As Syria's 'disappeared' numbers rise, UN backs new measures

The Security Council unanimously approved a Kuwaiti-led resolution to aid families of missing persons in armed conflict

Fires have erupted in various parts of Syria in recent weeks, with all sides blaming each other for starting them. AFP
Fires have erupted in various parts of Syria in recent weeks, with all sides blaming each other for starting them. AFP

A UN resolution designed to limit the uncertainty and trauma for families of missing persons in armed conflicts was unanimously approved by the Security Council on Tuesday, a measure that could find its first test in Syria as part of an eventual peace settlement.

The resolution put forward by Kuwait, the current chair of the council, is designed to protect civilians in war-time, given numerous wars across the globe and the fallout of fighting on non-combatants, many of whom have become refugees or been internally displaced.

Addressing the council, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that 45,000 cases of missing persons registered worldwide in the past year were the tip of the iceberg.

It does not represent the full extent of the problem,” he said, noting an alarming increase in numbers.

The UN resolution will compel all 193 members of the UN to co-operate and follow legally binding procedures to find those missing in war, in co-ordination with the ICRC.

It is the first ever standalone measure passed by the council on missing persons in armed conflict.

The recent targeting of hospitals and schools by Syrian government forces and Damascus’s major backer, Russia, in the north-western province of Idlib, has further heightened the plight of affected populations.

Missing persons and their families are not a bargaining chip,” Mr Maurer said. “We ask states to live up to their responsibilities to address this profound but overlooked challenge.”

The resolution notes that the states involved in armed conflict have the primary responsibility to safeguard civilians but current reporting mechanisms under the Geneva Convention of 1949 and its additional protocols in 1977 have fallen short.

The matter hits close to home for Kuwait as the whereabouts of 369 of the 605 Kuwaiti and third-country nationals known to have been abducted and tortured after the invasion and occupation by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in 1990-91, remain unknown.

Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al Hamad Al Sabah, Kuwait's deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, chaired Tuesday's meeting of the council in New York, calling the issue a “tragic experience” for his country.

A briefing note regarding the resolution points out an inadequacy of the Geneva Conventions is that missing persons are one of the last outstanding issues considered in conflict situations, peace processes and national reconciliation.

This issue is usually dealt with after an armed conflict ends, which in turn further complicates it due to the loss of critical information on their whereabouts and their fate,” the note stated.

Although the measure is not country-specific the ongoing war in Syria has underlined the weaknesses of existing regulations, with families unsure if relatives have been killed, detained by the regime's military or judicial authorities, or become victims of another fate.

Reena Ghelani, of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said more than 10,000 missing persons cases had been registered in Syria.

But Jonathan Allen, Britain's deputy permanent representative at the UN, put the number that had gone missing since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad, in 2011, at 60,000.

In recent months, Syrian authorities have been updating civil records and families are suddenly finding out that loved ones were killed in government custody, some as long ago as the beginning of the civil war. At least 128,000 Syrians have been arrested and their fate remains unknown.

Germany's permanent representative to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, said the Syrian regime had orchestrated “a systematic and widespread pattern of disappearances” and he would have liked a stronger accountability measure written into the resolution but some council members had objected.

Richard Gowan, UN director at Crisis Group, said the resolution may have been drafted with Syria in mind as a way of casting light on the abuses of the Al Assad regime, including its attacks on medical facilities.

It could also have a longer-term effect. “While Russia is very keen for the Europeans to start funding Syrian reconstruction, most big EU donors want to set very strict conditions for doing so while Assad is in power,” said Mr Gowan.

I can imagine European governments insisting that Syria fulfil some of the terms of the resolution as a precondition for future aid. So this might just be a small part of a framework for a Syrian settlement.”

Updated: June 11, 2019 08:27 PM


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