Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at UN Security Council Arria-Formula Meeting on Detainees and Missing Persons in Syria

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
June 3, 2022


Before opening up the floor to Security Council members, I’d like to give a statement on behalf of the United States.

Let me start by thanking Mariam, Najah, Alise for their powerful and sobering testimonies. You are each human reminders of how the detained and missing people in Syria haunt the entire country – and the world. And thank you to the SNC for drawing the world’s attention to this issue.

As you know, I just returned last night from a trip to Türkiye, where I visited the UN Syria cross-border mechanism, and I met with the White Helmets and other NGOs working to ensure the Assad regime is held accountable for their human rights violations.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that, in eleven years of brutal, unnecessary war, nearly 1.2 million Syrians have been arrested, detained, or forcibly disappeared, including in Syrian regime detention centers. Let me repeat that: 1.2 million. It also reports that at least 130,000 individuals are currently missing or arbitrarily detained, the vast majority held by the Assad regime. That is every single seat in Madison Square Garden filled – times six. Each one of them with loved ones who are desperate for information about their welfare and whereabouts.

Sadly, we know from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria that many of these people are presumed to have died or been executed, their bodies hidden in unmarked graves. This spring, we heard the harrowing testimony of the Syrian man known as “the Gravedigger.” He witnessed mass graves filled with thousands of the Assad regime’s victims. He escaped in 2017 and provided powerful testimony in monumental trials in Germany, where former Assad regime intelligence officers were convicted for crimes against humanity. Just a few weeks later, we saw video footage of a horrific massacre in Tadamon in 2013.

The victims here are not just those detained, tortured, and killed. It is also their families and loved ones. In particular, women who are often forced to become the sole breadwinner for their families – all while carrying out the terrifying and demoralizing search for their loved ones. And of course, many of them experience torture and assault themselves in detention. Far too many families are unable to sustain basic livelihoods or access property, civil documentation, bank accounts, or inheritance. Discriminatory laws and practices predating the conflict make this even more difficult.

Despite these and so many other challenges, Syrian women are at the forefront of the long fight for justice and accountability for their missing and arbitrarily detained loved ones. And we must all support the brave Syrian human rights defenders, including women-led civil society groups, victims’ families’ associations, and survivors who – despite immense suffering – have united to lead the charge on this important issue. That especially includes those who have joined us here today.

Now I’d like to say a word about the Assad regime’s April 30 general decree announcing a general amnesty. We take note of it, and we have heard anecdotal reports of some releases. But we still do not have more details on the names of those released, as well as those who have had charges against them dropped. Of course, every Syrian who is freed from unjust detention is good news. But we cannot allow the Assad regime to pretend to release detainees for political gain and not actually follow through.

Until the more than 130,000 missing or arbitrarily detained are accounted for, we will not – and we cannot – be silent. If the Assad regime is genuinely interested in the welfare of detainees and their families, it should announce the names of the individuals being released and their locations. It should provide lists of released individuals, names of those pardoned, names of the deceased, names of Syrians abroad to whom their amnesty applies, and the locations where future detainees will be released. This is what real amnesty and progress would look like.

We continue to call on the regime to provide ICRC and other relevant international agencies with full access to those released to monitor their treatment. And we call on the regime to allow immediate, unhindered access by third-party prison monitors to detention centers and medical services for all detainees. This is a humanitarian issue. It is a political issue. It is an issue that blocks progress on all others. For all these reasons, our commitment is undiminished to uncover the fate and whereabouts of the tens of thousands of Syrians who remain missing or detained. Many Syrian refugees will not return home as long as their friends and relatives are missing. Why would a Syrian return home if they might still be arbitrarily detained or disappeared?

That is why the United States facilitated the General Assembly resolution last year on the human rights situation in Syria, which is producing a study on ways the UN can make progress on this protracted issue. And it is why we organized this event today, along with our co-hosts.

We have known for years that the only solution to the conflict in Syria is an inclusive political one, as the Security Council agreed in Resolution 2254. A durable peace and reconciliation in Syria is not possible with over a hundred thousand Syrians trapped in prisons and many more missing or in hiding in other countries. It is time to release those arbitrarily detained. It is time to provide closure for those who have been killed. And it is time to provide justice to the millions of family members who grieve their loved ones.

And while I was in Türkiye, I heard time and again from Syrian refugees that they fear the world is forgetting them – their suffering, their welfare, and their atrocities that have been committed against them. We cannot allow that to happen. And I assured them when I was there, that we have not forgotten. Thank you very much.