Human Rights Council
22 February–19 March 2021
Agenda item 4
Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
In its resolutions 44/21 and 45/21, the Human Rights Council requested the Commission of Inquiry to prepare a report on arbitrary imprisonment and detention in the Syrian Arab Republic, and to reflect on the trends over 10 years of the conflict. The present report summarises key trends related to imprisonment and detention in Syria from March 2011 to December 2020, including in relation to enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, sexual violence and death in detention. The scope of this mandate entailed massive investigations and the gathering of a wealth of testimonies and material that the Commission aims to give justice to in greater detail in future reporting.
Over the past decade, no warring party in Syria has respected the rights of detained persons in line with international legal obligations. The use of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, including through sexual violence, involuntary or enforced disappearance and summary executions have been hallmarks of this conflict.
The violations and abuses have been carried out with such consistency, particularly by the Government, and have been reported so widely by the Commission and others that there can be no room to say they were being committed without the knowledge of the relevant chains of command. In the case of the Government of Syria, the data reflecting the transfer of detainees from other governorates to the capital, reflects a high degree of centralized control, in addition to other evidence showing a detailed bureaucracy with records of who is detained and where they are held.
The detention-related violations detailed in this report have been used by the parties to intimidate and punish. Whether through the taking of hostages for monetary gain, bribery or the payment of intermediaries for information on a family member’s fate, detention in Syria also became an extortion racket.
Parties to the conflict, with very few exceptions, have failed to investigate their own forces. Attempts to subject perceived or actual opponents to some form of criminal justice have consistently resulted in violations and abuses of the rights of those alleged perpetrators, and in many cases, the commission of international crimes. Meanwhile, States with influence on the conduct of the parties have clearly not done enough to change abusive behavior by those parties on the ground, and in some cases appear complicit in abuses.
II. A decade of detention and related violations
1 “The boy was lying on the floor and was completely blue. He was bleeding profusely from his ear, eyes and nose. He was shouting and calling for his mother and father for help. He fainted after being hit with a rifle butt on the head.”2 A witness, himself a victim of torture, describing 14 year old Thamir Al Sharee on 3 May 2011 5. Arbitrary detention and related violations have been among the root causes, triggers and persistent features of the conflict that emerged in Syria ten years ago. Long-standing arbitrary detention of dissidents and activists were among the main grievances in Syria that inspired protests in early 2011, during which the population called for the release of political prisoners. Heavy-handed initial responses by the Government to those protests, from mass arrests of demonstrators to torture and numerous deaths in detention – including of children such as Thamir al-Sharee and Hamza Ali al-Khateeb – contributed to the rapid spiral into an armed conflict as of February 2012.3 That year, armed groups, and later United Nations designated terrorist groups,4 gained influence over increasing numbers of Syrian population centres, initiating the ebb and flow of territorial control that would continue between belligerent parties in ensuing years, as described in the Commission’s recent report (A/HRC/46/54).
Most prominent among these groups have been the former Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups and factions prior to their consolidation under other umbrellas and other groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham; UN terrorist-designated Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, previously Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); Turkish-supported “Syrian National Army” (SNA); as well as Kurdish-led forces, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) that, as of 2015, operated under the US-supported “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF).5
Over time, armed groups and terrorist organizations adopted detention-related practices in the areas under their control that were strikingly similar to those of Government and pro-government forces.6 Enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, sexual violence and death in detention were documented in detention facilities operated by all parties across the country (see maps in Annex II). These ranged from makeshift places of detention in basements, schools, military bases or at checkpoints, to purpose-built prisons (operated by different warring parties as territorial-control shifted) or heavily guarded displacement camps. The lack of basic habeas corpus across Syria facilitated the multitude of violations many individuals suffered in detention by all duty bearers.