World Turning ‘a Blind Eye’ to Syria’s Thousands of Detained Innocent Women, Children, Human Rights Activist Tells Security Council
The world views the conflict in Syria as one between a dictatorial regime and extremist factions, turning a blind eye to the thousands of non-violent activists who are detained and accused of being terrorists simply because they reject injustice and belong to regions that “enrage” authorities, a human rights lawyer told the Security Council in a 16 June videoconference meeting*.
“There are thousands of innocent women and children in detention centres, hundreds of mothers arrested with their children, and children born inside detention centres,” Noura Ghazi told the Council in an impassioned appeal to distinguish them from those who commit terrorist acts. They did not interfere in any act against the authorities. Some have been taken hostage due to the activism of relatives who oppose the regime. “Does anyone here believe that there is a political system that hates and gets angry at [a] certain region?” she asked.
She questioned whether her briefing to the Council would genuinely help resolve the issue of detainees and forcibly disappeared in Syria, or instead be used as a tool to highlight the human face of the international community, which has failed to advocate for humanitarian issues. Despite the hard price she has paid in her life, she does not have a personal attitude towards any one person or party. “Hatred has no place in human rights work,” she said, a point her opponents do not understand.
Rather, she said that she is here to address an ethical and humanitarian issue: the suffering of tens of thousands of families of missing, forcibly disappeared and detained Syrians, particularly women. The enforced disappearance of men has left women alone to care for their families and fight to understand the truth behind the absence of their loved ones.
As a founder of the “Families for Freedom” movement, she works with NoPhotoZone to promote non-discrimination against the families of detainees and the forcibly disappeared on any political basis, or on the basis of the party that has arrested or hidden their loved ones. “We want our loved ones, we want justice,” she said, “and the beginning of knowing the truth will lead us to it.”
The reason such suffering persists is the absence of international political will to stop it, she said. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been detained, forcibly disappeared or gone missing since the outbreak of protests in March 2011 demanding the release of detainees. “We were met with killing and arrest,” she said — so much so that today, “we become unable now to count the number of our victims, and the names of our opponents who violate our rights every day.” She pressed the Council to review development indicators in Syria before 2011.
She rejected prisoner exchanges as “nothing but blackmail”, as the people she represents do not belong to any of them. They are not prisoners of war. They are arbitrarily detained persons. “The central Government uses them as leverage and for achieving gains,” she said. “We want a radical, comprehensive and fair solution for all the detainees and disappeared in Syria, not only for a part of them.”
Accusing Syria’s Government of violating international and Syrian law, she asked the Council to consider whether the Military Field Court and Terrorism Court violate the principles of fair trial, whether summary executions constitute a flagrant violation of human and prisoners’ rights, and whether torture is a crime in all laws and under all circumstances. “We are the protectors of the Constitution,” she said. “Our weapon is the law and our opponent violates the law.”
Their demands are simple and clear, she said: the application of laws and accountability for those who violate them. “Should we have to submit to injustice and tyranny in order not to be called as traitors?” she wondered. “We are a people [who] belong to our State […] and defend it against a security political system that robs the country every day.” In closing, she drew attention to the arrest on 15 June of 10 activists in Sweida who belong to a minority that Syria’s Government claims to protect, but whom it cannot accuse of being terrorists.
Against this backdrop, Geir Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, said he had heard the deepening concerns expressed by the Civil Society Support Room and the Women’s Advisory Board about the future of their beloved country, and broader appeals for progress on the “2254 political process”, ending the violence and on the issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons.
“I reiterate my appeal for the Syrian Government — and all other Syrian parties — to carry out large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees,” he said, “and for more meaningful actions on missing persons”.
In addition, he had heard a new level of alarm over the dramatic collapse in economic conditions throughout Syria: from Damascus and the south-west, to Aleppo and the north-west, and within the north-east. Food prices have skyrocketed and supply chains have been disrupted. The purchasing power of ordinary Syrians has seriously diminished as wages — both private and public sector — are vastly inadequate to meet the demands of the day, he warned.
