On Syria for six months, we have seen escalating violence and repression. The international community has repeatedly appealed to President [Bashar al-]Assad to stop — most recently the Foreign Ministers of the Arab League. He has repeatedly pledged to do so and to carry out reforms consistent with the aspirations of his people. Once again, I urge him to keep his word…enough is enough. The international community should really take some coherent measures and speak in one voice.
But coherent measures have yet to manifest themselves, and the international community has yet to raise this single voice that the Secretary-General has called for to respond to the actions of the Assad regime. In this post, we explain why, despite consistent documentation of grave violations of human rights by both non-governmental and inter-governmental sources, this has been the case.
UN agencies and civil society warn that Syrian government may be committing mass atrocity crimes
A report by the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) indicates a pattern of abuses committed by the Syrian authorities that may constitute widespread crimes against humanity and war crimes. At a special session of the Human Rights Council on August 22, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated:
OHCHR fact-finding mission found a pattern of widespread or systematic human rights violations by Syrian security and military forces, including murder, enforced disappearances, torture, deprivation of liberty, and persecution. Although the report covered the period of 15 March to 15 July 2011, there are indications that the pattern of violations continues to this day. It is our assessment that the scale and nature of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.
Among the violations document in the report, it details a gruesome “shoot-to-kill” policy employed by Syrian security services, targeting civilian protestors with live ammunition even though their demonstrations were found to be peaceful.
In the subsequent paragraphs, the report catalogues a pattern of the use of disproportionate means by Syrian security forces to respond to the demonstrations, including the use of tanks, helicopters, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and snipers. In the face of these documented abuses, the OHCHR report reminds the Syrian authorities of their responsibility to protect. As a result, the Human Rights Commission recommended a panel of experts to investigate the reports findings.
As early as June 1, Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed violations committed by Syrian security forces that it says amount to crimes against humanity as well:
The nature and scale of abuses, which Human Rights Watch research indicates were not only systematic, but implemented as part of a state policy, strongly suggest these abuses qualify as crimes against humanity…Security forces deliberately targeted protesters, who were, in the vast majority of cases, unarmed and posed no threat to the forces; rescuers who were trying to take the wounded and the dead away; medical personnel trying to reach the wounded; and, during the siege, people who dared to go out of their houses or to gain access to supplies. In some cases they also shot bystanders, including women and children.
Consistent with RtoP, when a state is found manifestly failing to protect its population from mass atrocity, the responsibility falls to the international community. For the most part, this responsibility has yet to be upheld, and Syrians have paid with their lives.
Individual states, regional organizations respond
The response by various individual states and regional organizations has been to condemn the violence and call for meaningful reforms and national dialogue between Assad and the protesters. This has been the preferred method by the Arab League, which condemned the violence on August 8, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which issued a statement condemning Assad’s “killing machine” on September 11.
Individually, regional states have also begun to apply pressure to attempt to reign Assad in. Iran, a long-time ally of the Assad regime, called for an end to the violence on September 8. Stopping short of calling for his resignation, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has ratcheted up his government’s pressure on Syria, stating on September 13 that Turkey no longer believes in Assad, nor do the Syrian people.
But this regional condemnation of Syria by individual states and organizations has been late to manifest itself over the course of the six-month uprising. This delay has been a factor that distinguishes it from the situation in Libya. Philippe Bolopion, UN Director at HRW, has also says that “the silence of the Arab League” has been a factor behind the disturbing failure to act in Syria. The Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has stated that this lack of regional support and of a UN mandate has deterred such action.
Other actors have taken more robust measures in an attempt to both isolate the regime and apply diplomatic and economic pressure. The EU enforced sanctions against Syria on September 2, banning all oil imports. Since mid-August, the United States, along with Canada and many other European states, have explicitly called for Assad to step down and relinquish power.
However, in the face of Syria’s failure to protect its civilian population from one or more of the RtoP trigger crimes, a coordinated, international response through the UN Security Council has yet to emerge to uphold the international community’s responsibility to protect Syrian civilians. After six months of brutality on behalf of the Syrian authorities, and recent pleas on behalf of protesters for international assistance, the only action taken by the Council has been a Presidential statement issued on August 3 that condemned the violence, almost five months after protests began.
