Conversation with Ahmad Helmi, Advocate for Syria's Disappeared: What's Next for the 130,000+ Disappeared? Any Hope for Syria's Families?


At the end of this month, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) will convene to vote on whether an international institution should be established whose primary focus will be finding the tens of thousands of missing and disappeared in Syria. In this blog series, we host a number of conversations with Syrian human rights activists and advocates to spotlight why this international institution is urgently needed to address the impunity gap in Syria and to improve justice outcomes for Syrian victims and survivors.

Our first conversation is between CIC’s Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Hanny Megally and Ahmad Helmi, Syrian human rights advocate and Ta’afi founder. Ahmad is a nonviolent Syrian activist who has been actively fighting for justice and human rights in Syria and the region for the past 12 years. He endured enormous human rights violations, including three years of imprisonment and torture. A year after he survived detention and torture, Ahmad founded the Ta’afi initiative in 2017, a Syrian survivors-led human rights organization. Ta’afi supports and protects survivors of enforced disappearances and victims of torture upon their release. It seeks to assist them so that they may continue to peacefully support human rights changes in Syria and advocate for justice and accountability. Ahmad Is also a founding member of INOVAS, the international network of victims and survivors.

1. The UN General Assembly is poised to set up an international institution to focus on the issue of the missing and disappeared in Syria. Tells us what the situation is today with the missing/disappeared in Syria.

Even after 13 years of the Syrian conflict, tens of thousands are still missing, with their families not having a clue about their whereabouts, including over 130,000 forcibly disappeared persons by all parties to the conflict, but mainly by the Syrian regime. Up until today, there has been no real comprehensive effort in the search for the disappeared in Syria. Despite the successful documentation and evidence collection done by civil society and international organizations, the focus and aim of the documentation have always been criminal accountability-oriented. And up until 2023, there is no centralized entity that collects claims and examines data and documentation for the sake of the search.

2. Why is the UNGA discussing this now, as opposed to a few years ago? What happened? Is it something the Syrian families are asking for?

The UNGA is discussing this now as a result of a long extensive campaign led by 10 Syrian families and survivors’ associations. This started in May 2021 when we released a study proposing a practical solution to address the issue of enforced disappearance and the lack of any serious and effective efforts to reveal the fates and whereabouts of the disappeared in Syria. We were joined by a wide group of Syrians and international human rights organizations supporting the families’ claim for a new UN institution that will focus solely on the search for the disappeared. The initiative harvested enormous support from the international community and the UN, including the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In December 2021, as a result of the UNGA Third Committee resolution requested by the families and survivors’ coalition, the UN secretary-general (UNSG) was asked to prepare a study into the issue. The study was issued in August 2022 recommending the UNGA to establish the proposed new UN institution.

This was a landmark study and became a strong advocacy tool for the families and survivors to lobby the UN member states to act on their responsibility to address the issue of enforced disappearances in Syria and follow the UNSG recommendations. The families and their allies managed to convince seven UN member stated to form a cross-regional core group to table the resolution and create the proposed institution.

3. There seem to be tensions between those asking for this new institution and those demanding criminal justice and accountability in Syria. Can you explain to us what is happening here?

From my point of view, there is this rigid old-school understanding of justice as criminal accountability and only criminal accountability, and anything that happens outside this legal framework is not justice.

But in reality, justice is a wider framework that includes many factors of satisfaction that should be framed for each conflict by the victims themselves. Otherwise, it will not provide a sense of justice for those who need it to move on and forward. We have seen a famous example of that when the Argentinian mothers’ struggle led to recognizing enforced disappearances as a crime against humanity.

For us, victims of enforced disappearance, we framed our vision for justice in the “Truth and Justice Charter” where we clearly stated that we will continue to fight for criminal accountability, but we recognize that accountability will not happen as long as perpetrators are still in power. Therefore, we need to delink the process of the search for the missing from the criminal accountability processes because we want the first to start as soon as possible since we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the conflict to end or for a change in the political scene. This led to us proposing that the new UN institution should adopt a humanitarian approach in the search.

Person holding a mike and speaking, with a crowd of individuals and trees behind him.
Demonstration next to the Peace Palace, International Court of Justice; The Hague, Netherlands

4. How will such an institution be of help if it has no access to the country? What are your expectations of what it can or should do?

We are aware that the Syrian government won’t cooperate with the institution anytime soon, but we know that the unprecedented scale of victims and survivors’ needs in Syria is larger than the capacity of the Syrian state to deliver even if they had the political well. Therefore, we know that we will need this institution sooner or later, and it will need quite some time in preparing strategies and collecting and consolidating information already available without access to Syria. Plus, we know that the Syrian conflict is the most documented in the world and there are millions of documents, videos, testimonies, and information available that have never been examined with the purpose of the search for the missing and that can provide answers to the families.

Nevertheless, with an institution already established, we will be prepared for a certain point in the future when there will be political negotiations or there will be an exchange of interests between the international community and the Syrian regime. At that point we would at least have a card on the table that we know it will benefit the whole Syrian population if granted access to Syria, unlike the cheap deal of normalizing the Syrian regime with the Arab region with zero wins for the Syrian people.

It is also worth mentioning that we have learned from other conflicts that the families’ right to know the fate of their beloved ones is always ignored in any peace agreement with the argument of let’s focus on the economic and social rehabilitation and then we will deal with the issue of the missing, due to the complexity and cost of it. The mere fact of the existence of this institution will guarantee the right to know of the families in any future conflict resolution.

