The top United Nations negotiator facilitating Syria’s peace process called on parties to unilaterally release the thousands of people who have been detained or abducted, and take action on the issue of missing persons at a level commensurate with the massive scope of the tragedy, as he briefed the Security Council on his recent diplomatic efforts during a 23 July videoconference meeting*.
“Progress on this file has been vastly insufficient, to the frustration of many Syrians,” said Geir O. Pedersen, speaking from Geneva. “This is a humanitarian — and indeed human rights issue — that demands sustained and meaningful action, in line with international law.” Doing so could also build confidence within society, as well as between parties and international stakeholders.
He and his deputy have engaged directly with parties and continue to participate in a working group with Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey, the Special Envoy for Syria said, noting, however, that this group has not met for many months due to COVID-19. Recalling the unanimous adoption of resolution 2474 (2019) on missing persons in armed conflict, he lamented that the scale of the problem in Syria remains unchanged.
“Without addressing this issue, true reconciliation, the healing of society’s wounds, credible justice and sustainable peace will remain elusive,” he said. The problem is particularly acute in the “tsunami of suffering” caused by Syria’s economic collapse, marked by currency depreciation, rampant inflation, unemployment, food insecurity and medicine shortages. The rise in reported COVID‑19 cases and “extremely limited” testing only exacerbates the malaise.
Such conditions make humanitarian access ever more imperative, he said, taking note of the Council’s decision to extend the United Nations cross-border mechanism via the north-west Bab al-Hawa crossing and calling for a waiver of sanctions. He also called for a nationwide ceasefire, as well as an effective, targeted, cooperative approach to Council-listed terrorist groups, in line with international humanitarian law.
On the security front, he described tensions in the south-west, with reports of clashes followed by protests and assassinations. The Russian Federation is working to contain the situation. In the north-west, where the calm brought about by efforts by Moscow and Ankara is largely holding, cooperation has improved inside the de-escalation area, with the first joint patrols made across the M4 route.
He said the wa-Harid al-Mu’minin operations room, which had launched cross‑line attacks against the Government, was forcibly dismantled by listed terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In the north-east Syria, he described fatal car bombings around Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ayn, as well as drone strikes near Ayn al‑Arab and al-Derbassiya. In southern, central and eastern Syria, there have been reported riots among Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) detainees.
As for the political track, he said his office has firmed up plans to convene the third session of the Constitutional Committee on 24 August, provided that travel conditions do not change. It was also able to inform “middle third” members — civil society activists, experts and other independents from inside and outside Syria — and he expressed hope that international players with influence will extend their support to ensure success of the talks and work to unlock progress on the broader political process.
“There is no sign that this or any of these issues will be resolved by entrenched positioning and rhetoric”, he said. “Serious and consequential international diplomacy is needed.”
Wafa Mustafa, a member of Families for Freedom, said that, 2,579 days ago, her father, a human rights defender, was arrested and forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime. His family, now living in exile abroad, has neither seen nor heard from him since July 2013, nor have they been told why he was taken or where he is being held. He is among 130,000 people who are believed to be detained and forcibly disappeared, a number that keeps rising as the Syrian regime and others use detention as a weapon to terrorize civilians in systematic violation of international law, as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, among others, has concluded.
“To have a loved one who’s detained or disappeared and not know their fate is like waking up one day and realizing you have lost a limb,” she said. “I can tell you it is a growing pain, a pain unlike any other.” Recalling that she herself was detained in Damascus in September 2011, she explained that Families for Freedom is a movement of women whose family members have been unlawfully detained or forcibly disappeared by the Syrian State, ISIL/Da’esh, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other armed actors. Its members have taken to the streets and knocked on doors, demanding action for Syria’s disappeared and the country’s future.
“As families of detainees, we are deeply frustrated by the collective inaction and abdication of responsibility by the Security Council to address this crime against humanity.” Stories have been shared and demands made to the Council, but there has been no progress. It is said that other humanitarian or political issues must be given priority and that now is not the time to focus on detainees, but these issues are interconnected and the Council must address them at once.
Underscoring the added urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, she requested unified support for the large-scale unilateral release of all people held in prisons and unofficial detention centres — places where inmates are held in cramped conditions and exposed to torture and deprived of food, water, sanitation and medical care. These centres are breeding grounds for disease, she said, wondering how loved ones could survive a coronavirus outbreak. At the very least, international medical and humanitarian organizations must be allowed regular unconditional access, especially given the recent escalation of COVID-19 infections in Syria and the lack of transparency from the regime about the real scale of the outbreak.