Before this deterioration, more than 80 per cent of Syrians were estimated to be living below the poverty line, he said. Today, the World Food Programme estimates that 9.3 million people are food insecure, with 2 million more at risk — a 42 per cent rise over 2019. Syrians have expressed panic about shops and pharmacies forced to close, jobs lost and remittances drying up.
Further, he said sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union against people and entities affiliated with the Government have restricted financial, banking, oil and gas and military activities, as well as exports and multilateral lending. Secondary sanctions by the United States — foreshadowed since the passage of legislation 6 months ago — will enter into force as early as 17 June. Some Syrians have taken peacefully to the streets in Sweida, Daraa and Idlib, protesting a range of grievances.
On the security front, he expressed concern over incidents in Tafas, in the south-west, as broader geopolitical tensions there appear to be growing, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) remains active in the south. In the north-west, he welcomed the calm brought about by the Russian Federation and Turkey, but cited a worrying increase in mutual shelling, reports of reinforcements on both sides and the first reported pro-Government air strikes in three months.
Noting that a cross-line attack by the wa-Harid al-Mu’minin operations room killed several Syrian soldiers last week, he said that while two of its leaders were subsequently killed in a United States drone strike on 14 June, it and other small extremist factions have formed a new operations room. He was assured that the Russian Federation and Turkey are working to contain the situation.
More broadly, he called for calm to be sustained in Idlib and for a nationwide ceasefire to be upheld, in line with resolution 2254 (2015). The challenge posed by listed terrorist groups must be addressed through a cooperative and targeted approach that safeguards stability, protects civilians and fully respects international humanitarian law. The same is true for efforts to prevent an ISIL/Da’esh resurgence in and around the central desert.
On the political front, he said he is ready to convene and facilitate a third session of the Syrian-led and Syrian-owned Constitutional Committee in Geneva, perhaps at the end of August. But Syrian parties will face great difficulties in resolving problems without real diplomacy among the key international players with influence, as there are still five international armies operating across the country, he recalled, among whom there are “real and substantive differences”, as there are between the Syrian parties.
He said these differences have been laid bare in debates over sanctions and in competing assessments of the political will to resolve the conflict. “They need to be the subject of real discussion and diplomacy,” he said, stressing that mutual and reciprocal steps are needed to unlock progress. He also emphasized the importance of full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, using all modalities. What is required is the readiness of all to deal seriously with the realities of the conflict, he asserted.
In the ensuing dialogue, Council members broadly called for determined action on the issue of detainees and missing persons, with most expressing support for the Syrian-led and -owned political process and welcoming that the Constitutional Committee could potentially hold its third round in Geneva in August.
The representative of the United States called on the Assad regime to immediately release civilians being held in crowded detention centres. Equally important is progress on the Constitutional Committee, whose stakeholders have agreed on the agenda but not convened due to the co-chair’s unwillingness to do so virtually. She condemned air strikes by Syria and the Russian Federation, which caused the largest disruption of the Idlib ceasefire since its establishment on 5 March, as well as provocations by terrorists on the ground, urging Moscow and Damascus to commit to a nationwide ceasefire. The United States is committed to reaching a political solution to the conflict and rejects attempts by the Assad regime and its allies to use military force, obstruction or disinformation to bypass United Nations efforts to restore peace.
She said the Assad regime has a clear choice: pursue the political path outlined in resolution 2254 (2015) or leave the United States with no choice other than to withhold reconstruction funding and impose sanctions against the regime and its political backers. On 10 July, the Council will debate the mandate renewal for the humanitarian cross-border mechanism in resolution 2504 (2020) and she cautioned against using the related negotiations to shape political realities on the ground. The Council must ensure aid flows to the Syrian people based on their needs, meaning it must not be used as a bargaining chip. It must ensure people are reached by cross-border and cross-line assistance through the most direct routes, notably Bab al Hawa, Bab al Salam and Al Yaroubia.