Deadlock at the Security Council
To date, the Council is deadlocked over Syria. This deadlock has pitted those Member States, including France and the United Kingdom, who would adopt a resolution that condemns the violence and imposes measures to persuade the Syrian to cease its attacks, against other Member States, like Russia and China, who believe that continued pressure on the Assad regime will not resolve the crisis.
According to Álvaro de Vasconcelos of the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, Russia’s intransigence towards the efforts to impose harsher measures against Assad at the Council are a result of strategic interests:
For Russia the stakes have to do with its strategic ambitions. Under Prime Minister Putin, Russia has developed close energy and military ties with Syria, including building a military naval base that should be operational in 2012.
Thus, it seems, as in many other instances where civilians are targeted in a campaign of abuses, that the interests of the veto-wielding permanent members have the ability to hamstring collective Council action. But reviewing the response of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), Vasconcelos also paints broader strokes on issues influencing the Member States amid the popular uprisings that are sweeping the Arab world:
In Russia, politicians are playing the nationalist card with a view to the upcoming presidential elections and want to show their opposition to Western ‘activism’. In India it is difficult to find support for the intervention in Libya, apart from in some intellectual circles. In China a debate is taking place between those who believe that China should support the revolution that has swept the Arab world and those who negatively view the wave of uprisings as ‘turmoil’ and fear its potential contagion effects in China itself. In Brazil, the dilemma is how to balance concerns about military action beyond peacekeeping with Brazil’s new responsibilities as a global player anxious to be seen as a beacon of democracy and supporter of human rights.
In a previous post, we covered the challenges and uncertainties for RtoP after the Libya operation, which has had an effect on Council deliberations over Syria and the perceptions of Member States. An excerpt from that post is telling, drawing from an article by Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch:
‘There are many reasons for this disturbing failure to act [in Syria]: the opposition of veto-wielding Russia and China, the silence of the Arab League, the presence in the Security Council of Lebanon… But a crucial factor against action has been that key votes in the council — India, South Africa and Brazil — are missing. Behind closed doors, their diplomats have explained that they are reluctant to go down the Libya road again…The Syrian people are paying the price for what some countries see as NATO’s overreaching in Libya.’
While the Council remains frozen over how to respond to the situation in Syria amid the strategic interests of permanent members and a reluctance to go down the “Libya road”, the Assad regime has been unrelenting in its crackdown.
Resolve the Deadlock, Act on Syria
If any progress is to be made, and any meaningful action is to be taken by the Council to respond to grave violations of human rights in Syria, this deadlock must be resolved.
Vasconcelos argues that the BRIC countries must uphold their responsibility to protect Syrian protesters by enacting RtoP at the Council:
What is necessary is to cease all cooperation with Assad, isolate him, show that he has lost all international support and approve a UN Security Council Resolution to impose international sanctions on his regime… It is clearly in the interest of the international community that a peaceful solution is found, but for this the killing of civilians must stop. The BRICs have an enormous responsibility to help ensure that this happens.
An article by IPS, includes commentary by Don Kraus, CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions:
He said U.S. and other Security Council members should push a resolution with tough sanctions on the Assad regime…Even if Russia or China chooses to veto this motion, he said, a strong majority vote by other Security Council members will send a clear message to President Assad and his cronies that they will inevitably face consequences for their actions…”A vetoed resolution will allow member states to shame Russia, China, or any other permanent Security Council member that uses its veto privilege to protect perpetrators of mass atrocities,” he said…By doing so, he noted, they become just as guilty as those who pull the trigger.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) also urges in strong terms that the Council “should not be held hostage to concerns about the military operation in Libya”, and its member should work together towards a resolution to the deadlock:
The Security Council must call for an immediate cessation of the use of excessive and lethal force against demonstrators and demand that the regime release all those arbitrarily detained. The Council should: remind the government of its responsibility to protect; call on the government to allow humanitarian access to affected towns and cities; request that the government co-operate with an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation into recent events; and consider the imposition of targeted economic sanctions and travel bans on those individuals known to be inciting, ordering or perpetrating atrocities against civilians.
This call must be echoed. All Member States in the UN Security Council must be reminded of the commitment that was made at the 2005 World Summit: When a state manifestly fails to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, the international community has a responsibility to protect those citizens.
Post researched and written by Evan Cinq-Mars.