Diplomatic Pressure Intensifies on Syria as UN General Assembly Set to Vote on New Resolution

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has scheduled a vote on 16 February at 3:00 pm EST on a new resolution concerning the situation in Syria, drafted and circulated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 10 February. The UNGA has previously condemned the Syrian government’s crackdown against civilian protesters on 22 November and 19 December 2011, with each urging strong support for regional efforts by the League of Arab States.

The UN General Assembly, whose members met to discuss the situation in Syria on 13 February (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

The Saudi-drafted UNGA draft resolution is similar to the one that was subject to in-depth negotiations and ultimately vetoed by Russia and China at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 4 February.

Specifically, it calls for the UN to support the Arab League peace plan, which provides that President Bashar al-Assad delegate power to a deputy and begin a process of political transition. However, the language of the UNGA draft resolution is much stronger in condemning the violence and urging accountability for violations for human rights, “including those violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.”

It also calls on the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, to support the efforts of the League of Arab States through the appointment of a Special Envoy and technical and material assistance.

It is expected that the draft resolution will pass at the 16 February vote. There are no veto rights within the General Assembly, which has crippled efforts to respond to the situation in Syria at the Security Council. The passing of a resolution at the UNGA would increase diplomatic pressure on Assad and throw UN support behind the Arab League peace plan; however the resolution would not be legally binding for UN Member States.

The draft was circulated after a Cairo meeting of the League of Arab States on 12 February. The organization passed a resolution which formally backed the Syrian opposition, called for it to unite, and requested that the UN Security Council authorize a joint United Nations-League of Arab States peacekeeping force to protect civilians and oversee a cease-fire.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made his opposition to the idea clear by stating that his country would not support a  joint peacekeeping operation unless there was a ceasefire in place between the government and the rebel Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition. China’s Foreign Ministry stated that it supported the League of Arab States’ efforts to resolve the crisis, but did not express whether it would support peacekeepers being deployed in Syria, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, the US administration of President Barack Obama also expressed concerns with peacekeepers being deployed in Syria, among them the challenges in overcoming Russian and Chinese opposition, and gaining Syria’s consent to such a force.

There is not, however, any mention of the formation of a joint UN-League of Arab States peacekeeping force in the General Assembly draft resolution.

UN Officials Speak Out Ahead of Vote

Ahead of vote at the UNGA, UN officials continued to condemn the violence in Syria.

UN Special Advisers for the Prevention of Genocide, Dr. Francis Deng, and for the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Ed Luck, issued a statement on 10 February condemning the recent violence in Homs, which has been reported to have claimed upwards of 300 lives. The Special Advisers warned that such indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations could constitute crimes against humanity. Dr. Luck also warned in a press statement on 14 February that the conflict in Syria was splitting along sectarian lines, with attacks occurring against specific groups.

In light of situation, the two Special Advisers urged the international community to act:

At the 2005 World Summit, Heads of State and Government made a solemn commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, including their incitement. They agreed, as well, to utilize the full range of regional and global tools under the United Nations Charter to help protect populations from these crimes. Many of these measures would not require authorization by the Security Council. These would include efforts to build trust among communities within Syria, to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need, and to encourage regional cooperation in advancing human rights and preventing further rounds of violence against civilian populations.  

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay briefed the UNGA on 13 February on the situation in Syria. In her address to the Assembly, Pillay condemned the continued government crackdown in Syria, expressing her “outrage” over the serious violations of human rights that have been committed since March 2011.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay speaking to the press about the situation in Syria. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The High Commissioner stated at the General Assembly that the systematic nature of the government’s response to protests, including it’s shoot-to-kill policy against civilian protesters, its “massive campaign” of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and sexual violence, and the high number of children who have been killed by security forces, indicated that crimes against humanity had been perpetrated by Syrian forces.

Pillay again encouraged the UNSC to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court so that the crimes committed do not go unpunished. The High Commissioner also urged the international community to “act now” to uphold its obligations to protect Syrian populations from continued violations of human rights, which she noted the Syrian government had manifestly failed to do.

Push for Security Council Re-Engagement

The renewed effort to respond to the situation in Syria through the United Nations comes after Russia and China employed their vetoes to strike down a draft resolution at the Council on 4 February.

It appears, however, that France – a permanent member of the Security Council – is holding negotiations with the Russians in order to introduce a new resolution that overcomes Russia’s concerns with previous drafts tabled at the Council.

Reuters reported on 15 February that French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé hopes that a new resolution would include the creation of humanitarian corridors in Syria. Juppé argued that the humanitarian zones would serve to alleviate civilian suffering in Syria by allowing inter-governmental and non-governmental aid agencies to deliver food, water and medical services, but would likely have to be protected by armed observers or peacekeepers.

Given Russian and Chinese opposition to any form of outside military intervention in Syria over the course of the UN’s efforts to respond to the situation, such a proposition would likely encounter resistance from those Members at the UNSC.

Meanwhile, following a Russian delegation’s meeting with President al-Assad of Syria, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun announced that China would also travel to Syria with an envoy to discuss the situation with the Syrian government.

Diplomatic Efforts Come as Violence Escalates

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis continue as violence has escalated steadily since the failed UN Security Council draft resolution on 4 February. The bombardment of Homs by Syrian security and military forces has continued in recent days, and clashes between those forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army have reportedly expanded across the country. New raids were reported in Daraa as well, as the government seeks to extinguish rebellious pockets in major Syrian cities.

On 16 February, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed the calls of many of his UN colleagues by stating that there have been “certaincrimes against humanity in Syria, particularly the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by Syrian security forces.

Stressing the need for continued international engagement in Syria despite the failure to pass a resolution at the UNSC, Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P), called for a “diplomatic surge” through the framework of the responsibility to protect in order to end the violence in Syria. Adams writes:

“Crimes against humanity are occurring in Syria…What we need now is a diplomatic surge, with Russian engagement, to overwhelm those elements in the Syrian regime who think that they can simply shoot their way out of the current crisis.”

And according to Amnesty International (AI), such a “diplomatic surge” could not come a moment too soon. In a press release, AI states that as the debate has moved from the Security Council to the General Assembly, the Syrian government has steadily stepped up its attacks, which have resulted in a rising civilian death toll. As such, Ann Harrison, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa for AI, urged the international community to “not stand idly by” as Syrian civilians continued to be targeted by the government in Homs, Hama, and Daraa, Syria.

AI and Human Rights Watch issued a joint-letter ahead of the UNGA vote, which urged the UN body’s members to vote in favour of the draft resolution and, “strongly affirm that the vast majority of states have not abandoned the people of Syria”.

Post researched and written by Evan Cinq-Mars. Editing by Rachel Shapiro and Megan Schmidt. 

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Filed under Arab League, CivSoc, Prevention, Regional Orgs, RtoP, Security Council, Syria, UN

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