The Russian Federation’s representative said that when the Council next discusses the situation in Syria, it would be fair to invite a civil society representative from within the country to hear about their suffering “under the yoke” of terrorists, foreign occupation and bombings. Syrian parties have demonstrated their will for dialogue on the basis of the agreed agenda in the Constitutional Committee. The Russian Federation will continue to promote inter-Syrian dialogue, both in its national capacity and together with Turkey and Iran within the Astana format, he said, cautioning against the imposition of any foreign agendas. While the Idlib ceasefire is generally being respected, Syrian Government forces repelled several attacks on settlements, offering proof that the area is controlled by terrorists.
He expressed hope that Turkey will fulfil its obligations to neutralize these elements, noting that the Russian Federation will not allow a “rebranding” of Heyat Tahrir al-Sham into the “moderate opposition”, which some are promoting. He cited intensified terrorist activities, primarily east of the Euphrates, including ISIL/Da’esh attacks on Kurdish units, stressing that nothing is being done to improve conditions at Al-Hol, Al-Tanf or Rukban. “We presume that achievement of stability and security in those areas is possible only if the control of legitimate Government is restored,” he said, recalling that the opening lines of resolution 2254 (2015) cite respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. He proposed that efforts to implement that text begin with those paragraphs.
Attempts to use terrorists for one’s purposes prove that the situation is politicized and that all Council meetings on Syria have a political connotation. Humanitarian assistance is just one example of “political blackmail”, when discussing access to Government areas and to those beyond Damascus’s control. Sanctions only cripple the economy and hinder aid. “Advertised exemptions do not work,” he insisted. He equally denounced the United Nations Board of Inquiry for north-west Syria and claims that Russian air forces attacked civilian targets, citing a 16 September 2019 United Nations press conference and presentation of photos to that effect, all of which was ignored. The sources of false information are hidden. “They are always opponents of the Syrian authorities and masters of staged chemical attacks,” he insisted, who rely on social networks and remote interviews with witnesses living in Western capitals as so-called evidence.
He said the Russian military visited the sites of alleged strikes, inspected buildings and took photos. The evidence collected proves that the sites were not subjected to air or artillery strikes. However, the Nayrab Palestinian refugee camp was indeed shelled by militants. There is only one conclusion: the deconfliction mechanism is being used for misinformation and that a special United Nations board was created based on false data. Some deconflicted objects did not actually correspond to their declared status, and buildings were used by militants as headquarters. Moscow sent all such proof to the Secretary-General and will present it to the parties concerned.
The representative of China said Syrian parties must now strengthen consultations within the Constitutional Committee and engage with the Special Envoy. Other parties meanwhile should encourage a political solution. He expressed deep concern over of the country’s economic situation and urged the United States to immediately lift unilateral sanctions, stressing that new such measures will hinder economic and social development, as well as the livelihoods of vulnerable Syrians. “Imposing more sanctions is simply inhumane and may cause additional catastrophes,” he warned, pressing the United Nations to pay more attention to their negative impact on humanitarian conditions. Noting that parties are making great efforts to achieve a ceasefire, he meanwhile called on relevant actors to launch negotiations and take actions to counter terrorism. “The future of Syria must be decided by the Syrians, without foreign interference,” he stressed.
