Arria-formula Meeting: “Syrian Women’s Voices on Detainees and the Disappeared in Syria”
Tomorrow (3 June) at 10:30 am EST in the Trusteeship Council Chamber, there will be a Security Council Arria-formula meeting on “Syrian Women’s Voices on Detainees and the Disappeared in Syria”. The meeting is being organised by the US, together with Albania, France and the UK, with additional co-sponsorship by several non-Council members (Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar and Turkey). According to a concept note prepared by the organisers, the meeting is being held with the support of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC), which represents the Syrian opposition. The briefers are expected to include women representatives from civil society organisations from different religious and ethnic groups, as well as representatives of the SNC legal team. Member states and regional organisations are invited to make brief statements following the briefers.
The concept note says that the meeting will provide “Syrian voices with a platform to call for an international response to the issue of arbitrarily detained and missing persons”. In this respect, the meeting will explore “practical measures to secure the release of detainees, particularly women and children, and obtain information on the fate and whereabouts of the missing”.
The organisers have set out three objectives for the meeting:
- To underscore that it is impossible to achieve sustainable peace in Syria without finding solutions that respond to victims’ demands on all sides;
- To highlight to the international community that victims from all religions and ethnicities suffer from the Syrian regime’s atrocities; and
- To request immediate access to all detention centres and all detainees.
The plight of the tens of thousands of detained, abducted or missing Syrians has been discussed frequently in the monthly Council meetings on the political and humanitarian situations in the country. The Council also held a briefing devoted to this issue in August 2019 (S/PV.8593). On 26 April, in his most recent public briefing to the Council, Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen said that “without progress on this file many Syrians will be unable even to begin to think of moving on, and sustainable peace will remain elusive” (S/PV.9022). He added that “[t]he lack of progress is frustrating because all sides say that they indeed agree that action is needed, and all sides stand to benefit from progress”.
Since becoming Special Envoy in 2019, Pedersen has noted that large-scale releases of detainees and abductees could be an important way of building trust between the parties. In recent months, he has discussed this issue in the context of the “step by step, step for step” process, whereby he asks parties to the conflict and other stakeholders to make concessions in exchange for reciprocal actions on issues such as the release of detainees and abductees, support for early recovery projects, and humanitarian assistance, among other matters.
The concept note refers to data from the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)—a UK-based organisation which monitors and documents human rights violations in Syria— that says that over 28,600 women have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war in March 2011, while 10,600 women are in prison or forcibly disappeared. It notes that these numbers are very conservative estimates, due to gaps in documentation, and refer to sexual assault and other violations that women have been subjected to in the conflict. The briefers tomorrow are likely to give voice to the experience of women in the conflict, including those who have been detained by the Syrian government.
Several Council members, including the co-sponsors of the meeting, are likely to be highly critical of the Syrian government for its detention and disappearance of civilians. They may call for the release of those who have been detained, information on the fate of the missing, and humanitarian access to detention facilities. In contrast, other members, such as China and Russia, are expected to be more sympathetic to the government, and may highlight the threat of terrorism in Syria.
There may be references at tomorrow’s meeting to the 30 April amnesty decree issued by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which pertains to “terrorist crimes committed by Syrians prior to 30 April 2022, excluding crimes leading to the death of a human being”. The decree applies to both people in custody and others who are wanted for alleged crimes. It was apparently discussed at the 31 May consultations on the political situation in Syria. During the meeting, it was noted that nearly 500 people had been released since the decree was issued. There is no official list of those who have been granted amnesty, and some Syrians abroad have inquired with the government if it applies to them.
Member states are likely to express sharply contrasting views about the decree at tomorrow’s meeting. Some may welcome it as a positive gesture by the government and an important confidence-building measure. Others are likely to be more sceptical of the government’s intentions; in this regard, one Council member apparently argued during the 31 May consultations that many of those released had nearly reached the end of their prison sentences and were already due to be released soon.
Tomorrow’s meeting will take place as the Constitutional Committee’s eighth round of meetings in Geneva, which began on 28 May, draws to a close. To date, the committee has not made meaningful progress.