9. Nearly nine million people, more than a third of the population, have fled their homes since March 2011. Of these, over 2.4 million are refugees in neighbouring countries, stretching hosting communities to their limits. One-fifth of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees. In Jordan, Zaatari camp has become one of the country’s largest “cities”. Thousands of Syrians are also trying to cross from Egypt or Libya to Italy. Hundreds have perished at sea.
10. An estimated 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced. Of concern is the situation of approximately 250,000 persons who remain trapped. A third round of vaccinations in response to a polio outbreak was carried out in January 2014, reaching more than two million children. The provision of assistance is, however, increasingly manipulated by all sides, in breach of the principle of non-discrimination. Humanitarian actors continue to work in dangerous conditions across the country.
11. Economic sanctions imposed by some Member States adversely affect the socioeconomic situation. The Syrian Pound has been devalued by over 50 per cent since the outbreak of the crisis. Prices for basic items have risen sharply. Many families are living in abandoned buildings, schools or in makeshift shelters, without sufficient food, water or medicine. Health and sanitation services have deteriorated, leading to the spread of communicable diseases.
12. The second International Pledging Conference for Syria was held in Kuwait City on 15 January 2014. Donors are encouraged to fulfil the $2.4 billion (of the $6.5 billion appeal) pledges to help UN agencies and partners provide aid to Syrians affected by the conflict.
Specific mandate on massacres
The Commission continued to carry out its special mandate to investigate all massacres.a The Commission has not been granted access to conduct investigations on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. This has severely hampered its efforts to establish the circumstances of a number of alleged massacres to its evidentiary standard. In many parts of Syria, communication lines, including phone and internet, have been restricted or cut. In the incidents described, the intentional mass killing and identity of the perpetrator were confirmed to the commission’s evidentiary standards.
Government forces and pro-Government militia
Qarfah Village, Dara’a, 6 June 2013
On 6 June 2013, Government forces and armed men in plain clothes executed five civilians, including a four-year-old girl during an incursion into a private house in Qarfah village. Government forces raided the house after arresting and killing a male member of the family at a military position in Izraa, on the suspicion that he was a member of a non-State armed group.
Al-Zarra, Tal-Kalkh area, Homs, 15 July 2013
On 15 July 2013, seven members of a local Reconciliation Committee in the village of Al-Zarra were shot dead by local pro-Government Popular Committee members from a neighbouring Alawite village. The victims were unarmed civilians. Among them were two retired Syrian army officers and a former mayor of a village in the area.
The Reconciliation Committee members were killed as they were accompanying unarmed rebels on their way to the State police station in Talkalakh, in order to facilitate their surrender. Their convoy was ambushed near an army checkpoint and attacked by Popular Committee members from a neighbouring village. Neither the Reconciliation Committee members nor those being escorted were carrying arms.
Karnaz, Hama, 26 September 2013
On 26 September, eight members of a family were killed in their home by Government forces and pro-Government militia. The massacre occurred as Government forces raided the house in order to confiscate agricultural goods, on the suspicion that they were being used to feed armed opposition fighters. When the mother in the family refused to hand over the foodstuffs, Government forces killed the woman and seven family members.
Non-State armed groups
Jamlah Village (Dara’a), 3 March 2013
On 5 March 2013, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade executed nine members of the Syrian armed forces who had been captured and were hors de combat. The troops were detained during an attack on a military position in Jamlah village. The captured soldiers were subsequently executed by gunfire.
Khan Al-Assal, Aleppo, 22-23 July 2013
On 22 and 23 July NSAGs captured and executed more than 50 government soldiers and a number of civilians during an attack on the town of Khan Al-Assal, outside Aleppo. Video material collected online indicates that the detainees were executed by gunfire after their capture by members of the Ansar Al-Khilafa Brigade.
