GENEVA — The Syrian government has waged "a campaign of terror" against civilians through a policy of forced disappearances that amounts to a crime against humanity, United Nations investigators said in a report released Thursday.
After a series of reports documenting war crimes and widespread human rights abuses in Syria during 33 months of violence, the four-member Commission of Inquiry focused on what it said was a government policy of abducting or detaining civilians and then deliberately concealing their fate, inflicting what "will remain among Syria's deepest wounds."
"Most disappearances were perpetrated by security and intelligence officers, as well as by the Syrian army, sometimes in conjunction with pro-government militias acting on behalf of the government," the panel reported. It also found evidence that "some anti-government groups have adopted practices that could be considered tantamount to enforced disappearances."
The investigators conclude that enforced disappearances were conducted "as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population and therefore amount to a crime against humanity."
Their report adds to a substantial body of evidence of human rights abuses collected by the panel since it started work in September 2011. Navi Pillay, the U.N. commissioner for human rights, said this month that the evidence implicates officials at the highest levels of government, including President Bashar Assad.
For the crime of enforced disappearance, "no statute of limitations applies," the panel's report said.
Refused access to Syria, the panel has based its reports on interviews with refugees and defectors from the government and people they are able to reach inside the country.
Consistent testimony showed that the vast majority of those who disappeared in 2011 and 2012 were young men, the panel reported, citing as an example the account of a defector from the political security branch in the northern city of Aleppo who said that officers had received orders to arrest every male between the ages of 16 and 40 who participated in demonstrations against the government.
Doctors have disappeared because of their perceived support for the opposition in treating the wounded, and civilians seen as linked to the opposition are disappearing from hospitals, the investigators reported, noting "this alarming phenomenon has significantly increased over the past few months."
In some areas, the authorities had refused to give information on the whereabouts or fate of those abducted as a matter of policy, the panel said, but many families said that they had been too afraid to approach the authorities for information because of the fear that they, too, would disappear.
"Those who wait are often the only visible trace of the violation," the panel said, adding that the evidence they collected could not estimate the extent of the abuse.
However, the disappeared are not the only casualties of the policy, the panel said. The anguish and disruption experienced "may rise to the level of torture or inhuman treatment and makes entire families victims of enforced disappearances."
Some anti-government groups had adopted the practice of taking hostages, targeting civilians perceived as government supporters, journalists, human rights defenders and religious leaders, often holding them for ransom or to bargain for prisoner exchanges, the panel found. Since the fate of the victim is not concealed, the panel said that the groups' actions do not amount to enforced disappearance but may still constitute war crimes.
The panel's findings coincided with the release of a report by Amnesty International listing abuses committed in northern Syria by the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, including abductions, summary executions, torture and severe beatings, sometimes of children.
The report, based on interviews with refugees in southern Turkey in November and early December, said the group had operated a range of detention facilities in northern Syria, targeting people suspected of committing ordinary crimes or religious offenses as well as those suspected of organizing resistance to their control, or supporting the government or rival opposition movements.
Amnesty International cited accounts of former detainees who said that they had been arrested by masked men from the group, which is linked to al-Qaida and includes Sunni Muslims from many countries. Witnesses often said that they had little or no idea of the reason for their abductions and that they had undergone summary trials.
Former detainees said they had endured beatings and in some instances severe torture, including electric shocks, and gave accounts of children as young as 14 who were suspected of stealing and were flogged with cables.
Amnesty called on the group to halt its "reign of abuse" and urged Turkey and other governments to cut off arms and other supplies to it.