The representative of the Dominican Republic said the Council has the responsibility to continue to demand more and meaningful actions on the release of detainees and the provision of information about the missing to their families. However, amid terrorist attacks, a convergence of humanitarian and economic crises and a potential public health emergency are seriously impacting people’s resilience. Reiterating the pressing need to continue to push for a definitive and sustainable political solution to the conflict, he emphasized the need for a long-lasting national ceasefire and underlined the importance of facilitating safe and unimpeded humanitarian access. The Constitutional Committee can indeed be a door opener for a broader political process, and parties must return to consultations. At the same time, the Government must show credible and renewed commitment to the broad political process with words and with actions.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said the creation of a safe and neutral environment, and cultivating trust and cooperation, is vital to the success of the political process. The March ceasefire agreement, while fragile, has created an opportunity for meaningful engagement, she said, expressing hope that this will also encourage the full implementation of a lasting nationwide cessation of hostilities. The Constitutional Committee must maintain its momentum despite the current circumstances, she said, encouraging the relaunch of its important work, if practical to do so remotely. To foster goodwill, she reiterated the need for constructive action on the issue of detainees, particularly in consideration of the COVID-19 pandemic. She echoed the call to lift unilateral sanctions and encouraged the international community to contribute to Syria’s reconstruction. As the presence of Council-designated terrorist entities continues to pose a substantial threat, she underscored the need for a collaborative approach that complies with international law. At the same time, full respect for Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity dictates the withdrawal of all unauthorized foreign forces. Syria’s only viable path towards peace is through a credible, balanced and inclusive political process that is free from interference and reflects the legitimate aspirations of Syria’s people. The international community must therefore continue to lend its support to ensure that the goals of resolution 2254 (2015) are realized.
Niger’s representative welcomed the decrease in violence since the Turkey-Russian Federation sponsored ceasefire from a belief that it must go in tandem with the revival of the political process. Securing a national ceasefire is crucial, he said, expressing concern over reports indicating escalations in the Jebel al-Zawiya area of Idlib and in north-western Hama. He called on all stakeholders to return to the negotiation table. The United Nations must lend all necessary support to the Constitutional Committee process, he said, calling on Syria’s Government to enhance its engagement and stressing that confidence-building measures by both sides could help diffuse mistrust. Both sides also should ensure medical care for detainees and provide clarity to the families of missing persons. Underscoring Syria’s right to counter terrorism on its territory, he said such efforts must comply with international law. Elections are not the panacea to ending the crisis. Rather, economic measures and well-thought peacebuilding efforts must be worked out and implemented, he assured.
The United Kingdom’s representative, recalling the Council’s repeated warnings of catastrophic consequences for 3 million Syrians if fighting continued in the north-west, urged all parties to show restraint and redouble efforts to work with the Special Envoy to find a political solution. Resolution 2254 (2015) remains the only solution to the crisis, and yet, the Syrian regime, aided by a permanent Council member, has ignored it, continuing to subjugate the interests of the Syrian people to its pursuit of a military solution. The regime must engage in political dialogue, focusing on reform and addressing people’s legitimate concerns and aspirations. Given the current situation, resolution 2504 (2020) must be renewed for a further 12 months and cross-border assistance into the north-east must be re-authorized. Commending Ms. Ghazi’s work for the rights of the families of the detained, he said limited prisoner swaps are not enough. Syria’s regime must make widespread releases of political prisoners and ensure medical care is available for those still in detention. The removal of sanctions hinges on the regime engaging seriously with the Special Envoy and the United Nations-led political process to achieve a peaceful end to the conflict, he said, adding that goods and medical supplies used for humanitarian purposes are not subject to European Union sanctions, which the United Kingdom continues to apply.
Indonesia’s delegate, highlighting that Syrian parties must remain engaged in a constructive dialogue, said respecting a nationwide ceasefire is key to being able to sustain calm throughout Syria. He reaffirmed the importance of a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process, facilitated by the United Nations and in line with resolution 2254 (2015). A broader process should respect and ultimately restore Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. Syrians need tangible progress, from ensuring the delivery of humanitarian assistance and enhancing coronavirus testing capacities of laboratories to maintaining the ceasefire agreement, he said, urging all relevant parties to step up their efforts. In addition, the agreed agenda of the Constitutional Committee must be respected by all Syrian parties. Expressing hope that the third session would take place in August, he said that while this is only the beginning of the process, it nonetheless remains a crucial step to advancing the political track. On the economic front, Indonesia shares the Secretary-General’s call for waiving sanctions that can undermine the capacity of countries to ensure access to food, health and medical supplies in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belgium’s representative urged all parties to refrain from violence, reduce tension and exercise maximum restraint, with the United Nations playing a central role in implementing and monitoring a nationwide ceasefire. The Constitutional Committee and the wider political process should urgently be reinvigorated, he said, urging Member States with influence over Damascus to urgently use it. Any elections should be fair, transparent and open to members of the Syrian diaspora. Damascus must move beyond one-for-one prisoner exchanges to releasing prisoners and information as an important confidence-building measure. Humanitarian access must be ensured, he said, expressing Belgium’s support for renewing resolution 2165 (2014) concerning cross-border assistance and urging the Council to be fully aware of its common responsibility. Noting that the fourth Brussels conference is scheduled for the end of June, he said the European Union has contributed more than €17 billion in humanitarian assistance since the war began, but until the conflict is over and a political solution is well under way, the bloc will not fund reconstruction. European Union sanctions, targeting those responsible for ordering or carrying out attacks and torture against their own people, are carefully crafted to avoid any adverse humanitarian effects or unintended consequences for persons who are not targeted.
