Start of Main Content

Ferencz International Justice Initiative Hosts Screening of Syria’s Disappeared

From left to right: Ambassador Stephen Rapp, Qutaiba Idlbi, Sara Afshar, and Mahmoud Nowara. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Syrian survivors Qutaiba Idlbi and Mahmoud Nowara joined international justice expert Ambassador Stephen Rapp and filmmaker Sara Afshar at a May 10 screening of Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad. The screening was hosted by the Museum and the British Embassy in Washington.

The documentary juxtaposes the horrors of Syrian detention facilities with the spark of hope that justice gives to survivors. The screening cast a light on the systematic practice of abduction, torture, disappearance, and detention in Syria—and the thousands of victims who have been tortured and killed by the Assad government. Qutaiba and Mahmoud shared harrowing accounts of detention in Syria. “The only word to describe detention [in Syria] is inhuman,” said Qutaiba, in a panel discussion following the screening. “It is hell,” Mahmoud said.

The uncle of one victim profiled in the film attended the screening, and offered remarks following the film. The participation of survivors and family members of victims showed the ongoing urgency of resolving the systematic human rights violations of the Assad regime.

Former US Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice Stephen Rapp, featured in the documentary, explains how some justice efforts are possible now, even if a political solution to stem the fighting in Syria may be a distant hope. Rapp is currently the Sonia and Harry Blumenthal Distinguished Fellow for the Prevention of Genocide at the Museum.

In the film, Rapp says that victims in Syria are “crying out” for justice. The film explores the ways in which dedicated groups of survivors, family members of victims, and international legal experts are coming together to find ways to hold perpetrators of mass atrocities in Syria accountable by filing cases in select European courts in jurisdictions where, for example, family members may be residing. Rapp notes in the film that the Syrian government’s meticulous documentation of its own criminal acts creates what should be a “slam dunk” case, but that a lack of political will has left victims with very few options to provide redress.

Watch the discussion:

The screening coincides with the Simon-Skjodt Center launch of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative, an ambitious project to strengthen justice and accountability mechanisms after atrocity crimes occur. The Initiative is funded and inspired by the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, Ben Ferencz, who tried 22 Einsatzgruppen leaders following the Holocaust. The Initiative brings Ferencz’s focus on justice for the world’s worst crimes to some of the most challenging current situations, including Syria, where victims of mass atrocities are pressing for accountability.

Featured in Syria’s Disappeared are photographs of detainees killed by official government orders. The photos, which number in the tens of thousands, were smuggled out of Syria by a Syrian Army defector who goes by the code name “Caesar.” The Museum has featured some of Caesar’s photos to call attention to the depravity of the Syrian government as well as the attempts by courageous individuals to document the mass killings there.

View the photos Caesar smuggled out of the country that provide evidence of the Syrian government’s crimes against its own people:

The screening of Syria’s Disappeared is the latest of several public events the Museum has launched to highlight the plight of civilians in Syria. The Simon-Skjodt Center worked with Caesar and Syrian organizations to bring the photographs to Capitol Hill, where they sparked a conversation among policymakers about the best way to respond to the Syrian government’s systematic mass murder.

Upon seeing the photos, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) remarked “Until we bring Assad to justice . . . our job is not done.” Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) said that “One thing is clear to me: if you don’t hold accountable those who commit atrocities, these types of events will happen again and more frequently.”

Holocaust survivor and Museum volunteer Al Münzer spoke at the Hill event and reflected on the death of his family members in the Holocaust and the connection to today’s atrocities in Syria, stating “I am here today to give voice to my sisters Eva and Leah and to the 1.5 million other children killed in the Holocaust who call out for the children burnt and maimed by bombs in Syria.”