Finally, when the moment comes and a Syrian government sitting in Damascus is ready to deal with this issue, the existence of this institution and the work it will already have done, will be a huge help. We know from other experiences that sorting out the fate of the missing or disappeared is often too difficult for any country on its own to tackle, especially when the numbers are in the tens of thousands.

5. There are already other international organizations focused on this issue in Syria, like International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), the COI, the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, the ICRC, etc. What can this new international institution add to this work?

One of the initial ideas behind the new institution is to create a new way of working or develop new strategies for the search that will build on the expertise and capacities of the mentioned institution and will avoid the limitation each has, and bridge the gaps between their disciplines.

The new institution will build on the existing capacities and strength of institutions like the IIIM, COI, ICRC, ICMP and others. A tremendous amount of data has been collected by Syrian and international civil society organizations and institutions that needs to be brought together, validated, and consolidated. The more than six million Syrian refugees who fled the country during this conflict are a largely untapped source of new information that will be of help in this consolidation process.

6. Will there be a role for the families of the missing/disappeared in this new institution?

This is exactly one of the new aspects of this institution, and we have called since the very beginning and insisted on a structural role for the Syrian victims in the institution’s planning and operation. This will allow them to meaningfully participate in setting strategies, monitoring, and evaluating its work, while also playing a critical role in the search. And most importantly, this will build trust between the victims’ communities and the international community.

7. The UNGA in its deliberations is including the provision of support for the families of the missing/disappeared. What sort of support are you thinking this might be?

First and foremost, the support we envision is to recognize those families and victims as (1) an identified group of beneficiaries of the international support for the Syrian communities in need while the conflict is still ongoing, and later when a comprehensive reparation program starts (2) in the frame of transitional justice. Other areas of support already identified include offering forms of psychosocial support and providing much-needed temporary formal civil documents.

Since it will hold an international status with a high representation of the UN ranking preferably equal to the head of the IIIM who is an assistant secretary-general, the institution should be able to provide formal recommendations to the Syrian state and to other states to establish the search processes, and remove obstacles and challenges the families are facing today.

Also, it is worth mentioning that even in the case of an existing political will by a state to search for the disappeared, it is one of the most challenging tasks that require assistance and expertise

8. What is the likely reaction of Damascus to this institution and what role can it play on the ground inside Syria now or in the future?

We expect that Damascus won’t cooperate with the institution in the foreseen future, but we think this position can be negotiated and under certain pressure, at a certain moment it will change.

On the ground, the institution will employ its multi-disciplinary approach to search for the missing, including having access to all formal and secret detention facilities all around Syria to reveal the fate of the disappeared, and will be assisting professionally in exhuming burial sites to identify the remains and deliver them to their families in a dignified manner.

9. Does the recent return of Syria to the Arab League bode well for this new Institution? Might it prevent the establishment of the work of the institution?

Even though we sensed at some point that the Arab countries will renormalize the Syrian regime, but still it was a shock for us. We are still assessing the opportunities and risks of the normalization.

Nevertheless it won’t change the fact that the institution is still needed and it will be able to establish its work and even without access to Syria, perhaps it will be a practical solution for Arab states to pressure the Syrian regime to address the question of the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared.

10. Tell us a little bit about the Charter Group, how it came about, and what it has been doing?

The Charter Group is a principals-based coalition of 10 Syrian victims’ associations who share the common vision for transitional justice and victims’ rights and agency as stated in the charter. The group has been working together for the past 4 years in advancing justice and accountability from the victims’ perspectives and claiming their agency in shaping the future of justice.

The Charter Group adopted a strategy of divide and conquer. The issues of torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention are some of the most complicated crimes in Syria and there is no “one-size fits all” solution, therefore we divided our claims for justice into short-term and long-term action, where we set our first priority is the right to know, to reveal the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared. We were at a stage when we were frustrated with the shiny but empty promises from global decision-makers about supporting our rights. So, we decided that from now on, we will provide practical solutions alongside our demands for justice. Thus when we launched the truth and justice charter in February 2021, we immediately moved to propose the creation of the international institution through a study we prepared to introduce the “practical solution.”

We are persistent people—we survived torture, and we will not stop pursuing the advancement of our mission. It is not an option for us. We have kept on pushing and building alliances with Syrian and international actors to advance our proposal. Back then, we had three options—to take the proposal to:

  • the UN Security Council, which was blocked by the Russian veto;
  • the UN Human Rights Council, which was seen as a hostile environment by the Syrian regime and may not reflect the wider global political will we were aiming for, and finally
  • the UNGA, which was the best and hardest option.

But we managed to influence the UNGA Third committee at its annual Syria resolution meeting to include a small paragraph requesting the UNSG to conduct a feasibility study on “the proposal,” which ended up becoming a landmark study recommending the UNGA to establish the institution without delay. It also provided us with a strong advocacy tool to reference a UNGA study, rather than a study prepared by “Syrian victims associations.”

By February 2023, we managed to persuade the UN member states to form a cross-regional core group to table the resolution. Now, we are counting the days for the votes.

Personally, I’m more excited about the vote than I was excited about my release from detention in Syria. Back then, I had a huge guilt on my shoulders of “why” I survived and left thousands of people behind me. But now, in few days, I might be able to give myself an answer.

Stay connected with Ahmad and his work by following Ta’afi on Twitter.

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