March 2, 2021

Wafa Mustafa's briefing today on human rights in Syria at a high-level UN panel discussion

This briefing was delivered to the General Assembly: High-level panel discussion to brief on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic – Informal meeting of the plenary, 75th session, on 2nd March 2021.

Thank you for this opportunity to address the UN General Assembly.

My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa and I have not heard from my father, Ali Mustafa, now for 2801 days, almost eight years ago, when he was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime.

My father is a human rights defender who protested against injustice and oppression in our country. And he raised me to do the same. My mom, two sisters and me have never been told why he was taken from us, or where he is being held. We don’t know! I have campaigned and still campaign every day for his freedom, alongside so many other families missing their loved ones.

Last summer I graduated from university in Germany. It was a difficult moment, and I wished my father was there, as my education has always been so important to him. Sometimes I cry for hours and think everything I do is pointless. I wondered this morning, is there a point in addressing all of you today? All Syrians do wonder.

But I am sure this is what my dad wants me to do. And I know that if he is released, he will ask me what I have been doing all this time for him and Syria’s 130,000 detainees? He will ask what we have all been doing.

I myself was detained at the age of 21 for daring to dream of a free and just Syria. I am 30 now, and I have spent the ten years since my release demanding justice against the Assad regime and other groups who continue to use detention as a weapon of war. When I think of the young women I left behind in prison, I wonder if they ever saw freedom again. I fear what they went through in those cells, where women are systematically raped and tortured.

You have all seen Caesar’s photos of the inhumane conditions inside Assad’s cells. Photos of bodies scarred by torture and starvation, all documented by a state apparatus of terror designed to silence opposition. I am horrified to imagine what COVID-19 is doing to the destroyed immune systems of detainees still inside the regime’s detention centres, which are breeding grounds for illnesses and viruses.

It’s why I continue to urge all states which welcomed refugees to stop any forced return. You know civilians will not be returning home, they will be returning to Assad’s torture dungeons.

When you speak about things like detention, torture and atrocities for 10 years, suddenly normal things, like childhood and life before the revolution become harder to recall. That is why I carry my father’s picture. I fear that we only exist if we are remembered. It’s why I took photos of him and 120 other detainees to the courthouse of the first trial against officials in Assad’s torture regime in Koblenz in Germany. As families, we are deeply frustrated by the UN’s collective failure to address these atrocities at the International Criminal Court. Assad himself should be on trial!

This month families and victims launched a Charter for Truth and Justice to once again demand urgent action from this forum. It is a victim-centred roadmap that you can all follow to fulfil the demands of victims of unlawful arrest, enforced disappearance, and torture – for the immediate release of detainees, and a halt to inhuman treatment and gender-and-sexual- based violence.

While we continue to seek accountability for crimes against humanity, justice for Syria has to begin with the release of all detainees, and an end to the use of unlawful detention and enforced disappearance as a weapon to silence and terrorize communities. If we all agree on this then urgent action needs to be taken now to release all detainees. Not as prisoner exchanges arranged between military sides, but as part of a comprehensive solution to these crimes.

Our plight is urgent. This assembly has turned a blind eye to children suffocating under the rubbles of their own homes. Their families have not. Now you are turning a blind eye to young women and men being snatched from their families today in Syria. Their families will not! They have even endured the pain of searching through photos of tortured bodies for answers.

Assad’s Syria is a torture state enabled by some members of this assembly, but it will become my home again. As Syrians we have been through horrific things, but we do not give up fighting for our freedom.

Who am I to say there is no hope? Who are you to say that?

Thank you