Syria’s missing must not be forgotten

Accounting for the missing is an investment in peace and stability and, without this closure, a society cannot move forward

  
Image used for illustrative purpose. Syrian refugees hold the Syrian opposition flag in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman October 15, 2013.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Syrian refugees hold the Syrian opposition flag in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman October 15, 2013.

REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Driven off the front pages and our television screens by the march of time and through the convenient cover of other events, the decade of agony for Syria continues. As many as 100,000 Syrians have gone missing since the start of the conflict. Victims are killed and buried in clandestine graves; they are held in detention, including incommunicado detention; or they have disappeared on the dangerous refugee routes from Syria to neighboring countries and beyond.

The issue of the missing must be addressed as part of the peace process, and this must involve the active participation of families and civil society, as well as governments and international organizations. If accounting for the missing is not addressed in an effective and, above all, just way, then 100,000 families and those close to them will be alienated from any settlement. Accounting for the missing is an investment in peace and stability and, without this closure, a society cannot move forward, especially after the trauma of such long-term civil violence.

The victims may be missing in Syria, in neighboring countries, in North Africa, Europe or beyond. The solution requires cooperation among states, including the use of centralized, specialized data systems capabilities, which can be accessed by multiple states and by relatives of the missing from countries of origin, countries of transit and countries of destination.

The International Commission on Missing Persons — a treaty-based intergovernmental organization with headquarters in The Hague, of which I am the UK commissioner — has been working on missing persons cases from Syria for more than a decade. In the Middle East and North Africa, in addition to Syria, ICMP has programs in Iraq and Libya, as well as a Mediterranean Missing Migrants and Refugees Program. Based on its experience, ICMP believes that the partners to a peace settlement in Syria have the capacity to address the missing persons issue in an effective and sustained manner that will contribute to reinstating the rule of law and uphold the rights of survivors.

Since 2017, ICMP has made significant progress in laying the foundations for an effective missing persons process in Syria that can be expanded when a peace settlement is reached. It has provided families in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq with web-based tools to report and track missing persons cases, and it has enabled a growing network of civil society organizations to collect missing persons data from families in Syria and the MENA region. By the end of next year, ICMP estimates that information on 40,000 missing persons from Syria will have been collected and stored in its integrated data management system, which enables data to be shared and used securely to locate and identify missing persons.

ICMP has convened a multiannual series of carefully structured roundtables to help families and civil society organizations from Syria develop a common platform to advocate for the resolution of missing persons issues. In July, it sent a submission to the UN Human Rights Council’s 40th session for the Universal Periodic Review of Syria. And, at the beginning of October, it recommended the adoption of a set of provisions in any future Syrian constitution, including the establishment of a Syrian Commission on Missing Persons and purpose-specific legislation to secure the rights of relatives of the missing to the truth and to reparations.

ICMP has also taken steps to ensure that international organizations and governments exchange missing persons data and collaborate on an impartial, rule of law-based approach to addressing the issue. A priority is to ensure that evidence collected at mass graves, for example, is collected to a standard that can be presented in court in the event that the perpetrators of disappearances are prosecuted. Accounting for the missing should not be undertaken at the expense of future accountability.

The missing are not an afterthought in any conflict. As states move toward a normalization process with Syria, and as aid organizations and governments wrestle with the distinction between reconstruction and rehabilitation, it is essential that those engaging with Syria and the UN stress the importance of including a mechanism for resolving the issue of the missing in their agreements. In time, land will recover and buildings will be restored, but the agony of families with no knowledge of those forced to flee or worse cannot be reconciled with lifetimes of uncertainty. A false peace would be compounded by its establishment on the empty homes of the Syrian people.

A great deal of work has already been done to establish an effective missing persons strategy for Syria and an international mechanism can build on this foundation. ICMP stands ready to support such a mechanism, which can make an effective contribution to peace in Syria and justice for the Syrian families of the missing.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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