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Violations of international law

Amnesty International considers that enforced disappearances in Syria since 2011 have been committed as part of a widespread as well as systematic attack against the civilian population and, therefore, amount to crimes against humanity.

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International human rights law

Article 1 of the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) absolutely prohibits enforced disappearances and specifies that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as justification for enforced disappearance”.[1]

Article 2 contains the following definition of enforced disappearance: the “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law”.[2] In addition, there is an express obligation in Article 3 to investigate acts defined in Article 2 committed by persons or groups of persons acting without the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state and bring those responsible to justice.

The prohibition of enforced disappearance in the ICPPED confirmed existing prohibitions in various instruments, including the 1978 General Assembly Resolution on Disappeared Persons, the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While the definitions vary slightly, all include the key elements of this violation: deprivation of liberty undertaken by state agents (or with their complicity); refusal to acknowledge or disclose the disappeared person’s detention, whereabouts or fate; and the removal of the disappeared person from the protection of the law.

Every enforced disappearance violates a range of human rights, many of which are non-derogable. Treaty bodies, human rights courts and other human rights bodies have repeatedly found that enforced disappearances violate – including during armed conflicts – the right to liberty and security of person[3], the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment[4], the right to a remedy[5], and the right to life[6]. Thus, the fact that Syria is not a party to the ICPPED does not release it from the obligation not to subject anyone to enforced disappearance. Because enforced disappearances can violate several human rights simultaneously, they are referred to as “multiple” or “cumulative” human rights violations. An enforced disappearance is also a “continuing crime”, which takes place so long as the disappeared person remains missing and information about his or her fate or whereabouts has not been provided by the state.

The ICPPED codifies the right of each victim to know “the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance, the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person”.[7] This includes measures “to search for, locate and release disappeared persons and, in the event of death, to locate, respect and return their remains”. The ICPPED also provides that that state shall ensure victims have the right “to obtain reparation and prompt, fair and adequate compensation”.[8] The ICPPED defines victims as “any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance”.[9] And it is settled jurisprudence that an enforced disappearance may cause such severe mental distress as to breach the family members’ right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.[10]

A former detainee holds up a piece of fabric that was used to catalog the names of people who had passed through the detention center.

International humanitarian law

The prohibition on enforced disappearances is recognized as part of customary international humanitarian law applicable in both international and non-international conflicts.[11] Enforced disappearance violates, or threatens to violate, a range of customary rules of international humanitarian law, most notably: the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of liberty, the prohibition of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment and the prohibition of murder. Violations of these rules constitute war crimes for which there is individual criminal responsibility.[12]

According to Rule 117 of the study of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) on customary international law: “Each party to the conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and must provide their family members with any information it has on their fate.”[13]

In addition, parties to an armed conflict are required to take steps to prevent disappearances, including through the recording and notification of the personal details of persons deprived of their liberty, who must be allowed to correspond with their families, and, to the degree practicable, to receive visits from near relatives.[14] International humanitarian law also requires the parties to respect family life, which entails each party taking all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict and to provide their family members with information it has on their fate.[15]

I cannot sleep at night. My thoughts do not leave me: is she ok or not? Are the children hungry? Are they calm? Or are they screaming and crying? I have these thoughts the whole night.

International criminal law

Certain human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, amount to crimes under international law, and states are required to make such violations a criminal offence in domestic legislation. States are also obliged to bring to justice in fair trials all those suspected of criminal responsibility for these and other serious violations. Individuals – whether civilians or in the military – can be held criminally responsible for violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights law.

All states have an obligation to investigate and, where enough admissible evidence is gathered, prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as other crimes under international law. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, certain acts, if directed against a civilian population as part of a widespread or systematic attack, and as part of a state or organizational policy, amount to crimes against humanity. Such acts include, among others, murder, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, torture, rape and other sexual crimes, and enforced disappearances. All governments have a duty to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity, including by exercising universal jurisdiction over the crimes.

Under the ICPPED, enforced disappearances are crimes under international law and states parties must exercise their jurisdiction for this crime when the alleged perpetrator is found in any territory under their jurisdiction, unless the state extradites the concerned person to another state or surrenders the person to an international criminal court.[16]

Many people have been forced to exist on a diet of leaves and weeds. In desperation, some have killed and eaten cats and dogs.

OUR CALLS TO THE SYRIAN AUTHORITIES:

  • Put an immediate end to enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions;
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all persons imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of human rights, or because of their identity;
  • Inform families of the fate, whereabouts and legal status of all persons in their custody and respond to all outstanding requests;
  • Ensure that those involved in the search for victims of enforced disappearance, notably the relatives of disappeared detainees, are protected against ill-treatment, intimidation, reprisal, arrests and enforced disappearance;
  • Grant independent international monitors, such as the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, unhindered access to all persons deprived of their liberty and allow them to investigate and monitor conditions in all detention facilities;
  • Ensure that all those detained are registered, have access to a lawyer, can challenge the lawfulness of their detention before an ordinary civilian court, are provided access to medical care, are held in recognized places of detention and are allowed regular visits by their families;
  • Ensure that all cases of enforced disappearance are investigated, that those suspected of responsibility are prosecuted in civilian courts in proceedings that conform to international fair trial standards and that victims receive full reparation;
  • Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance without making any reservation, and implement it into national law.
I saw five women held together in a shared cell while serving food to the detainees. The guard told me they were accused of adultery and would only be forgiven by death. One month after my release, I saw a video posted on-line showing Jabhat al-Nusra men executing one of the women by gunshot in a street. She was a middle-aged woman.

