Moving Forward on Truth and Justice: Addressing the crisis of missing persons and detention in Syria • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Moving Forward on Truth and Justice: Addressing the crisis of missing persons and detention in Syria

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Distinguished speakers,
Colleagues and friends,

It is a privilege to take part in this event, alongside such committed colleagues. I am honoured to be joined by representatives of the survivor and family associations that are working relentlessly to advance truth and justice for missing persons in Syria. I acknowledge the personal toll this quest takes, and we are here today because you and other associations have courageously and repeatedly demanded that families must know what has happened to their loved ones; detained, disappeared, and missing.

Today’s panel takes stock of where we stand to address the tragedy of missing persons and detainees in Syria after 11 years. The situation remains heartbreakingly the same, as was seen a week ago by the release of a shocking video from Tadamon showing footage of unarmed men being rounded up by men in uniforms and pushed into a pit where they were executed and burnt. Yet again, families in Syria are forced to look at brutal images on social media in their search to find their missing relatives.

But this is also an opportunity to get more information about violations, and people who can testify to what they witness.

For the families of missing persons living in the terrible limbo of not knowing, two things are clear:

First, the status quo is not sustainable. This is not only my opinion – nearly every person my Office has spoken with over the past months raised this point. Painfully little progress has been made to provide answers and support to families of missing persons. For many in Syria, these are years of anguish, of not knowing what happened to their loved ones, of fearing the very worst while often having the last threads of hope exploited by people who seek to profit from the crippling silence on this issue. As the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has found, for relatives of the disappeared this suffering reaches the threshold of torture. Coming from Chile, where missing persons was a problem many years ago, for me this is not an abstract issue. This is real for me. I know what it is to be missing, as I was for several days, and luckily I am alive.

Second, the courage, strength, and determination of so many family associations and other civil society organisations in advocating for the rights of families and the missing holds us all to account. I particularly acknowledge the work of the five family associations, two of which are taking part in today’s discussion, that issued the Truth and Justice Charter last year. This document offers a vision to address the crisis of missing persons in Syria and gives a spark of hope to all of us who work towards justice and truth for victims. I reiterate my call for the creation of a new institution that can clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons and provide support to the families. This entity must work together with existing bodies and break through the impasse, allowing families to seek answers in a dignified and respectful manner.


Three elements should always inform and support work on missing persons.

First, a victim/survivor-centric approach must be applied, involving families of the missing who are also victims. As the most affected, experiences and voices of families are crucial to find solutions.  Their meaningful participation and expertise to identify what is needed to support families and communities must be recognised and integrated.

Second, the gendered and generational impact when persons go missing must be considered. Syrian women survivors as well as women whose male relatives have disappeared can attest to the multiplicity of additional legal and practical issues faced because they are women – these are due in part to persisting discriminatory laws and practices pre-dating the conflict. Their lives are frozen in very specific ways. Women who are detained face additional stigma both during detention and after their release, as do their families. Women who suddenly become heads of households when male relatives are disappeared face terrible choices. For instance, in order to cover the financial needs of their families, some women may accept dubious death certificates of their loved ones which would entitle them to support. Children of disappeared parents are stripped of their childhood. Efforts to address the needs of families of the missing must recognise these gendered and generational harms.

Third, for families, knowing what happened to their loved ones is not only a pressing need, it is a right: the right to know the fate and whereabouts of their relatives and the right to truth regarding human right violations they may have suffered. Realising those rights is integral to achieving any form of accountability for the violations and crimes committed in Syria and I reiterate that human rights and humanitarian agencies should be granted access to all places where detainees and abductees are held. I welcome the participation of Catherine from the IIIM and Paulo from the Commission of Inquiry, whose institutions play a key role in pursuing criminal accountability in Syria, another central demand of survivors and victims. Working together, we can support victims in Syria who are seeking justice in all its forms.

As I said during my speech to the General Assembly last month, the UN Secretary General’s Study is a vital piece of our efforts to address the crisis of missing in Syria.

But it is not an end in itself. It must lead to concrete changes. My Office is committed to continue the work and support the families – they have already waited too long.



Source: OHCHR 


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Observatory.

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