The death and destruction, brutality and barbarism of the Syrian government’s latest massacre of its own civilians has passed a tipping point – indeed if it had not been passed before – mandating the invocation and application by the UN Security Council of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and requisite international action.
The past weekend’s massacre followed a familiar pattern of Syrian assault and brutality. Syrian tanks, heavy weapons, and artillery – which were to have been withdrawn to barracks in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution endorsing the Kofi Annan peace plan – indiscriminately bombarded the Syrian town of Houla by day, and followed it up with a particularly barbaric night-time slaughter of its inhabitants – a wonton execution, even by Syrian standards – going house-to-house with guns, axes, and knives, leaving more than 108 dead, more than half of them women and children.
The Syrian government argues that this was the work of “armed terrorists,” but it was Syrian tanks and artillery that encircled and bombed Houla, in violation of the UN-supported ceasefire that itself has been violated again and again; and Syrian militias – Shabihas – as attested to by the UN monitors themselves — perpetrated the atrocities.
Moreover, the weekend bloodletting was followed by still more killing of 50 civilians in Homs – the oft repeated target of such brutal assaults – again in violation of this “ceasefire.”
Indeed, the massacre was so barbaric in its brutality, that the Security Council moved quickly this past Sunday to unanimously condemn “in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood.”
The non-binding UN Security Council Statement continued: “Such outrageous use of force against civilian populations constitutes a violation of applicable international law and the commitments of the Syrian Government under United Nations Security Council Resolutions.”
Shockingly, it is as if – for the official record of the UN Security Council – this massacre never took place
But, the Security Council action was only a press statement – not even a Presidential Statement – such that it does not even form part of the record of the UN Security Council. Shockingly, it is as if – for the official record of the UN Security Council – this massacre never took place.
Nor was this a resolution of the UN Security Council itself, nor did it contain any reference to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, let alone invoke the doctrine as authority for collective action by the international community.
Stop the savagery
But, the tipping point for R2P has arrived. Indeed, this is a paradigm case for the invocation of R2P. More than 12,000 Syrian civilians have been murdered, close to 1,000 of them since the UN-endorsed Annan peace plan went into effect on April 12th, and some 13 months after the Economist published a cover story in April 2011 entitled “Savagery in Syria.” Thousands more have been imprisoned, some of whom were tortured and executed in detention, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. And while Kofi Annan was visiting with Syrian leader, this past Tuesday, there was, yet again, the discovery of grizzly murder in Assukar in Eastern Syria.
Indeed, the UN-approved Annan “peace plan” has been unraveling, if it has not already unraveled. Simply put, the unarmed 290 peace monitors dispatched under the plan have not so much monitored the ceasefire – which never occurred – as much as they have been used as a political cover for the killings themselves as follows:
First, the Annan peace plan called for “a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms.” and for the Syrian Government “to immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers,” as a condition for the ceasefire. But the Syrian Government has been violating this requirement since it was adopted, increasing its troop movements and bombardment of population centres – such as occurred this past weekend and since – while the brutality of the regime has continued unabated.
Second, the Annan plan sought the “timely provision of humanitarian assistance;” yet, by all accounts, Syria is experiencing a humanitarian disaster, with some one million civilians deprived of food, shelter, and medicine – the basic staples of humanitarian relief.
Third, the plan sought to “intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons;” yet, arbitrary detentions – and torture in detention – have continued, as have disappearances and executions. The periodic release of some political prisoners, as has just been announced, is a cosmetic sop that belies the ongoing mass repression.
Fourth, the plan sought to ensure freedom of movement for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them; yet, much of the country remains closed to those who would seek to report on the regime’s crimes, and thereby even deter them.
Fifth, the plan called for “respect for freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed;” but Syrians have demonstrated peacefully, as occurred recently in Aleppo, at their peril, if not at the peril of their lives.
The peace plan…is repeatedly mocked by the Syrian government’s justification of the killings on the grounds that those who sought a democratic, pluralist political system were terrorists
Finally, the peace plan called for a transition to a “democratic pluralist political system” to address “the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people;” but this undertaking is repeatedly mocked by the Syrian government’s justification of the killings on the grounds that those who sought a democratic, pluralist political system were terrorists, thereby justifying the house-to-house killings this past weekend.
The question then becomes: What needs to be done?
