Enforced disappearances in Syria widespread, reports UN rights panel

From right: Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and Commission members Karen AbuZayd, Carla del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn at the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferré

19 December 2013 – Enforced disappearances are being committed throughout Syria as part of a campaign of intimidation and as a tactic of war, says 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 civilians amounting to a crime against humanity.

The report, released today in Geneva, draws on first-hand interviews conducted by the Commission over the period between March 2011 – when the conflict began – and November 2013.

According to a news release about the report, 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 and house searches, at checkpoints and in hospitals.

“The Government has perpetuated a system of arrests and incommunicado detention that is conducive to enforced disappearances,” the news release stated, adding that in some cases, 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 four-member Commission, survivors of enforced disappearances described being subjected to torture during their detention. Victims were also consistently denied their fundamental right to due process and placed outside the protection of the law.

The Commission also concluded 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.

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, according to the Commission.

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,” said the news release. “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 regretted that the Syrian Government did not allow it to undertake investigations inside the country, which limited its ability to investigate violations, especially those committed by anti-Government armed groups.

Chaired by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, and comprising Karen Koning AbuZayd, Carla del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn, the Commission was established by the UN Human Rights Council in August 2011 to investigate and record all violations of international human rights law during the Syria conflict.

The Commission will publish its next comprehensive report in February 2014 and present it to the Human Rights Council at its upcoming session in Geneva in mid-March.


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