Syria: 85000 enforceably disappeared

Since the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011, the regime is said to now hold at least 85 000 people in arbitrary detention, according to a report by The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). Many of these persons were taken during systematic arrest campaigns and several were detained because of the regime’s suspicion towards their family members.

The SNHR says it has lists of 110 000 detained persons, many of whom have simply vanished. No one knows their whereabouts or status. This agonizes the families of the missing and causes emotional, and also economical, stress and uncertainty. In a conflict situation where it is hard to verify numbers, the SNHR nevertheless estimates that the real number of people in detention related to the conflict could be around 215 000.

Photo for illustrative purpose. Copyright: Flickr user Pulik15

Photo for illustrative purpose. Copyright: Flickr user Pulik15

According to a report on enforced disappearances in Syria by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), enforced disappearance is the “denial of the very existence of its victim – placing them outside the protection of the law”.

The SNHR, in its report,  indicates that  disappearance and detention of people it perceives as being in opposition, are  deliberate tactics used to spread fear and terror. Enforced disappearances have long and dark traditions in Syria where Bashar Al-Assad has merely taken over (and indeed intensified) the practice conducted by his father’s regime.

Amnesty International has recently stepped up its campaigns to raise awareness about the problem. “The Syrian authorities’ strategy to deal with dissent is brutal: speak against them once and they’ll arrest you; do it again and they will simply make you disappear,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Islamic State and other armed groups

The report by SNHR, and several others (for example by the UN) also describes behaviour tantamount to enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention by the Islamic State and other armed groups operating in Syria. However, the government led campaign is said to be on a much bigger and more systematic scale.

Enforced disappearances is forbidden under customary international humanitarian law, binding all parties to the conflict in Syria.

According to article 7 of the Rome Statues, enforced disappearances can amount to crimes against humanity. Syria is a signatory, but not a state party, to the Rome Statutes. The only way the International Criminal Court (ICC) could obtain jurisdiction on Syria, is if the UN Security Council refers the case to the ICC. The Security Council has twice before referred situations to the ICC: Once in Darfur in 2005 and once in Libya in 2011.

For more information on Syria and the ICC, you might want to have a look at these Q&A’s by Human Rights Watch.

The video below, made by Amnesty International and published for the International Day of the Disappeared 2014 (30 August), illustrates some of the grim aspects of enforced disappearances in Syria today: