Distinguished President, Excellencies, Colleagues, Mesdames et Messieurs,
A year has passed since I last addressed your honourable Assembly. A year during which the harsh daily life of Syrian civilians has further worsened.
Today, twelve years into this conflict, an unprecedented 90 percent of the population lives in poverty. Despite their fears of returning to their homes near active hostilities, unbearable living conditions in displacement camps have forced many IDPs to move back to frontline villages in Idlib governorate, where aerial and ground attacks by pro-government forces have recently intensified. An estimated 14.6 million Syrians are now dependant on aid to survive, but access to humanitarian aid remains woefully inadequate and politicised. To make matters worse, last month the Syrian Ministry of Health acknowledged a serious cholera outbreak in all 14 governorates – likely the result of nearly half of the population in Syria relying on unsafe water sources. 1
Last month, we presented our latest report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It describes increasing hostilities amidst humanitarian, health and economic crises. Attacks by pro-government forces in Idlib and western Aleppo are claiming civilian lives and damaging key civilian infrastructure. Children were killed on their way to school, and an entire family was killed while having tea in the yard outside their home.
In northern and eastern Aleppo, at least 144 civilians were killed or injured in the attacks we have investigated until August, in which markets, mosques and schools were also damaged.
Recent clashes between the UN-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and members of the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA) led to HTS entering the city of Afrin, amid reports of further civilian casualties and more than 6000 people fleeing from Afrin. 2
Elsewhere in Syria insecurity prevails. Targeted killings continued with impunity in Dar’a. In the north-east, clashes between Turkish forces and the SDF continued. Four girls were killed on 18 August after an aerial attack struck an education center, near Hasakah city.
In all of this mayhem, voices calling for the return of Syrian refugees are getting louder. Neighbouring countries who have hosted millions of Syrians, some for over a decade, are saying the situation is untenable and that they will begin sending refugees back. Any return of refugees should take place voluntarily, safely and with dignity. The reality is the number of refugees voluntarily returning to Syria is minuscule and is outweighed by the number fleeing. The tragedy of the over 70 Syrian refugees who drowned last month after their rickety boat sank off the Syrian coast is a lesson for all to see.
Parties’ confiscation of the properties of IDPs and refugees continues to prevent dignified returns across the country.
Women, particularly those whose husbands are disappeared or missing, face added difficulties when attempting to secure tenure to homes, due to traditional gender norms, discriminatory inheritance practices and lack of civil documentation for their families [including death, birth or marriage certificates]. Their children risk statelessness, rendering them even more vulnerable to child exploitation, trafficking and abuse. Amid increasingly desperate economic conditions, child marriages are on the rise.
The Government, the HTS, the SNA and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also continued restricting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, affecting journalists and activists, including those working on women’s rights.
In government-controlled areas, torture and ill-treatment in detention and enforced disappearances remain systematic, also for people who recently sought to return. Torture, including in some cases sexual violence, and ill-treatment, was also perpetrated by armed groups, on occasion leading to the deaths of some detainees. In northern Aleppo, members of the SNA scaled up the arrests of individuals with alleged ties to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG; or with the self-administration authorities. Many of those detained were initially forcibly conscripted by the YPG, and are thereby now being doubly victimized.
The attack on Al-Sina’a prison in Hasakah city in north-east Syria on 20 January is a stark reminder of the threat that Da’esh still poses in the area and the vulnerability of civilians living there. The fighting in and around the prison killed hundreds while attacks to push back Da’esh caused significant civilian property damage and destruction.
This prison facility, and others in north-eastern Syria, hold some 10,000 suspected Da’esh fighters and other men allegedly affiliated with the group. The attack highlighted the plight of hundreds of boys in their teens held in insufferable conditions for almost four years. Meanwhile, their mothers and younger siblings are amongst the nearly 58,000 people – including 37,000 children – who remain unlawfully deprived of their liberty in Al-Hawl and Rawj camps. The already extremely precarious humanitarian situation and security situation there continues to be exacerbated by murders and deadly clashes. It is a disaster.
The need for repatriations is now more urgent than ever, even as momentum for this is finally growing. We commend the countries that have repatriated their nationals, but at the current speed, it may take decades to empty the camps. Excellences, you must move faster.
Mesdames et Messieurs,
The unknown fate of the tens of thousands of missing or forcibly disappeared is one of the Syrian war’s greatest tragedies. We welcome the recent release of the Secretary-General’s landmark report on this issue, and the clear recommendation it made for establishing an international body to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the missing and disappeared and support them and their families.
Discussions should no longer focus on whether or not there is a need to create such a mechanism. The Secretary-General’s report described clearly the gaps in current efforts that a new mechanism can fill: It can provide urgent support to families searching for missing loved ones, notably women who have been at the forefront of advocating for the truth about their missing relatives, and who are often at risk of arrest, harassment or extortion. It can coordinate and consolidate all claims to make clear how many are missing. It can clarify such cases, using new and innovative means that have not been tried yet. And it can advocate with the parties for access to all their places of detention. And in all this, it can develop and ensure a role for families’ associations and all relevant Syrian civil society actors.
Our Commission stands ready to share the considerable wealth of information that we have collected over eleven years with the new mechanism, in line with the consent provided by our sources.
Families have the right to know the fate of their loved ones, and they need our support in this. The time to act is now. Member States, you have a rare opportunity to put your weight behind this meaningful humanitarian effort that will help address the suffering caused by the scourge of missing and disappeared Syrians.
Last, we should not forget those who hold primary responsibility for this situation and who can act swiftly to resolve it: The Syrian state and other parties in this conflict can begin by allowing immediate access by independent monitors such as the ICRC to ALL places of detention they operate. They can permit visits and phone calls by the families. Knowing who is alive and their whereabouts would be a major step forward in breaking the wall of silence around the fate of the missing and the disappeared.
I thank you.
2 HNAP humanitarian update as of 17 October;