The Council must pressure Syria and other actors to immediately release the names of people held in detention centres, along with their locations and situations, she continued. Torture and mistreatment must immediately end and detainees allowed routine contact with their families. In the cases of death, families must be informed of the causes and given access to burial sites. She rejected the idea of prisoner exchanges as a substitute for resolving the crime of unlawful detention and enforced disappearance, emphasizing: “Our loved ones have been unjustly snatched from us and must be given their freedom — it is their right and ours.” She welcomed trials in Germany of people charged with State-sponsored torture under the principle of universal jurisdiction and encouraged other countries to follow suit. Families for Freedom’s real hope, however, is to see the perpetrators before the International Criminal Court. “Our plight is urgent,” she said, wondering how Council members could say they have not abdicated their responsibility to protect civilians, defend human rights and see justice done.
In the ensuing dialogue, Niels Annen, Minister for State of Germany and Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity to stress that, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, almost 150,000 people have disappeared, 90 per cent of them at the hands of Syrian regime forces, while more than 14,400 Syrians have died under torture — 99 per cent of them by the same forces. “We owe them progress on justice and accountability,” he asserted, pressing the Council to issue a united call to immediately release all arbitrarily detained persons, “loud and clear”, and directed at Syria’s regime, which holds the overwhelming majority of detainees. The regime also must allow immediate, unconditional and unhindered access for humanitarian groups to its prisons and share with the families of those who disappeared information about their loved ones.
The regime and its allies are also responsible for indiscriminate attacks against civilians in the north-west and he lauded the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism for Syria for ensuring that the most serious crimes do not go unpunished. While the Russian Federation and China blocked referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court, he said a court in Koblenz, Germany, recently charged two former officials of Syria’s repression apparatus with crimes against humanity. “For the first time, abductions, torture and abuse by the Syrian regime are being prosecuted in Germany,” he stressed, adding that members of ISIL/Da’esh have been sentenced by German courts, and that German authorities arrested two men for their support of Jabhat al-Nusrah. He urged States to use all legal means to go after perpetrators, and the Council itself to ensure that those responsible for torture and killing in Syria’s prisons are held to account.
Viet Nam’s delegate expressed grave concern over the recent flare-up in the north-west, as well as other violence in Syria. The 19 July attack in the north, which resulted in civilian casualties, is of particular concern and he urged all parties to exercise utmost restraint. It is “absolutely crucial” to maintain the ceasefire agreement in Idlib, he said, reiterating the call for a nationwide cessation of hostilities and stressing that counter-terrorism efforts must be undertaken in accordance with international law. Viet Nam will closely follow implementation of resolution 2533 (2020) and looks forward to receiving reports on how the cross-border mechanism works to meet people’s needs. He pressed Syria’s Government to step up cooperation with all parties, emphasizing that its ability to respond to COVID-19 must not be affected by sanctions.
The representative of the United Kingdom expressed deep concern about the situation in the north-west, where reports of Russian Federation air strikes on Al-Bab and increased shelling and terrorist attacks threaten a return to the levels of conflict seen at the start of 2020. If the ceasefire breaks down, COVID-19 and the politicization of humanitarian access by the Russian Federation and China will likely exacerbate suffering. “The consequences of a further outbreak and violence would be catastrophic,” she said, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for the parties to work with the Special Envoy to that end. She also called on the Syrian regime to engage with the Special Envoy on the question of detainees. There needs to be a widespread release of political prisoners and vulnerable people, in line with resolution 2254 (2015), and medical care must be made available to those in detention. She noted that her country has provided $1.6 million for the International Commission for Missing Persons’ efforts to account for missing persons in Syria. “Any credible peace process has to address the issue of missing persons and detainees,” she said. Turning to the parliamentary elections, she said that the way they were conducted sent a clear message that the regime is not really interested in inclusion, fairness or a political process that is owned and led by all Syrians. In response to the Russian Federation’s remarks, she said that the United Kingdom is proud of its support for the White Helmets and their life-saving search‑and‑rescue work.
The representative of the Dominican Republic said a unilateral humanitarian release of detainees in the context of COVID-19 would bring some sense of humanity to the many families who still do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. He encouraged the Special Envoy and those Member States with the ability to do so to do more on this particular issue. He also invited Syria, in coordination with relevant international organizations, civil society, women’s organizations and young people, to help reunite families. “Justice and accountability need to be made, and impunity needs to cease to exist if we really want sustainable peace in Syria,” he added. Turning to the upcoming meeting of the Constitutional Committee, he stressed the need to manage expectations, while also encouraging the participants to move forward with due diligence, as Syria’s people will wait no longer. In the same vein, grievances expressed during recent protests must be heard, violence avoided, and dialogue and durable solutions put into place.
