or forcibly disappeared by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS).
In addition to these, the report further reveals that another 3,864 individuals, including 361 children and 868 women, are documented as being still detained or forcibly disappeared by all Armed Opposition factions/Syrian National Army, while 4,224 individuals, including 751 children and 523 women, are still detained or forcibly disappeared at the hands of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
As the report reveals, at least 111,907 individuals, including 3,041 children and 6,642 women, have been forcibly disappeared at the hands of the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria between March 2011 and August 2022, with 95,696 of this total disappeared by Syrian regime forces, including 2,316 children and 5,734 women, and an additional 8,684 individuals, including 319 children and 225 women, disappeared by ISIS. Meanwhile, HTS was responsible for disappearing 2,071 individuals, including 14 children and 29 women.
The report also notes that 2,827 individuals, including 249 children and 517 women, are still forcibly disappeared by the various Armed Opposition factions/Syrian National Army since 2011 to date, in all the areas it controlled or controls, while 2,629 individuals, including 143 children and 107 women, are still forcibly disappeared by SDF.
The report further stresses that the huge number of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons held by the Syrian regime clearly confirms that all 20 of the amnesty decrees issued by the Syrian regime since 2011 did not lead to the release of even a small percentage of the tens of thousands of detainees and persons forcibly disappeared by the regime. Between May 1, 2022, and August 30, 2022, the report documents that the Syrian regime had released about 569 people under Decree No. 7 of 2022 from various regime civil and military prisons and security branches in a number of Syrian governorates, including 63 women and 17 people who were children at the time of their arrest. At least 162 of the 568 released people had settled their security status with the regime prior to their arrest and been given a supposed guarantee according to the terms of these settlements assuring them that they would not be persecuted by regime security authorities; 28 of those released, including four women, had been refugees or otherwise living outside Syria and were arrested on their return to the country.
This report provides a cumulative linear graph showing the documented record of enforced disappearances since March 2011, as well as providing a table showing the distribution of this record by year, showing that the first four years of the popular uprising for democracy saw the largest waves of enforced disappearances, with the annual record showing that 2012 was the worst year to date in terms of the number of people forcibly disappeared, followed by 2013 and 2011, then 2014.
The report also outlines the distribution of the record of the forcibly disappeared by the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria according to the Syrian governorates where the victims were arrested; that is, according to the place where the arrest took place, rather than the governorate which the detainee comes from, with Damascus Suburbs governorate seeing the highest record of victims of enforced disappearance, followed by Aleppo, Damascus, then Deir Ez-Zour.
The report notes that since early 2018, the Syrian regime has continued registering many of the detainees previously forcibly disappeared in its detention centers as dead in the official records maintained by the state Civil Registry departments, with the number of cases documented, as the report reveals, reaching at least 1,072 cases of forcibly disappeared persons, including nine children and two women, in which the Syrian regime revealed the fate of the disappeared through registering their deaths at Civil Registry offices, all of whom had died in detention, since the beginning of 2018 until August 2022. The regime failed to disclose the cause of death, with the families not being given their loved ones’ bodies or being informed of the place of their burial. The report adds that the Syrian regime has harnessed several levels of the Syrian state institutions to implement this procedure in violation of Syrian law and to manipulate the data on the forcibly disappeared recorded at the Civil Registry, with this blatantly illegal manipulation starting with the ministries of Interior and Justice, and extending to Civil Registry officials in all Syrian governorates.
The report adds that under international humanitarian law, commanders and other senior officials are held responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates, further noting that enforced disappearance has been practiced according to a general, organized and systemic methodology, with a decision taken to employ this as a policy according to the chain of command that starts from the President of the Republic and is directly linked to him by the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the National Security Office, and the associated security services; the report provided the names of the most prominent leaders of the Syrian regime involved in the crime of enforced disappearance, according to the SNHR database of data of perpetrators of violations.
The report notes that the Syrian regime has demonstrated a lack of commitment to the international agreements and treaties it has ratified, particularly the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. In addition, the Syrian regime has violated a number of articles of the Syrian constitution itself, detaining hundreds of thousands of detainees for many years without issuing any arrest warrants or bringing any charges against them. The regime has also denied those detainees the right to an attorney and barred their families from visiting them. Approximately 69% of all detainees have gone on to become enforced disappearance cases as the Syrian regime has never informed their families of their whereabouts. Any attempt by detainees’ family members to inquire about the whereabouts of their loved ones may put the families themselves at risk of being arrested.
The report further notes that enforced disappearances have been carried out in the context of a widespread attack against all civilian population groups. The Syrian regime was the first party to perpetrate the violation of enforced disappearances in Syria, and remains by far the most prolific perpetrator of this crime, with other parties left far behind in terms of the number of enforced disappearances, which constitute a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It is also considered a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute itself due to its being practiced as part of a systematic and public policy in the effort to crush the popular uprising for democracy, overwhelmingly by the Syrian regime.
The report adds that the other parties involved in Syria have also practiced the crime of enforced disappearance, although without the centralized and systematic nature of the Syrian regime, which differs from them in the vast quantity and distribution of cases, with the report noting that the ISIS group and HTS are similar to the Syrian regime in the widespread and systematic nature of such cases.
The report recommends that the UN Security Council and the United Nations should hold an emergency meeting to discuss this critical matter that threatens the fates of nearly 111,000 Syrian citizens and terrorizes the whole of Syrian society. The report also calls on them to work to reveal the fate of the forcibly disappeared persons in parallel with or prior to the start of the upcoming rounds of the political process and to set a strict timetable to reveal their fate.
The report concludes with a recommendation that the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances should increase the manpower available to work on the issue of forcibly disappeared persons at the office of the Special Rapporteur on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in Syria in light of the massive level and extent of cases of enforced disappearance in the country, as well as providing a number of other recommendations.