The U.N. secretary-general urged the international community on Tuesday to create an international body that would assist families of the estimated 100,000 missing persons in Syria to find out the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

“The Syrian people deserve a measure of hope for the future,” Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly. “They deserve peace and security, and they deserve to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.”

He said the international community has a moral obligation to help ease the plight of Syrians, who have suffered through 12 years of civil war and now the added devastation of the recent earthquake.

“People in every part of the country and across all divides have loved ones who are missing, including family members who were forcibly disappeared, abducted, tortured and arbitrarily detained,” he said, noting the majority are men.

The term “missing persons” includes Syrians and foreigners; those who have disappeared on their journeys as refugees; and people detained, abducted or kidnapped by all parties to the conflict, including pro-government forces, opposition armed groups and terrorists.

Hope, dignity, justice

The secretary-general said the new entity must be independent, impartial and transparent, and focus on the needs and rights of victims, survivors and their families. He called for cooperation from the Syrian government and all parties to the conflict.

“Let us heed their demands for truth,” Guterres said of the victims and their families. “Let us restore a measure of hope, dignity and justice to the Syrian people.”

Searching for missing relatives is very difficult. The U.N. said in a report that Syrian families do not have meaningful access to official facilities where people are detained or to intelligence and unofficial or secret detention sites, where most detention-related disappearances occur, especially enforced disappearances, as documented by the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria. They may be asked to pay bribes or are extorted.

Women are especially at risk. Often left as sole breadwinners, they are also often the ones doing the searching for male relatives, exposing them to danger and exploitation.

In December 2021, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Guterres to conduct a study in conjunction with the U.N. Human Rights Office on how to improve efforts, including through existing ones, to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in Syria, identify human remains and provide support to their families.

“The continuing absence of many tens of thousands of people, from small children to elderly men and women, cries out for strong action,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk told the meeting.

He said the new institution should not replicate services provided by existing organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Commission on Missing Persons, or several Syrian associations, and must work cooperatively with them. The new body should also be guided by the presumption that the missing person is alive and in urgent need of help.

Türk said funding and a timeline for creation of the international body would be determined in consultation with member states.

“In terms of structure, I suggest two main sections: one focused on search, and the second focused on victim support and participation,” he said. “Search work would include prioritizing cases and consolidating existing claims and data into a searchable database.”

The human rights chief said it is impossible to know with certainty how many people have been disappeared in Syria, underscoring that it could be “far more” than the 100,000 estimate.

Families ‘devastated’

“What is certain is that families on every side of this conflict have been devastated,” Türk said. “Families on every side of this conflict want to know what has happened to their loved ones. I stand here before you to amplify their voices.”

He stressed that a new body would not be an accountability mechanism but strictly humanitarian in nature.

More than 90 missing-persons groups from around the world have expressed support for a new international body to assist families of missing Syrians.

The reaction in the General Assembly was mixed. The European Union and several Western countries, including the United States and Canada, expressed strong support. Some countries with poor human rights records questioned the need for, as Russia’s delegate put it, “another pointless mechanism of a political nature.”

Syria’s envoy did not address the meeting. But in the Security Council last week, Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh said Damascus has worked for the past decade to locate those who have gone missing at the hands of terrorists or were killed in airstrikes by international forces. But he mentioned nothing of the tens of thousands of Syrians whom activists say the regime has forcibly disappeared.

A General Assembly vote on creating the institution is expected in the coming weeks.

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