A new working group to help find the thousands of detained and missing people in northeast Syria is an essential first step toward accountability for what happened to them, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities in northeast Syria and a United States-led military coalition should provide the working group with complete support and access to information to find what happened to people kidnapped by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
On April 5, 2020, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the civilian authority governing areas that its armed forces captured from ISIS in northeast Syria with the support of the US-led Global Coalition Against ISIS, announced the creation of a civilian working group consisting of lawyers, activists, and relatives of the missing people. In a letter on April 20 to the SDC, Human Rights Watch said that creating the working group was a positive step and recommended steps to ensure that the group’s work is effective.
“Families who have long waited for answers to what happened to their missing loved ones will be buoyed by this announcement,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Local authorities and the US-led coalition should do everything in their power to ensure that the working group has the support it needs to get these answers.”
The announcement said that the group’s mandate includes “collecting all necessary data and information as it pertains to the detentions file, and putting in place plans required to fulfill the dreams and aspirations of Syrians on this issue.” The group is authorized to communicate and coordinate with all local, regional, and international bodies on this issue. The SDC pledges its full support and capacity at various levels to ensure that all detainees, missing, and kidnapped people are identified and, if detained, released.
The working group’s eight members include Majdoline Hasan, a prominent northeast Syrian lawyer, and Fadwa Mahmoud, a founder of Families for Freedom, a Syrian group seeking to learn what happened to missing and detained Syrians and free those still alive.
Human Rights Watch urged the SDC and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the council’s military arm, to ensure that the mandate primarily focuses on the missing and disappeared in areas under their control, particularly those ISIS kidnapped. In February, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting cases of people kidnapped by ISIS. While the full scale of the missing has not been confirmed, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has reported more than 8,143 cases of people detained by ISIS whose status remains unknown, many of them taken in areas now under SDF control.
Creating the working group is an essential first step to begin addressing what happened to people who went missing or were detained or kidnapped but to be effective, it should have the authority to request information from regional and local authorities, including the SDC, the SDF, the Asayish police in the region, civilian councils, and intelligence services, Human Rights Watch said.
The authorities should provide the working group access to all formal and informal prisons under their control as well as to international organizations with a mandate to monitor detention facilities. As Human Rights Watch has documented, some of those ISIS detained or kidnapped may have ended up in SDF or SDC-run detention facilities for ISIS suspects in northeast Syria.
The authorities in control of the prisons should ensure that everyone detained there is held under a clear legal basis and has been taken before a judicial authority to determine the necessity and legality of their detention. The authorities should assess whether any detainees are suspected ISIS members or were detained or disappeared by ISIS. This is particularly relevant for detained children.
The US and the US-led coalition, as allies of the SDF, should support this initiative, including by providing access to detention facilities it controls and information the working group may request to aid in their efforts.
The success of the working group will depend on its ability to conduct outreach both within and outside of northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said. The group includes members from both inside and outside the region and has a mandate to cover the entirety of the northeast area under SDC control. The new group should immediately designate a spokesperson and provide regular public updates on its work and progress.
Since the territorial defeat of ISIS in the region, multiple efforts to find out what happened to people ISIS kidnapped had been hindered by the lack of political will and support from local authorities, as well as the lack of coordination of their efforts. The working group should work with and build on the efforts of other teams trying to learn what happened to those kidnapped by ISIS. Among these groups are the First Responders Team in Raqqa, which spearheaded efforts to excavate mass graves found in the area as early as 2017, and Jawab, a coalition of families of those kidnapped by ISIS.
“ISIS kidnapped thousands of people, including human rights activists, doctors, and community leaders, to cement its reign of terror in Syria,” Page said. “The SDC needs to follow this positive first step with a sustained commitment to this long-neglected issue.”