NEW YORK: “My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa and I have not heard from my father, Ali Mustafa, for 2,801 days — almost eight years ago, when he was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime.”
The atmosphere in the UN General Assembly Hall changed as Mustafa spoke. She was one of three representatives of civil society who briefed members during a high-level panel discussion of the human rights situation in Syria, in particular the torture and disappearance of detainees. It came as the 10th anniversary of the start of conflict, on March 15, 2011, approaches.
“My mom, two sisters and me have never been told why he has been taken away from us or where he is being held. We just don’t know,” Mustafa said in a quavering voice. Her father is a human rights activist who took part in protests against oppression by the regime.
A journalist and activist, Mustafa told how she was herself detained in 2011 at the age of 21 “for daring to dream of a free and just Syria.” She has spent the 10 years since her release “demanding justice against the Assad regime and other groups who continue to use detention as a weapon of war.”
Mustafa graduated from university in Berlin last year. Her education meant everything to her father and yet she admitted she often finds herself wondering, like many other Syrians, whether everything she does is pointless.
“I wondered this morning, is there a point in addressing all of you today? All Syrians wonder the same,” she told the General Assembly.
However, she said that on the day she sees her father again he will ask her what she had been doing during all these years. “He will ask what we all have been doing,” she added.
Mustafa’s testimony follows the publication of a report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.
The Security Council tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict. It began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, 400,000 people have died and millions have been forced from their homes.
“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.
“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling off nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire, and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”
The three-person panel investigated more than 100 detention facilities in Syria. Their findings are based on more than 2,500 interviews over the past 10 years. They concluded that none of the warring parties in Syria have respected the rights of detainees. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, missing without a trace.
“One decade in, it is abundantly clear that it is the children, women and men of Syria who have paid the price when the Syrian government unleashed overwhelming violence to quell dissent,” commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told the General Assembly.
“Opportunistic foreign funding, arms and other support to the warring parties poured fuel on this fire that the world has been content to watch burn. Terrorist groups proliferated and inflicted their ideology on the people, particularly on women, girls and boys, as well as ethnic and religious minorities and dissenting civilians.”
He added: “Pro-government forces have deliberately and repeatedly targeted hospitals and medical facilities, decimating a medical sector prior to the arrival of the most catastrophic global pandemic in a century.
“The use of chemical weapons has been tolerated, the free flow of humanitarian aid instrumentalized, diverted and hampered — even with Security Council authorization.”
Representatives of more than 30 UN member states addressed the General Assembly. Most were united in calling for justice for the victims of the conflict and for the perpetrators to be held accountable. Without this, they agreed, a national reconciliation will be impossible.
The sentencing by a German court last week of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four-and-a-half years in prison, on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, was hailed as historic.
He had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.
Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”
The German envoy added that he deplores the “inhumane” decision by China and Russia in July 2020 to veto a UN resolution calling for two border crossings between Turkey and Syria to remain open so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to millions of civilians in the northwest of Syria.
Barbara Woodward, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, said that each of the 32 instances of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians constitutes a war crime. She vowed that Britain “will respond more robustly to any further use of chemical weapons” by the regime.
Only Russia defended the Assad regime. Stepan Kuzmenkov, senior counsellor at the Russian mission to the UN, dismissed Tuesday’s meeting, saying it was based on “accusations, lies and conjecture.”
He said the Syrian regime is being attacked because its “independence cause does not suit a number of Western countries who continue to promote practices of using force, or the threat of force, in international relations.”
Kuzmenkov criticized his UN colleagues for “not talking about the real problem: terrorism” and for “using human rights discourse to resolve short-term political goals.” He reiterated Moscow’s stance that unilateral sanctions are to blame for the suffering in Syria.
At no point in his remarks did he mention the subject at hand: torture in Syrian prisons.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry’s report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.
Despite all the misery, pain and loss during the prolonged conflict, Syrians still cling to hope for a better future.
“Assad’s Syria is a torture state enabled by some members of this assembly — but it will become my home again,” Mustafa told the General Assembly.
“Who am I to say there is no hope? Who are you to say that?”