NEW YORK CITY: In a milestone decision as part of the international response to the war in Syria, the UN General Assembly on Thursday voted to establish an independent institution to investigate and clarify the fate of more than 150,000 Syrians who have gone missing or been forcibly disappeared at the hands of the Syrian regime, opposition forces, or terrorist groups since the conflict began 12 years ago.
Introducing the draft resolution, Luxembourg’s permanent representative to the UN, Olivier Maes, paid tribute to the “strength and courage” of Syrian families who have “been desperately seeking to find out what happened to their loved ones and where they are every day.”
He added: “Families, especially women, face administrative and legal difficulties, financial uncertainties and deep trauma as they continue to search for their missing loved ones.”
A large number of international, nongovernmental, humanitarian, and family-focused organizations — including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Commission on Missing Persons, and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic — investigate and follow up on missing-persons cases in Syria.
However, a lack of coordination leaves families in limbo as they seek information about the whereabouts of loved ones, and victims and survivors unsure of where to share any details they might have.
Families have been pushing for the establishment of a dedicated, independent, international agency, commensurate with the scale and complexity of the crisis, to investigate the fate of loved ones.
Guided by their views and advice, the UN secretary-general published a report last year that concluded such an international institution, equipped with a robust mandate to investigate and clarify the fate of the missing and provide support for their families, would be the cornerstone of a comprehensive solution to the crisis.
The resultant resolution was sponsored by more than 50 countries including Albania, Australia, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Spain.
Maes said the new institution “will reinforce complementarity and avoid duplication, (serve) as a single point of entry for collecting and comparing data, (and) ensure coordination and communication with all relevant actors and ongoing initiatives.”
He stressed that the resolution “does not point the finger at anyone” and added: “It has only one goal and that is a humanitarian goal: Improve the situation of Syrian families who do not know what has happened to their brother, to their son, father, husband or other relative, alleviate the suffering of these victims by providing them with the support that they need and the responses to which they’re entitled under international humanitarian law.”
A representative of the EU expressed hope that “this new humanitarian institution can help heal some of the wounds of 12 years of conflict. And in so doing, that it will play an important role in contributing to efforts toward reconciliation and sustainable peace.”
US ambassador Jeffrey De Laurentis, reiterated that the resolution is humanitarian in nature and added: “It is focused on all missing Syrians, regardless of ethnicity, religion or political affiliation.
“Many Syrians have asked us to remember who this institution seeks to defend — the humans missing and detained with a full life yet to live. They are not statistics, they are spouses, children, siblings, parents, friends, colleagues.
“As their harrowing testimonies show, we must deliver long-overdue answers to the victims and their families who deserve our support.”
De Laurentis noted that Damascus had refused to engage with efforts to create the institution.
Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Maria Zabolotskaya, said that the General Assembly, “in violation of the UN Charter, is today being invited to create an instrument of pressure on Syria under a cynical humanitarian pretext, which has nothing to do with the true objectives of this enterprise.”
She added that far from being independent or impartial, the mechanism “can only obediently fulfill the orders of its sponsors” and insisted that “in order to truly solve the problem of missing persons, developing substantive cooperation with Damascus is necessary, as is providing it with effective assistance and lifting illegal and unilateral sanctions that negatively affect these efforts, as well as humanitarian recovery on the whole.”
She also called for an end to “foreign occupation of the country” and the repatriation of “foreign citizens present there.”
Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, said the resolution is “politicized and targets the Syrian Arab Republic.”
He added: “This draft clearly reflects flagrant interference in our internal affairs and provides new evidence of the hostile approach being pursued by certain Western states against Syria. At the heart of this group is the United States.”