North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Will Syria’s disappeared ever find justice?

The Syrian war might be one of the most documented conflicts in history, but impunity remains the norm for those responsible for international crimes

Anna-Christina Schmidl
Anna-Christina Schmidl
24 August 2021, 9.31am
Since 2011 over 150,000 Syrians have been disappeared or arbitrarily detained, most of them by the regime
Picture by Families for Freedom. Used with permission

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 with consistency, in particular by the Syrian regime”. The British Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, who presented the resolution for adoption, spoke of “a deliberate act of unspeakable cruelty”, referring to the regime’s knowledge of the fate of the disappeared but staunch refusal to share this information with their families.

True and powerful words, yet they will do little to alleviate the suffering of victims and their next of kin, 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 acts of barbarism inflicted on the Syrian people constitute one of the big fault lines of our times.

Humans reduced to numbers

It is difficult to grasp the sheer magnitude of enforced disappearances in Syria. According to recent estimates, since 2011 over 150,000 Syrians have been disappeared or arbitrarily detained (out of a total population of around 17 million), most of them by the regime. By comparison, during the Argentinian 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).

What is more, the regime is known to brutally torture those who vanish inside its industrial-scale secret prison system. One of the most notorious locations is the Saydnaya military prison 30 kilometres 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 exclusively on former detainees’ recollections.

The picture that emerges is truly shocking: prisoners are kept in darkness and complete silence; they are routinely beaten, and many die from starvation or lack of medical care. There is severe overcrowding, meaning that as many as 50 people may be crammed into a cell of nine square metres. It is estimated that between 2011 and 2017 alone, as many as 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 over 50,000 images out of Syria, we also know that the regime meticulously documents its crimes.

The corpses depicted in Caesar’s photographs – prisoners who died in captivity – had been assigned three numbers: a number indicating the detention facility where they were held; a detainee number from said facility; and a death number issued by the forensic doctor 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 of state torture and enforced disappearances.

It is also worth bearing in mind that these are far from the only gross abuses committed by the regime: in June, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in its briefing to the UN Security Council that Assad’s forces likely used chemical weapons on at least 17 occasions. Rights groups have further slammed the regime and its Russian allies for deliberately bombing hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure in rebel-held areas, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.

We cannot say we did not know

The Syrian war has been called the “most documented conflict in history”. In addition to the UN Human Rights Council resolution dedicated to Syria’s disappeared, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) – two bodies set up by the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, respectively – have collected extensive evidence of rights violations and crimes against humanity in Syria (the latter, according to its mandate, for the purpose of “facilitat[ing] and expedit[ing] fair and independent criminal proceedings”).

Victims’ groups, activists and civil society organisations have also done important work documenting abuses and keeping the issue of the disappeared on the international agenda.

But these efforts have yielded limited results. In Germany, there have been criminal trials of persons involved in Syrian state torture, and in September last year the Dutch government announced that it would bring a case against Syria before the International Court of Justice for violations of the Convention against Torture, to which Syria is a party.

Yet, with continued Russian and Iranian support for Assad, it is highly unlikely that the regime’s behaviour will change, or that justice will reach the highest echelons of the political leadership – in other words, those most responsible for international crimes.

The leaders of the Argentine junta were prosecuted after the country’s return to democracy under President Raul Alfonsín. Argentinians commemorate the anniversary of the coup on 24 March each year as the Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia.

The way things stand now, it will be a long time before Syrians can publicly mourn the fate of their loved ones and their country. Until then, Syria’s 150,000 disappeared, and countless more tortured and killed, will remain a fault line of our times – a rupture in the rules-based international order and the global commitment to human rights.

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