What's In Blue

Posted Tue 6 Aug 2019

Syria: Briefing on Detainees, Abductees and Missing Persons

Tomorrow (7 August), the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the situation of detainees, abductees and missing persons in Syria. The Council will be briefed by Rosemary DiCarlo, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs; Hala Al Ghawi, physician and founder of Syria’s Bright Future; and Amina Khoulani, founder of Families for Freedom. The meeting is expected to provide a rare opportunity for the Council to hear directly from family members of people forcibly disappeared.

The US, which made the original request for the meeting, was joined by eight other Council members in calling for it: Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland and the UK. Having nine Council members in favour of holding the meeting is important since the decision about whether to convene a meeting is a procedural matter.  If a proposed meeting is challenged and a vote is held, nine or more affirmative votes are required to convene the session, and the veto does not apply.

The polarisation in the Council regarding Syria is likely to be apparent at the meeting. A number of members believe that progress on the situation of detainees, abductees and missing persons in Syria would be an important confidence-building measure and that its consideration by the Council can be helpful in this regard. In contrast, others are likely to emphasise the need to engage on this issue within the Astana framework.

Although more than 10,000 cases of missing persons have been opened by the International Committee of the Red Cross concerning the conflict in Syria, the total number of people arbitrarily detained and missing is believed to be much higher. According to a 27 November 2018 report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, while arbitrary detention throughout Syria has been perpetrated by all parties on the ground, “nowhere has the phenomenon been more pervasive than in areas under government control”.

Since the beginning of his tenure, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen has prioritised more concrete action on detainees, abductees and missing persons. The Astana guarantors—Iran, Russia and Turkey—established a working group on detainees, abductees, the handover of bodies and identification of missing persons, with UN participation. However, only a limited number of prisoners (some dozens) have been swapped, and progress has not been made on handing over bodies and identifying missing persons.

Some Council members are likely to suggest that the working group meet in Geneva in the near future and move beyond one-for-one exchanges, focusing instead on the simultaneous release of unequal numbers of detainees/abductees. This would echo a call from the UN to this effect transmitted by DiCarlo in her 27 March briefing to the Council, during which she maintained that progress on releasing “as many detained persons as possible and clarify[ing] the fate of missing persons…could build confidence that a new Syria is possible, especially for those who want to return.” In this regard, she added: “So many Syrian families have been affected, and they yearn to see the issue meaningfully addressed” (S/PV.8493).

Several Council members are expected to call on the government to engage in good faith on these matters. In this respect, some Council members are expected to recall resolution 2474, which was adopted unanimously on 11 June 2019. The resolution emphasised that addressing the situation of missing persons as a result of armed conflict “can contribute to the process of confidence-building between parties to armed conflict, expediting peace negotiations and settlement, transitional justice processes, reconciliation, peacebuilding and sustaining peace”.

The idea of organising a meeting on the situation of detainees, abductees and missing persons in Syria has been discussed among Council members since at least September 2018, when it was mentioned as a possibility at a high-level meeting in the margins of the General Assembly’s general debate. That meeting took place after the Syrian government released thousands of prisoner death notices that summer.

While Council members were willing to give space and time to the Special Envoy and the Astana guarantors to address this issue and not rush to call for a meeting, it seems that the lack of progress on this file has motivated the request by the US and others for tomorrow’s briefing.