In Syria, massive and systematic violence continues to take place out of sight, in centres of detention away from the war's frontlines.
Earlier this month, the UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) released a report on death in detention. This followed equally harrowing reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on enforced disappearances and deaths in regime detention. Arbitrary detention is an inhuman, senseless tactic of war. The actions of the Assad regime are against international human rights and humanitarian law. With peace negotiations due to restart soon, it is vitally important to see efforts to build confidence.
The release of arbitrarily held detainees, including women and children, would be an opportunity to signal a desire to change the status quo and to demonstrate a real willingness to solve the conflict politically. Alongside this there should be an end to brutal treatment of all detainees in Syria and information should be provided to families on the location and status of disappeared persons.
The Syrian Opposition, represented by the Higher Negotiations Committee at the Geneva peace talks, have made clear that they need to see three confidence building measures: the Cessation of Hostilities (hudna), humanitarian access, and the release of detainees by the regime, particularly women and children. The international community has also repeatedly called for the early release of any arbitrarily detained persons in Syria. Releasing prisoners and revealing the fate of the disappeared are both steps all actors, particularly the regime who holds tens of thousands of detainees, should take as confidence building measures towards a negotiated peace.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights more than 65,000 individuals, have been forcibly disappeared between March 2011 and August 2015. While the fate of the disappeared remains unknown, reports suggest that many face unimaginable abuse. The CoI report states that the regime has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, torture, rape or other forms of sexual violence. The subhuman conditions experienced by detainees of Asad's prisons were highlighted in the 'Caesar' photographs smuggled out of Syria in August 2013. These included more than 28,000 photos of deaths in regime custody. They reportedly show at least 6,786 individuals - tortured, strangled and starved people - who died in detention. The reports leave no question that the mass detentions by the regime are part of a widespread attack against the civilian population.
While the regime is by far the largest perpetrator of illegal detention, terrorist organisations such as Daesh and Al-Nusra Front (ANF), also arbitrarily detain civilians. CoI concluded that extremist groups, as well as the regime, have committed the war crimes of murder, cruel treatment, and torture. ANF, for example, has conducted mass executions of prisoners and has set up detention facilities in Idlib where deaths in detention were documented.
The UK has been clear that human rights violations and abuses in Syria are unacceptable and perpetrators must be held to account for their crimes. Last week, Human Rights Minister Baroness Anelay welcomed the beginning of the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with a particular hope to secure a strong resolution that renews the mandate of the CoI in Syria. The CoI should be granted access to Syria so that one day Asad and other perpetrators of human rights abuses can be held to account. There can be no lasting peace without justice; there must be no impunity.
Since the cessation of hostilities came into effect on the 27 February we have seen a reduction in violence. This is a step forwards, particularly with the increased access for aid, but must be sustained with a reduction in reported violations.
In the same way the cessation has opened up the possibilities for greater access to besieged areas, it should open up possibilities for the release of detainees suffering subhuman conditions. We have possibly the best chance at peace in five years. To keep progressing towards a negotiated settlement, confidence must be built and maintained.
As part of the International Syria Support Group, the UK will continue to pressure the regime and its backers, particularly Russia, to address the issue of arbitrarily detained persons.
Gareth Bayley is the UK's special representative in Syria