Al-Hiffa region, Latakia, 4-5 August 2013
During the first week of August 2013, more than 100 civilians were killed during a military operation conducted by non-State armed groups. The killings occurred in the context of a military attack that started on 4 August 2013, in which a number of non-State armed groups participated. The operation targeted a cluster of Alawite villages in Al-Hiffa, and was referred to by some groups as Operation Liberation of the Coast, or Campaign of the Descendants of Aisha the Mother of Believers by other groups. The main participating non-State armed groups in the operation were Jabhat Al-Nusra, Suqor Al-’Iz, Ahrar Al-Sham, Liwa’ Al-Mouhajireen and Harakat Sham Al-Islam, as well as Soqoor Al-Sahel Brigade and Western Central Front of SMC. Small local groups from local Sunni villages also participated.
Non-State armed groups first attacked a military position on a hilltop around 500 meters from the villages. The position was equipped with tank, rocket launcher and other heavy weaponry, and had been used to fire artillery on the opposition held town of Salma and other areas. After capturing this and other military positions in the area, the fighters moved to attack the nearby villages, including Inbatah, Al-Hamboushiyah and Blouta, in some places engaging Syrian forces in combat, but also firing indiscriminately at civilians and civilian houses. Civilians were killed during this assault, while others were killed while escaping.
The victims included men, women and children. During the attack, armed non-State groups also abducted an estimated 200 women and children. Their whereabouts remain unknown. The discovery of mass graves was reported after Government forces regained control of the villages around 16 August 2013. Victims were killed by gunshot or by sharp objects. Several bodies were decapitated, burned or otherwise mutilated.
Statements from participating commanders as well as material available online strongly suggest that this specific operation received a financial contribution of 400,000 Euros from an identified individual. A second person of unknown nationality contributed 150,000 Euros to the operation.
Al-Madmouma, Idlib, 26 August 2013
On 26 August 2013, several members of a non-State armed group affiliated to Ahrar Al-Sham, attacked the village of Al-Madmouma, near Ma’aret Al-Nu’man. During the night, armed men entered a house and killed 16 civilians, including six children, three women and two elderly men. The killings occurred in the context of disputes between the group and a tribe present in the area.
Maksar Al-Husan, Homs, 10 September 2013
On 10 September 2013, 18 civilians were killed in Maksar Al-Husan in the context of a military campaign against a group of three Alawite villages nearby. Non-State armed groups affiliated with Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham Movement conducted the assault. Victims included several elderly women and men, as well as children.
Deir Attiya, Damascus, 20 November 2013
Nine medical staff at Basil State Hospital in Qalamoun were taken hostage and killed by members of Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Khadra Battalion. The killings and the attack on the hospital occurred in the context of an assault against several locations and positions in Deir Attiya city. Government sources reported to have retrieved the bodies of the victims after Government forces regained control of the hospital on 13 November 2013.
Sadad, Homs countryside, 21-28 October 2013
On 21 October 2013, multiple non-state armed groups, including Al-Islam Shield battalions affiliated to Maghawir Forces and Jabhat Al-Nusra launched an attack on Government forces based in the Christian town of Sadad. A number of civilians were killed during the ensuing clashes. The perpetrators of the killings have not been established in each incident.
Two elderly civilians were shot and killed by members of a non-State armed group. Members of the police force were also killed. Four elderly women were reportedly found shot dead in an area controlled by the armed groups. All killings took place in close quarters.
Sadad, Homs countryside, October 2013
On 21 October 2013, multiple non-state armed groups launched an attack on Government forces based in the Christian town of Sadad. On 28 October, Syrian Government forces regained full control of Sadad. An entire family, a woman, her two young children, two elderly parents and her mother in law, were later found dead in a well. One of the victims was handcuffed with his arms behind his back and had been gagged with a cloth. All six civilians had been shot in the head. The area in which the victims were found dead had been under the control of the Government. Non-state armed groups had been positioned in a school near the family’s home.
Without a trace: enforced disappearances in Syria
Women, standing outside detention centres and holding photographs of their disappeared male relatives, have become an enduring image of suffering in Syria. It is an image which speaks to the essence of the violation of enforced disappearance: the taking of a loved one, the desperate search for information through official and unofficial channels, and the torment of those left behind. Those who wait are often the only visible trace of the violation.
