Aiming at drawing attention to the dire situation of detainees, missing persons and their families and relatives in Syria, the EU Delegation in Geneva organized an event entitled "Missing - Testimonies of Syrian women deprived of liberty" on Friday 28 June in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of the United States in Geneva.
"We reiterate our calls for the release of all arbitrarily held detainees and request information on cases of forced disappearances," said Ambassador Stevens.
"There are over 215 000 detainees in Syrian prisons of which more than half have disappeared and are presumed to be either dead or still in custody," recalled Ambassador Walter Stevens, Head of the EU Delegation in Geneva in his opening remarks.
Ambassador Stevens also deplored that amongst those detainees and missing persons many are women, political and civil society activists, the majority of whom are used as a tool of war, and suffer physical, sexual and psychological violence and abuse. In addition, they are ostracized by their own families and deprived of their children.
"It is also important to continue working together to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and to guarantee access to justice, protection and reparations for survivors. Their voices, rights and needs must guide our response to foster more equitable and peaceful societies," Ambassador Walter Stevens added.
Mr. Roger D. Carstens, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, also delivered opening remarks reflecting on the tragic sufferings endured by Syrian women. "We know that there will not be a lasting peace in Syria without the release of prisoners, particularly children, women and the elderly," said Mr. Carstens.
As witnesses of secret systems of arbitrary arrests and abuses, four human rights defenders and activists who survived prison but suffered the most grievous violations had the courage to share their personal experiences. Torture, sexual abuses or exposure to death are few of the traumatisms experienced by Ms. Yasmeen Benshi, Ms. Sema Nassar, Ms. Yasmeen Mohammed, and Ms. Dania Yacoub. They strongly called on the Syrian Regime to stop human rights abuses perpetrated on its own population, and pled the international community to protect local populations from such atrocities.
On Wednesday 03 July, the EU Delegation in Geneva organized a side event on the impact of Sexual and Gender Based Violence on Women's political participation with a special focus on Syria, in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Sweden in Geneva and the EuroMed Feminist Initiative.
In his opening remarks, Ambassador Stevens declared that "in eight years of war, women and girls have paid a terrible price to the conflict and continue to be the target of various forms of violence". Despite annual reports of the UN Secretary-General on conflict-related sexual violence consistently listing the Syrian government and associated militias of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual and gender-based violence continues against women in order to "instil fear, humiliate and punish, in particular in detention and during house raids", recalled Ambassador Stevens.
Recognizing the important role of Syrian women, Ambassador Stevens mentioned that the EU "has been at the forefront of the support for civil society and women networks in Syria," and highlighted the support provided to the work of the civil society group and the women advisory board involved in the UN-led efforts in Geneva, as well as grassroots organizations for women empowerment, human rights, or education.
Members of the panel, including Syrian women, recalled that women are used as hostages to exchange prisoners or to humiliate their adversaries. Referring to the testimony of a 28-year-old woman, a panellist echoed that "in detention centre, your identity is removed and all bad scenarios are possible: torture, rape, humiliation."
At the Interactive Dialogue with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the EU firmly called on all sides to fully respect International Humanitarian Law. It strongly condemned the indiscriminate attacks on civilians, hospitals and schools, including the use of barrel bombs. The EU also reaffirmed its firm determination to hold accountable those who violate IHL.
"The continued presence and activities of UN-listed terrorist groups in the area contribute to the suffering of civilians, and remain of grave concern. Yet fighting terrorist groups cannot justify violations of IHL," said EU Ambassador Walter Stevens in his intervention.