THE TRUTH AND JUSTICE CHARTER: A COMMON VISION ON THE QUESTION OF ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE AND ARBITRARY DETENTION IN SYRIA BY SYRIAN VICTIMS’ AND FAMILY MEMBERS’ ORGANIZATIONS
Since 2011, the Syrian regime has expanded its ruthless methods to control dissenting voices and to counter political activism. These methods, ranging from enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, to widespread use of torture and inhumane treatment in all their forms, have been widely employed without any perpetrators being held to account.
The Syrian regime has continued to operate with absolute impunity, deliberately denying and disregarding the rights of victims and their families. In addition, the majority of Syria’s armed factions, radical organizations, and de facto authorities, particularly the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“Daesh”), have emulated these practices thus committing widespread arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, and killing during their control of Syrian territory.
The road to peace, recovery, and reconstruction in Syria and for the Syrian people starts with establishing the truth and ensuring justice and accountability for these grave violations. No negotiations or peace process can succeed while the families of detainees and the missing are denied knowledge of the fate of their loved ones, in the absence of real confidence-building measures as stipulated in UNR 2254, and without addressing the issue of detention and enforced disappearances as matters of top priority.
Against this backdrop, the Truth and Justice Charter (henceforth: the Charter) is put forth by a group of five associations formed by victims and survivors (and/or their family members) of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and all violations that accompanied or resulted from enforced disappearance and detention including extrajudicial execution, torture, and sexual abuses.
The Charter represents the independent voices and initiative of Syrian victims and family members and lays out a common vision and framework on the question of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention in Syria. In brief, our victims’ voices and narrative are at the centre-stage in our vision, and we believe that no solution or approach can be legitimate without taking into account and integrating the principles of this Charter.
The five associations represent the victims and survivors of these cruel violations in Syria, and the Charter is presented as a ‘living document’ open to the feedback and participation of other affected groups who agree with the key principles and foundations upon which the Charter is built. We stress the importance of developing a common vision and set of demands for joint initiatives between groups of victim organizations in the future to reach our goals on the local, regional and international levels through effective advocacy and campaigning.
The general framework detailed in the Charter is built on legal principles and international law instruments and treaties which guide its approach to the question of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in the Syria context. The Charter then sets forth the “Vision of the Victims” when it comes to justice, redress, accountability, and the future of Syria.
Reaching a comprehensive justice satisfying the needs and aspirations of victims, survivors, and their family members is a long-term process that will encompass cumulative stages. All of these stages are essential, but we as victims see some elements as critically urgent, while others may take longer to attain.
We therefore differentiate between short-term justice and long-term justice. In the short term, there are immediate measures that must be taken to put a halt to ongoing violations and alleviate the suffering of survivors, victims, and their families. In the medium- to longer-term, we have additional demands to ensure comprehensive justice and non-repetition of the crimes we have suffered and continue to suffer from.
To serve justice, the following demands must be realised:
- Detainees should be released and the fate of the forcibly disappeared should be investigated and revealed.
- An immediate halt of torture, inhumane treatment, and sexual crimes in places of arrest and detention.
- The handing over of the remains of the dead.
- The release of detainees and the fate of the missing must not be dependent on negotiations or prisoner exchange agreements between parties to the conflict and their guarantors.
- Detainees and victims of enforced disappearance should not all be treated as participants in hostilities. The large majority of them are prisoners of opinion and conscience, peaceful activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. They should thus be treated as civilians, as per the legal characterization, and are entitled to the protection stipulated in all legal principles and norms.
- Field and exceptional courts must be abolished.
- Fair and independent civil courts and trials that adhere to international standards must be provided.
- Adequate compensation and reparations must be granted.
- The truth of what happened must be recognized and an accurate historical narrative developed paving the way for formal acknowledgement of the violations by a future Syrian government responsible for transitional justice.
- Security and judicial institutions must undergo significant reform as well as have their practices fully reviewed.
- Persons involved in committing violations must have no role in the institutions responsible for delivering justice and accountability.
As for the victims’ vision when it comes to accountability and fighting impunity, the following steps should be taken to lay the foundations of a genuine and effective transitional justice process driven by our peace aspirations, not revenge:
- Establishing a fair accountability mechanism with international guarantees and no immunity for any perpetrator.
- Referring the Syrian file to the International Criminal Court is a legal and humanitarian responsibility for all countries.
- Cooperating fully with the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) and strengthening its capabilities and resources.
Furthermore, the Charter lays out a number of recommendations linked to the peace process and the future of Syria including:
- Syria’s new constitution should include key provisions to guarantee the dignity and rights of citizens in full, reinforce the criminalization of violations, and resolve the issues mentioned in the Charter with regard to detention, enforced disappearance and ill-treatment. Nonetheless we stress here that Syria’s problems are not necessarily rooted in the content of its constitution, but rather in the flawed relationship between its political system and society, as well as its laws, regulations, decisions, and security and repression instruments that may appear on the surface to adhere to the constitution but in reality, profoundly violate its content and spirit in most cases.
- Victims and their relatives have the right to participate in shaping Syria’s future, and no party may claim to represent them without their consent. Their demands, including the immediate release of prisoners; the revelation of the fate of the missing and disappeared; the immediate halt of torture; and the abolishment of exceptional courts; must be considered non-negotiable humanitarian demands and a sine qua non for the holding of any talks or negotiations.
- The reconstruction process must contribute to rebuilding Syria’s state and society on foundations that guarantee the dignity of Syrian citizens and may not begin before the most urgent demands related to detainees and the disappeared are met. Also, reconstruction and early recovery must not violate these persons’ housing, land, and property rights.
- The safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees and IDPs cannot start while the machinery of arrest, torture, and enforced disappearance continues to operate. Safety and confidence-building measures including those outlined in the Charter must be implemented to lay the groundwork for such returns.
In sum, the victims and their families must be at the centre of a true process of justice, truth, and accountability in order to uphold their rights and lay the groundwork for a Syria that respects the dignity of its citizens.
The founding signatories of the Charter are:
- Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) is an independent and mutual solidarity association seeking to uncover the truth and serve justice for detainees who were detained on account of their opinion or political activity. It seeks to release detainees and reveal the fate of the missing and forcibly disappeared persons in Syria in general and in Sednaya in particular.
- Caesar Families Association (CFA) is a group of families that have lost loved ones under torture while detained or forcibly disappeared in the Syrian regime’s prisons. The families identified their relatives in the Caesar photos which were leaked by a defector from the Syrian regime detention system. CFA aims to unify the families’ voices, demands truth, justice, and restitution for the victims of torture and enforced disappearance in Syria.
- The Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS-Daesh (MASSAR) is a group of family members of those abducted by ISIS during its control over Syrian territory. It works on revealing the fate of people kidnapped by ISIS and seeks to serve justice to them. It also aims to assist families of kidnapped persons in the process of reparation.
- Families for Freedom is a Syrian movement led by Syrian women who have loved ones detained or forcibly disappeared in Syria. It seeks to put an end to the enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention committed by the Syrian regime and other parties to the conflict.
- Ta’afi is a Syrian victim-led and victim-centred initiative that aims to support and protect victims of detention, torture, and enforced disappearance upon their release and settlement at a secure location, so that they may continue to peacefully support human rights change in Syria and pursue justice and accountability