An enforced disappearance is an arrest, detention or abduction, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared. Cases of enforced disappearances were first documented by the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic during the pro-democracy protests in March 2011. As the unrest devolved into an armed conflict, the investigation covered practices related to enforced disappearances perpetrated by all parties to the conflict. Investigations uncovered a consistent country-wide pattern in which people – mainly adult males – have been seized by the Syrian security and armed forces, as well as by pro-Government militias, during mass arrests, house searches, at checkpoints and in hospitals. In some instances, the disappearances appeared to have a punitive element, targeting family members of defectors, activists, fighters as well as those believed to be providing medical care to the opposition.
Over the last year, specific anti-Government armed groups have begun to abduct certain categories of civilians and hold them hostage. Persons perceived to be supporting the Government, human rights defenders, journalists, activists, humanitarian workers, and religious leaders have been seized by various armed groups and held under the threat of death until their release was negotiated for ransom or a prisoner exchange. Hostage-taking is a war crime, characterized by coercion and the infliction of a threat until the demands of the captor are met.
In contrast, enforced disappearance –the subject of this paper– is a denial of the very existence of its victims, placing them outside the protection of the law. Authorities across Syria have refused to provide information about the fate or whereabouts of disappeared. In some instances, there appeared to be a policy of not providing such information to families. Many of those interviewed were too frightened of reprisals to make official inquiries. In some cases, relatives who approached the security services were themselves arrested. The Government has perpetuated a system of arrests and incommunicado detention that is conducive to enforced disappearances. There is also evidence that some anti-Government armed groups have adopted practices that could be considered tantamount to enforced disappearances. This paper charts the major trends and patterns of this phenomenon in Syria from March 2011 to November 2013 and draws from numerous first-hand interviews conducted by the Commission over this period. The Commission regrets that it was not able to access the country. This limited its ability to investigate inside Syria, especially cases of anti-Government armed group abuses.
The practice of forcibly disappearing persons is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law, binding all parties to the conflict in Syria. The definition of an enforced disappearance is set out in the United Nations Declaration for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which crystalises custom. Under international human rights law, an act of enforced disappearance is committed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, thus resulting in a human rights violation. In the context of international humanitarian law, this requirement must be interpreted to include agents of non-State actors, in order for this prohibition to retain significance in situations of non-international armed conflict such as Syria.
Under international human rights law, the prohibition of enforced disappearances is a non-derogable State responsibility. No legitimate aim or exceptional circumstances may be invoked to justify the practice of enforced disappearance. When perpetrated as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with the intent of removing a person from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time and pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy, enforced disappearances can amount to a crime against humanity incurring individual criminal responsibility. Enforced disappearances are continuing human rights violations and crimes, persisting for many years after the initial deprivation of liberty.
The Criminal Code of the Syrian Arab Republic does not criminalise enforced disappearances as an autonomous crime. Any act of enforced disappearance violates a number of fundamental rights enshrined in the 2012 Syrian Constitution, the Arab Charter on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is party. These rights include the right to liberty and security of persons, the right not to be arbitrarily detained, the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to a fair trial and the right of all persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with the inherent dignity of the human person. Enforced disappearances also violate and imperil the right to life.
Enforced disappearance, by definition, requires an absence of information about the fate or whereabouts of a loved one. Investigating this violation presents unique challenges as physical evidence is elusive or entirely absent. It can be years before the fate of the disappeared person comes to light, if ever. The truth regarding the fate of the many disappeared in Syria and the extent of the phenomenon of enforced disappearance will likely only fully be grasped in the aftermath of the conflict.
The victims of this violation number far beyond the individuals disappeared. The families and loved ones of those disappeared endure a mental anguish that amounts to a further violation of their human rights. It is a continuous violation that remains unabated until the fate of the disappeared is uncovered. To forcibly disappear a person is to negate their being and deny their relatives’ right to know the truth.