July 23, 2020

Briefing to the UN Security Council by Wafa Mustafa

On July 23, Wafa Mustafa of Families for Freedom briefed the UN Security Council on the issue of detention and forced disappearance in Syria

Thank you, Mr. President, for the opportunity to address the Council. 

My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa. I am a Syrian journalist, activist, and member of Families for Freedom, a movement that campaigns for freedom and justice for Syria’s detainees. 

2579 days ago my father was arrested and forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime. My father is a human rights defender who protested against injustice and oppression in our country. We have not seen him or heard from him since his disappearance in July 2013. We have never been told why he was taken from us or where he’s being held. 

After my father’s disappearance we had to flee the country fearing for our own safety. Today my mother, two sisters, and myself are scattered around the world. In my exile I met many Syrians who, like me, are counting the days since they last saw their missing loved ones and I got to understand the massive scale of this horrific crime. 

As you’re aware, more than 130,000 people are believed to be detained and forcibly disappeared. Those numbers rise to this day as the Syrian regime and other groups continue to use detention as a weapon to terrorize civilians in systematic violation of international law — the conclusion of the UN Commission of Inquiry amongst others. You will have heard from my colleagues and seen reports about the horrors inside detention centers. It starts with humiliation and depravation of human dignity, continues with frequent torture and often ends with death for countless detainees.   

To have a loved one who’s detained or disappeared and not know their fate is like waking up one day and realizing you have lost a limb. I can tell you it is a growing pain, a pain unlike any other. Even though there is barely anything to hold on to, what keeps me going is to live by what my father has taught me and the hope that one day he will be free and reunited with us.

I myself was detained in Damascus in September 2011. As I address this Council today, I am reminded of the young women I left behind in prison and I wonder if they ever saw freedom again. If they ever got the chance to pursue their dreams. If they ever dared to become mothers in a country where so many mothers are looking for their missing sons and daughters.

I joined Families for Freedom two years ago. We are a movement of women whose family members have been unlawfully detained or forcibly disappeared by the Syrian state, ISIS, HTS and other armed actors. Since our formation we have taken to the streets and knocked on every door we can, demanding serious action for Syria’s disappeared–for Syria’s future. 

As families of detainees we are deeply frustrated by the collective inaction and abdication of responsibility by the Security Council to address this crime against humanity. My colleagues have shared our stories and demands with you but to this date no progress has been made. We hear excuses about the need to prioritize other humanitarian or political issues in Syria, that now is not the time to focus on detainees. But all these issues are connected and this Council can and must address them all at once. 

I speak to you today with the added urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic. I ask for unified support behind the large-scale unilateral release of all people held in prisons and unofficial detention centers, where detainees are held in cramped conditions and exposed to torture and depravation of proper food, water, sanitation, and medical care. These centers are breeding grounds for illnesses and viruses. How will our loved ones survive a COVID-19 outbreak in these conditions?  At the very least international medical and humanitarian organizations must be allowed regular unconditional access to detention facilities, especially in light of the recent escalation of COVID-19 infections in Syria and the lack of transparency from Syrian regime about the real scale of the outbreak. 

The Council must put pressure on Syrian authorities and other actors to immediately release the names of people held in all places of detention, along with their locations and situations. Torture and mistreatment must immediately cease and detainees must be allowed routine contact with their families. In the cases of death, families must be informed of the causes and given access to burial sites. 

I reiterate that as families of detainees we do not accept prisoner exchanges arranged between military sides as a replacement for a comprehensive solution to the crime of unlawful detention and enforced disappearance in Syria. Our loved ones have been unjustly snatched from us and must be given their freedom – it is their right and ours. 

We welcome the trials in Germany of individuals charged with state-sponsored torture under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction. We encourage other countries to follow Germany’s lead in pursuing justice. However our real hope is to see perpetrators before the International Criminal Court.

Our plight is urgent. We have young women and men being arrested now, we have loved ones at risk of contracting COVID19 now. We have families whose hearts are breaking as they search for their loved ones in photos of tortured bodies now. 

I frequently receive messages from families of the detainees. Sometimes dozens a day. They have not given up on demanding answers about their loved ones. I wonder how many members of this Council can also say they have not given up on their responsibility to protect civilians, defend human rights and see justice done. 

Thank you Mr. President. 

Wafa Mustafa

Families for Freedom