France’s representative said that his country will not recognize the results of the sham elections held in regime-controlled areas on 19 July. They did not meet the criteria set out in resolution 2254 (2015) and they deprived millions of displaced Syrians and refugees of their vote. The only legitimate political process is the one taking place in Geneva, he said, calling for a prompt resumption of talks to prepare for the third meeting of the Constitutional Committee. He urged the Council to unite in response to calls for the release of prisoners and facilitated access to detention centres. He stressed that the truce in north-west Syria must be preserved, particularly given the spread of COVID-19 and reduced humanitarian access due to the lack of Council agreement. He attributed the economic crisis in Syria to disastrous economic management, chronic corruption and the regime’s destruction of its own country. European sanctions target individuals and entities involved in repression and profit from the conflict, he said, adding that they are accompanied by mechanisms to safeguard humanitarian and medical aid. Neither France nor the European Union will not finance reconstruction until a credible political process is initiated, he said.
Niger’s representative said that the international community and Syria’s Government should continue to fight against terrorism, while combating COVID-19. Noting that the Russian Federation-Turkey ceasefire agreement of 6 March is still holding, he called upon the Syrian parties to build on this and make progress towards a comprehensive cessation of hostilities. Expressing hope for real progress at the next Constitutional Committee meeting in August, he called on all parties involved to show openness and willingness to negotiate in good faith for the sake of a lasting peace in Syria. The United Nations must lend all necessary support to this process based on resolution 2254 (2015). Unilateral sanctions would worsen the situation in Syria, as well as its neighbours, who are hosting millions of Syrian refugees. It is high time for the Council to stop politicizing the crisis and find even the smallest common denominator on the way to supporting and advancing the political process in Syria.
Belgium’s representative said that preventing the spread of COVID-19 must be a priority for Syria. Despite relative calm in the north-west, recent attacks illustrate how fragile the situation remains. Counter-terrorist operations must respect human rights and international humanitarian law. The United Nations should play a central role in the implementation of a nationwide ceasefire, as well as in its monitoring. Describing recent protests as a symptom of a far greater crisis, he said that the long road to peace can only pass through an inclusive political process. All parties, particularly the Syrian authorities, should fully engage in the upcoming Constitutional Committee meeting and reinvigorate the political track. Tangible progress must also be made on political prisoners and missing persons, he said, emphasizing that it is high time to move beyond one-for-one prisoner exchanges and for the Syrian authorities to release those who have been arbitrarily detained. Access to detainees must be ensured, in line with international regulations, he added.
South Africa’s representative welcomed the relative calm, particularly in the north-west, but said that COVID-19 has widened the scope for ISIL/Da’esh to expand its reach. Peace will not be achieved so long as foreign interference continues, he said, calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and armed groups and emphasizing that Syria must not remain a proxy battlefield for terrorist groups and international rivalries. Emphasizing that all Council members share the goal of a permanent ceasefire paving the way to an inclusive Syria-led dialogue and a lasting political solution, he called on all participants in the Constitutional Committee meeting to engage constructively. It is unacceptable that Syrians are being detained seemingly without cause, and he called for the release of all detained civilians, particularly women, children, the elderly and vulnerable groups, which, in these times of COVID-19, include the sick and those with underlying medical conditions.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, stressing that there is no military answer to the conflict, voiced support for the Special Envoy’s efforts and welcomed the forthcoming Constitutional Committee session. Without sustained calm on the ground, however, the political process will be severely hindered. Syria should not be used as an arena for geopolitical confrontation, she said, calling for the withdrawal of unauthorized foreign forces and emphasizing the importance of addressing the issue of detainees, particularly given the COVID-19 pandemic. That, and the fate of missing persons, must be given urgent attention to foster trust and to ensure transparency and accountability. She also appealed for the lifting of all unilateral coercive measures.
China’s representative said that the next Constitutional Committee meeting could be a window of opportunity if the Syrian parties engage constructively with each other and with the Special Envoy. China would also be happy to see the Astana Process continuing to contribute to the political process in Syria. He said that years of economic blockade and illegal sanctions had worsened the socioeconomic and humanitarian situation in Syria. Unilateral sanctions have meanwhile further compromised Syria’s capacity to access food and medical supplies to respond to COVID-19. “This is against humanity and totally unacceptable,” he said, requesting the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to assess the humanitarian impact of sanctions. He went on to call on relevant parties to launch negotiations and take concrete actions on counter-terrorism.
Estonia’s representative said that, unfortunately, the nine‑year‑long conflict is far from over. Rebuilding and unifying Syria remains a challenge as Damascus makes unilateral moves that undermine a political settlement. Recent elections in Government-controlled areas, which excluded millions of Syrians in opposition-held areas or abroad, violated the political road map set out in resolution 2254 (2015). Their results will not be recognized by the international community until a credible political transition is under way. Damascus “is not genuinely interested” in the political process, he said, despite agreement for holding Constitutional Committee meetings. Rather, the Government is still using force against its own people. He described the use of torture against arbitrarily detained people as a “perfect example of this brutal approach” and demanded the immediate unilateral release of arbitrarily detained Syrians, especially women and minors.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Indonesia, Russian Federation, Tunisia, United States, Iran and Syria.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.