Viet Nam’s representative urged all parties to heed the call to fight COVID-19 in a most comprehensive manner and ensure stability in Syria. Only when a calm situation on the ground is secured can trust and confidence among parties can be regained and an enabling environment be created. Commending the constant efforts of the Special Envoy to bring parties together, he said Viet Nam looks forward to the resumption of negotiations within the Constitutional Committee and supports a political solution in line with resolution 2254 (2015) and the Charter of the United Nations. The volatile socioeconomic and humanitarian situation is worrisome, and while the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases remains relatively low, the risk of its spread demands attention. While fighting the pandemic, all parties should create the most favourable conditions for continued humanitarian assistance, he said, urging the international community to provide unwavering support to Syria’s people.
South Africa’s representative urged Syrian parties and all international role-players to commit to a peaceful settlement based on the road map agreed upon in resolution 2254 (2015). Calling on the parties to work towards a permanent ceasefire, he underlined an urgent need to address instability in the north, as peace cannot be achieved if there is external interference and support to armed groups. Encouraged by reports that the Government and opposition members of the Constitutional Committee have agreed to reconvene in August, he said this is a vital step. While the Council’s inability to adopt an outcome calling for a global ceasefire in the time of the pandemic is unacceptable, members must at the very least support the Special Envoy’s calls for an immediate and nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria and for the Secretary-General’s call for the lifting of economic measures to ensure that Syria is fully able to respond to the coronavirus. Calling for the full implementation of resolution 2254 (2015) and for the Council’s continued support of the work of the Constitutional Committee, the Special Envoy and his office and the various stakeholders participating in the mediation process, he said that: “as we have seen by our own experience in South Africa, the only path to a sustainable peace is through dialogue, negotiation and reconciliation. As South Africa youth day, a day in which in 1976, the youth of his country rose up against oppression and injustice, he said: “We remember the youth of Syria and elsewhere who have suffered for a long time and deserve the right to live in peace.”
The representative of Germany, warning Syria and the Russian Federation against a new military offensive in and around Idlib and its humanitarian implications, urged all parties to uphold the 5 March ceasefire agreement. The economic and financial situation has further deteriorated because of the Syrian regime, and not due to sanctions or the lack of reconstruction assistance, as Damascus is looking for scapegoats to deflect from its own drastic failure. Since 2011, the European Union mobilized €20 billion in aid, including Germany’s €8.1 billion contribution, and once a genuine political transition is firmly under way, his country and the European Union will assist in reconstruction efforts. Likewise, European Union sanctions will be lifted when the Syrian regime ends its grave violations of international law. As the Russian Federation claims to be interested in a political solution, he called on Moscow to use its influence over Damascus. For its part, the Council must do more to support the Special Envoy’s call for unconditional, large-scale releases of detainees. National reconciliation will be impossible without truth, justice and accountability for arbitrarily detained persons and missing persons — and for all other crimes and atrocities committed during the conflict.
