As of March 1st, 2021, UN investigators reported that the fate of tens of thousands of civilians in Syria’s “notorious” prisons or detention centres remains unknown ten years after the country’s civil war started.
Last week’s 30-page report from the Commission of Inquiry―based on more than 2,500 interviews conducted over 10 years and investigations into more than 100 individual detention facilities―details historical and ongoing violations and abuses committed by virtually every major party that has occupied Syria since 2011.
Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting the continuation of detention-related violations and abuses, Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd claims that the parties to the conflict, with very few exceptions, have failed to investigate their own forces, as the focus appears to be more on concealing the inhumane conditions in detention facilities rather than on investigating them.
Although the panel claims the Syrian government is responsible for the detentions, other armed groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Syrian National Army (SNA), and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been complicit in not only the disappearance of thousands of civilians but also other extreme violations and abuses. The report outlines how the government, and, to a lesser degree, other parties knowingly perpetuate the suffering of family members and loved ones by prolonging proper intervention. Unfortunately, the psychological needs of victims and their families, which should be of primary concern, are consistently neglected.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, tens of thousands of civilians have been arbitrarily detained in Syria, and thousands more have been tortured, sexually abused, and or have died in detention. For these reasons, arbitrary detention and incarceration are cited as a “root cause” and a key “trigger” in Syria’s war.
The report includes a series of proposals to ensure accountability for the crimes it outlines, including that Member States enact effective legislation to allow for the prosecution of individuals, such as the one that led to a ground-breaking verdict last week in Koblenz, Germany, in which a former Syrian state official was found guilty of assisting and abetting crimes against humanity. Another, and perhaps most critical, recommendation was that all parties involved must stop and deter violations, release certain groups of persons immediately, facilitate impartial oversight of detention centers, and provide assistance to victims and their families.
The Commission also advises the government to take immediate, systematic measures to reveal the fate of those who have disappeared forcibly. It also urges that the international community exert pressure on the warring parties to deter atrocities as well as to develop a system that could account for missing persons and support victims, including Syrian and foreigners who are held in displacement camps.
With the threats posed by COVID-19, it is even more urgent than ever to release individuals from abhorrent, inhumane conditions of detention as overcrowded prisons are likely to exacerbate the spread of the virus “where detainees in fragile health may not survive,” as Commissioner Hanny Megally suggests.
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