OUR CALLS TO THE ARMED GROUPS OPPOSING THE GOVERNMENT

  • Publicly condemn, from the highest level of leadership, all human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair “trials”, extrajudicial executions, and the use of cruel and inhuman treatment or punishments;
  • Instruct those under their command that violations of international humanitarian law will not be tolerated under any circumstances and those who commit such crimes will be held fully accountable;
  • Immediately and unconditionally release any person held solely on account of their political opinion, religion or ethnicity;
  • Inform families of the fate and whereabouts of abducted relatives, including those who have died, notifying them of the circumstances of their death and location of their burial place;
  • Allow independent international inspection of all places of detention and ensure that conditions and the treatment of detainees at all places conform to relevant international standards, such as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), and that all detainees are fully protected against torture or other ill-treatment in custody;
  • End the use of punishments that violate the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • Remove from the ranks members suspected of criminal responsibility for ordering or committing serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes;
  • Co-operate with independent and impartial investigations into violations of international humanitarian law, including by the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
If the confession is heavy, then you are sent to the Field Court… For everybody – without exception – the confession was given under torture.

OUR CALLS TO TO THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL

Fully acknowledge and condemn the massive and systematic campaign of enforced disappearances being carried out by the Syrian authorities;

Ensure that all parties to the conflict in Syria effectively implement the human rights and humanitarian provisions of Security Council Resolution 2139, including by ending the practice of enforced disappearance and abduction, and impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes, on Syrian officials and commanders and members of armed groups responsible crimes under international law;

Demand prompt and unfettered access to Syria for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, humanitarian and human rights organizations and journalists;

Refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

I was electroshocked twice. They put two cables to my head for the first time; the second time they put water on the floor and used cables. I started bleeding like I had my period. It’s difficult to explain how it feels. Your mouth and nose become blue and you faint. It’s so much pain.

OUR CALLS TO TO THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

Support and build the capacity of Syrian human rights organizations that are documenting crimes under international law in the Syrian conflict to gather and share objective and impartial information, and encourage the UN and other international actors to ensure that such support and training is made available to them;

Provide necessary resources and support for the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (International Mechanism) established by UN General Assembly in December2016;

Accept a shared responsibility to investigate and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute all those suspected of criminal responsibility for enforced disappearances and other crimes under international law committed in Syria, in particular by seeking to exercise universal jurisdiction;

Immediately cease the transfer of arms, munitions and other military equipment, including logistical and financial support, to armed groups implicated in committing war crimes and other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law;

Cease the authorization of arms transfers to any end user who is likely to use the arms to commit or facilitate war crimes or other serious human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law, and prevent arms transfers in circumstances where they could be diverted and result in such crimes or violations;

Implement a robust, enforceable and verifiable oversight mechanism before transferring any arms, munitions and other military equipment to armed groups in Syria, so as to remove the substantial risk that any arms and military equipment supplied are misused or diverted to commit or facilitate war crimes or other serious human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law;

Take effective measures to prevent the transfer of financial or material support to armed groups committing war crimes and other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Syria.

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LIST OF SOURCES

  1. ICPPED, Article 1.
  2. ICPPED, Article 2.
  3. European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Kurt v Turkey Judgment, 25 May 1998; Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), Velasquez Rodriguez v Honduras Judgment, 29 July 1988.
  4. African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, Amnesty International and others v Sudan, Communications 48/90, 50/91, 52/91 and 89/93, 15 November 1999; UN Human Rights Committee, Mojica v Dominican Republic, Communication 449/1991, Views, 10 August 1994.
  5. IACtHR, Blake v Guatemala Judgment, 24 January 1998; ECtHR, Tas v Turkey Judgment, 14 November 2000.
  6. ECtHR, Demiray v Turkey Judgment, 21 November 2000; IACtHR, Bamaca Velasquez v Guatemala Judgment, 25 November 2000.
  7. ICPPED, Article 24(2).
  8. ICPPED, Article 25(2) and Article 24(4).
  9. ICPPED, Article 24(1).
  10. See ECtHR, Ashlakhanova v Russia, 18 December 2012, Orhan v Turkey, 18 June 2002, and Imakayeva v Russia, no. 7615/02, ECHR 2006-XIII, Kurt v Turkey, 25 May 1998; IACtHR, Godonez Cruz Case, Compensatory Damages (Article 63(1) American Convention on Human Rights), Judgment of 21 July 1989, IACtHR (Ser. C) No. 8 (1990), paras 48-9; UN Human Rights Committee, Celis Laureano v. Peru, Communication 540/1993, Views, 25 March 1996, para. 8.5, Katombe L. Tshishimbi v Zaire, Communication 542/1993, Views, 26 March 1996, para. 5.5, Youssef El-Megreisi v the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Communication 440/1990, para. 5.4, Mojica v Dominican Republic, Communication 449/1991, para. 5.7.
  11. Customary International Humanitarian Law, ICRC, Rule 98.
  12. Customary International Humanitarian Law, ICRC, Rule 156.
  13. Customary International Humanitarian Law, ICRC, Rule 117.
  14. Customary International Humanitarian Law, ICRC, Rules 123, 125 and 126.
  15. Customary International Humanitarian Law, ICRC, Rule 105.
  16. ICPPED, Article 10.