The representative of Estonia said preventing a military escalation must remain the Council’s priority. Continued fighting in the Idlib area might accelerate the spread of COVID-19, as it limits the work of aid organizations. Expressing regret over the lack of progress on the political process, he called on parties to set a date for the meeting of the Constitutional Committee, reiterating the need to implement resolution 2254 (2015) and that the Syrian regime’s plan to hold parliamentary elections in July violates the road map set out in that text. Meanwhile, an important step towards national reconciliation is solving the situation of detainees, he said, calling on the Government to abide by international human rights law and relevant Council resolutions. Until a political process is in place, the European Union will not provide aid to Syria’s reconstruction, he said, stressing that the economic crisis is not the result of international sanctions, but rather widespread corruption and lack of good governance. Highlighting the forthcoming Brussels conference, he welcomed a recent European Union videoconference on accountability for crimes committed in Syria, adding that the Council should also consider this kind of holistic approach to this issue.
The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, stressing that the lack of progress on the issue of the disappeared persons remains a main source of suffering for Syrians. The Council must unite in response to the Special Envoy's call to release prisoners and facilitate access to detention centres, he said, underscoring the urgency to move beyond the prisoner exchange logic. Discussions with the Special Envoy must urgently resume, including remotely, to convene a meeting in Geneva as soon as possible, especially after a lengthy paralysis of the Constitutional Committee’s work due to regime’s obstruction. The regime’s repression of protests in southern Syria clearly demonstrates its adherence to using security solutions to political problems. The priority must be to establish a nationwide ceasefire under United Nations supervision.
He said France will continue to monitor developments in the north-west, where the Russian-Turkish truce agreement remains fragile. The fight against terrorist groups cannot justify the regime and its allies resuming an offensive or violating international law. Aid must reach people in need, with the cross-border mechanism remaining indispensable, he said, urging the Council to act responsibly. France will continue with its partners to combat ISIL/Da’esh. European Union sanctions are targeted and have mechanisms to safeguard humanitarian access. Calling on the Special Envoy to work on a political process in line with resolution 2254 (2015), he said elections that do not meet criteria set out in its provisions cannot be recognized as legitimate. Unless a credible political process is firmly under way, France and the European Union will not finance reconstruction.
The representative of Syria described the “political schizophrenia” of the United States in attributing the deterioration of his country to Syria’s Government — all while it steals 200,000 barrels daily from Syria’s oil fields, 400,000 tons of cotton, 5 million livestock, and occupies Syrian territories. On 31 May, Syria submitted a formal complaint to the Secretary-General and Council President regarding actions by the United States, United Kingdom, France and Turkey — countries that have supported, financed and armed multinational terrorist groups and separatist proxy militias in Syria for nine years. They have made unilateral and tripartite acts of aggression, occupied Syrian territory, committed murder, destruction, displacement and demographic change, and looted natural and historical resources.
“These practices are blatant attempts at the destructive intervention in the political process facilitated by the United Nations,” he said, also calling unilateral coercive measures an integral part of prejudiced Western policies, and “the other side of terrorism” that has reaped Syrian lives. The targeting of Syria’s currency, medicine and livelihoods and hindrance of the State’s ability to provide public services undermine any Western claims of humanitarian concern. He cited the burning of food shipments by Lebanese parties in this context. The United States and European Union have flouted all demands for ending unilateral coercive measures, with the Caesar Act’s entry into force a further sign of disrespect for international law.
Western Governments meanwhile turn a “blind eye” to Turkey’s practices in Syria, he said, ignoring the United States-Turkish sponsorship of terrorism and separatist militias. Turkey seeks to replace Syria’s national currency with its own in the areas it occupies, seeking “Turkification” of these regions. In the Council, the three permanent members from the West mobilize the remnants of ISIL/Da’esh in Iraq and Syria whenever it suits their interests. Syria has asked the Secretary-General and Council to end such hostile foreign interventions into its domestic affairs and to press all Member States to refrain from practices that undermine Syria’s independence. It also requested the Secretariat to prepare a report on whether the economic embargo imposed on Syria is in line with the Charter of the United Nations, he said, noting that his country looks forward to the Secretary-General’s response as soon as possible.
Also participating was the representative of Tunisia.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.