Syria: UN expert calls for an end to mass arbitrary and indefinite detentions and urges protection for children in Northeast Syria

GENEVA (21 July 2023) – Indefinite mass detention without legal process violates international law and should be immediately ceased, especially for children, a UN expert urged today.

“Meaningful access to places of detention, including high-security sites, is essential to ensure that serious human rights violations are identified, reported, and prevented,” said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, at the end of a six-day visit to Syria, with a focus on detention and repatriation issues in the Northeast.

“I welcome the access granted to me as an important first step in the necessary transparency and oversight of all places of detention,” she said. Given the scale of indefinite and arbitrary detention in Northeast Syria,” Ní Aoláin said “continued independent access is essential and must be secured.”

Ní Aoláin arrived in Damascus on 15 July, met with relevant government officials and then travelled to Qamishli in al-Hassakeh Governorate on 16 July. She visited prisons and sites of detention in Qamishli, Gweiran, Al Hol districts, and al-Malikiyah city. She departed Damascus on 20 July. The Special Rapporteur had access to several prisons and detention places, a first for an independent human rights expert and she noted the cooperation of the detaining authority to that end.

Ni Aolain recognized the intense political and security complexity of the situation on the ground, including the presence of a number of State and non-state actors exercising various forms of control and competences over parts of the population and institutions in this region, as well as the presence of UN Security Council designated terrorist groups.

The Special Rapporteur highlighted the major humanitarian challenges experienced by the population, particularly access to water and electricity, having a direct impact on the human rights of all individuals including those held in detention facilities. She highlighted the broader constrictions on health services affecting both the general population and those held in detention facilities.

An estimated 52,000 people are reportedly detained in al-Hol and al-Roj camps, 60 per cent of whom are children and 80 per cent under the age of 12. “Without denying that the history and current situation of the men, women and children detained there is complex, the conditions of confinement in both camps constitute arbitrary and indefinite mass detention without legal or judicial process,” the expert said.

Conditions in al-Hol camp are dire, despite the considerable efforts of under-funded humanitarian actors. She highlights serious concerns about the situation of women in the Annex at al-Hol, given the lack of meaningful access by anyone other than security actors to that location.

She expressed profound concern about the widespread arbitrary detention of children, boys and girls, in Northeast Syria in various types of facilities, premised on their – or their parents’ – alleged prior links to ISIL/Da’esh.

The Special Rapporteur observed a systematic practice of separating boys, in particular third country nationals, from their mothers in the camps upon reaching adolescence, causing irreparable harm. “Every single boy child I met was clearly traumatised by the separation from their mothers, often reported as violent,” she said. “This is a clear violation of international human rights law and incompatible with the rights of the child”. “This abhorrent practice of forced mass separation of boys from their mothers and families must end.” She said the enormous trauma and harm caused by separation would inevitably work against any stated efforts at rehabilitation. “There is no legal basis in international law for these forms and organisation of dedicated detention facilities for boys,” Ní Aoláin said.

The Special Rapporteur said she was profoundly disturbed about the presence of a significant number of young boys in adult male prisons, including Alayah and Gweiran Sina’a/Panorama prisons. “There appears to be no plan for these boys once they ‘age out’ other than prison,” Ní Aoláin said. “The harm done may be irreparable”.

“The detention of Syrian, Iraqi and third country juvenile and adolescent boys with no legal process is simply unacceptable and engages multiple fundamental breaches of the rights of the child under international law,” the expert said. States of nationality enabling the mass arbitrary detention of boys may also have legal responsibility for human rights violations under international law.

“I regret that I was unable to access the Annex in Al Hol camp where third country nationals are detained and did not interview men detained at the newly built high-security Gweiran Sina’a /‘Panorama prison’,” Ní Aoláin said, reiterating concerns about human rights violations in the Annex and practices of incommunicado detention and disappearances, including against children, in the Gweiran Sina’a /‘Panorama prison. She was profoundly concerned that no legal process applies to the detention of adult men and approximately 700 children that are detained there. She was further alarmed by the health crisis in this prison, specifically widespread tuberculosis.

The Special Rapporteur appealed to all States whose nationals are detained in Northeast Syria to live up to their fundamental human rights obligations and repatriate their nationals. “The dire conditions of detention for all categories men, women and especially children, which I witnessed first-hand, make such returns absolutely imperative,” she said.

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