Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Detainees and Missing Persons in Syria

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
August 7, 2019


Thank you, Madame President, and thank you Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo for your briefing. A warm welcome to Dr. Hala al-Ghawi and Ms. Amina Khoulani. Thank you for sharing your stories and we applaud your extraordinary courage for speaking out about the abuses that you, your families, and your fellow Syrians have endured at the direction of Bashar al-Assad and his military and intelligence commanders.

The issue of detainees and missing persons in Syria is one of the great tragedies of the Syrian conflict. In 2011, as peaceful protestors took to the streets of Damascus to seek modest political reforms and increased social freedoms, Syrians also sought an end to the fear of torture and arbitrary arrest by Syrian intelligence services.

It is difficult to find any Syrians who have not been affected by this systematic practice. In August 2013, a military defector code-named Caesar smuggled over 53,000 photographs out of Syria of over 6,700 victims of torture who died in Syrian regime custody. These photographs have been independently verified and represent damning evidence of the systematic torture that is present in Assad’s prisons.

Madame President, we have heard again and again from Syrian civilians that the fate of those who disappeared at the Assad regime’s hands is foremost on their minds when considering both the prospects of a return to Syria – for those who have fled the country – and the vision for a political solution. Syrians deserve to know the truth about what has happened to their family members, to receive justice for what they have endured, and to gain assurances that they and future generations of Syrians can live without fear of being arbitrarily detained, tortured, or disappeared by their own government.

That is why we have called this meeting today. There is both a humanitarian and a political imperative for improving transparency and access to regime prisons, and securing the release of those Syrian civilians arbitrarily detained by the regime. The issue of detainees is central.

Resolution 2254 calls for the “release of any arbitrarily detained persons, particularly women and children.” There can be no political solution, no stability in Syria without the reversal of these abhorrent practices, and guarantees that responsible regime officials will be held accountable for their actions.

Madame President, in addition to the moving testimony of our speakers, and thousands of other Syrians who have bravely spoken out against the regime and the photos that have been mentioned, there is exhaustively-researched data demonstrating the scale and severity of the crimes committed against innocent civilians in regime prisons.

The Assad regime’s attempts to silence dissent and erase its crimes have failed, thanks to the courageous acts of bravery of Syrians like Caesar, Dr. Al-Ghawni, and Amina Khoulani.

Since 2011, Syrian documentation groups estimate that as many as 215,000 persons, including 35,000 prisoners of conscience, have been detained—the vast majority by the regime – and 14,000 have been killed as a result of torture, including 177 children. Nearly 128,000 people are currently detained by the Syrian regime, including doctors, humanitarian aid workers, human rights defenders, journalists, and others including women and children.

These numbers have been widely documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry and other reputable organizations. We have all seen reports of specific detention centers – including Military Intelligence Branches 215, 227, 235, and 251; the Air Force Intelligence Investigation Branch in Mezzeh military airport; and Sednaya prison – and the names of some of the senior regime officials who are responsible for murder, rape, torture, and other mistreatment in such centers.

We cannot come to a political solution described in Resolution 2254 until these practices end. Therefore, today, the United States calls for the immediate, unilateral release of civilians – including women, children, and the elderly – held in Assad regime prisons in an effort to pave the path forward to the implementation of Resolution 2254. This is an achievable, confidence building measure that would help advance Special Envoy Pedersen’s efforts to re-launch the political process, as well as create momentum for the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition to work together.

Madame President, as part of this effort, we also urge the Assad regime to grant the United Nations, and other impartial and independent international entities, immediate access to Syrian detention centers, particularly those where numerous credible reports of torture and abuse have been documented, including by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. UN access to these facilities is imperative to ensure that conditions in regime detention facilities are in line with appropriate international legal standards.

Madame President, we are only asking the Assad regime to abide by its own laws, and fulfill its obligations under international humanitarian rights and humanitarian law, to expedite the releases of arbitrarily or unlawfully detained persons, including persons detained due to political beliefs. The Syrian Constitution prohibits arbitrary detention, outlaws the use of torture and humiliation, requires the State to inform the incarcerated of the reasons for his or her arrest, and guarantees incarcerated individuals the access to legal counsel, a fair trial, and due process.

The United States appreciates Special Envoy Pedersen’s continued interest in galvanizing progress on the detainee file.

Parallel tracks have not produced concrete results to date and it’s time now to consolidate all work on the detainees and missing persons file under the Special Envoy’s office in Geneva and for updates on progress towards this aspect of Resolution 2254 to be regularly included in monthly Council sessions on Syria.

Madame President, unfortunately, efforts to negotiate detainees’ releases under the auspices of the Astana Guarantors have focused on one-for-one prisoner exchanges between regime and Syrian armed opposition forces, largely ignoring the plight of the many thousands of Syrian civilians who represent the vast majority of individuals held by the regime. And even those efforts have been undermined as the regime has detained hundreds of former fighters in the last year who had signed so-called reconciliation agreements brokered by the Russian Federation.

We ask our Russian partners, on behalf of the Astana Guarantors, to consolidate the efforts of its working group under the leadership of UN Special Envoy Pedersen, and to renew their commitments to negotiating the release of victims, pressing for an end to the regime’s detention practices, and strongly supporting mechanisms for truth and accountability.

Madame President, progress on Syria detainees is essential to the success of any political solution in line with Resolution 2254. In a show of good faith to reinvigorate the political process, we strongly urge the Assad regime and its supporters to take the concrete steps I have just outlined to address this issue.

To Amina Khoulani, Dr. Al-Ghawni, and the hundreds of thousands of Syrians affected by the Assad regime’s practice of arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, and killing, the United States stand with you in your pursuit of justice, and will spare no effort to bring the regime’s torture to a halt. The Syrian people deserve an end to their suffering, a pathway to justice, and the chance to live in peace.
I thank you, Madame President.