One is reminded – and it bears reminder at this point – of the poignant and painful dispatch of UK-based journalist Marie Colvin just before she herself was murdered in the assault on Homs two months ago, wherein she decried the Syrian government’s “merciless disregard for the humanity” of the Syrian people. Her last words bear particular recall: “In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can stand by, and I should be hardened by now. … Feeling helpless .. No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen.”
Simply put, Colvin sought to sound the alarm on the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Assad regime – the classic rationale for the invocation of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, when the state, eschewing the “Sovereignty as Responsibility” pillar of R2P, is the author of that criminality. Indeed, one might ask, what happened to the hallowed R2P doctrine?
At the UN World Summit in 2005, more than 150 heads of state and governments unanimously adopted a declaration on the Responsibility to Protect, authorizing international collective action “to protect [a state’s] population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” if that state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, or worse, as in the case of Syria, if that state is the author of such criminality.
When the peaceful protests in Syria began in March 2011 in Deraa – triggered by the arrest of youth whose only crime was anti-regime graffiti – Syrian protesters then took to the streets, olive branches in their hands, proclaiming “peaceful, peaceful,” the march heralding the prospective blossoming of the Syrian Arab Spring after both Tunisia and Egypt. Since then, those seeking freedom and democracy have looked for international support and solidarity in their struggle against the murderous regime. What is required now is a UN Security Council resolution – it is astonishing that no such resolution has yet to be adopted after 14 months of mass atrocity – in order to implement the conditions of the initial Arab League peace plan which evolved into the UN-sponsored Annan peace plan. It is time that we acted on our international legal obligations under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, whose first pillar is that of “Sovereignty as Responsibility.”
What must be done
In particular, what is so necessary now is a comprehensive, consequential, and binding UN Security Council resolution that would include the following:
First, the cessation of Syrian government violence; the mandated deployment of a Arab-led peace protection force in Syria; and the ordering of troops and tanks back to barracks and bases.
Clearly, the deployment of 290 unarmed UN monitors, not unlike the initial deployment of Arab League monitors, has ended up with the monitors becoming observers to the killing rather than a protection force to prevent it.
Second, protecting against the vulnerability of the targeted civilian neighbourhoods – and the related refugee flow towards Syria’s Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders – through the establishment of civilian protection zones, or what Anne-Marie Slaughter has referred to as “no-kill zones,” along Syria’s international borders. Any Syrian assault in these civilian protection zones would authorize a response that would be defensive in nature, and would only target Syrian forces that attack the designated civilian protection areas.
Third, the provision of unfettered access to the sick and wounded for the humanitarian agencies – such as the International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent. People are dying of hunger as by bullets, by neglect as by artillery. As Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross Committee, put it three months ago (and it has only gotten worse since): “It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help;” while the Sunday Times reported — again, three months ago, and again, nothing has changed since — “The government’s inhumanity persists, while the injured and sick, deprived of the necessary medical care, continue to die.”
Fourth, the UN Resolution, pursuant to its implementation of the Annan peace plan, must mandate media access, as a means of providing independent verification of violations of the plan, if not to help deter these violations to begin with.
Amnesty catalogued the widespread and systematic use of beatings, sexual violence, electrocution, and crucifixion, as well as 27 other forms of torture
Fifth, what is needed, as the foreign ministers of Canada, the UK, France, and others have called for, is expanded and enhanced sanctions, extending the list of sanctioned individuals and corporations already facing asset freezes and visa bans, the whole as enacted by the European Union in the aftermath of the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia three months ago, and individually by Canada, the US, Australia, and the like. Yet, these actions were themselves met with more shelling, more execution-style killings, and what Syrian inhabitants of Baba Amr called “a scorched Earth campaign.” Indeed, there were some 100 Syrians killed per day after, as well as before, these EU and related sanctions, while the Syrian Army announced – and then carried out – its intention to “cleanse the city of Homs,” and specifically the Baba Amr neighborhood, and then moved some two months ago to “cleanse the city of Deraa.”
Clearly, however, while these sanctions were welcome, they were not enough even as sanctions go. What is needed in the matter of sanctions is a total quarantine of Syria: global travel bans and asset freezes, utter diplomatic isolation and condemnation, expulsion of Syrian diplomats, and the treatment of the Syrian government as the pariah it has become, devoid of any legitimacy.
Sixth, the Syrian Government continues to violate the most basic principles of international law. One need only look at the chilling accounts of torture released by Amnesty International – again going back three months – which has continued since, making the inaction of the international community incomprehensible as it is unacceptable. Indeed, Amnesty has catalogued the widespread and systematic use of beatings, sexual violence, electrocution, and crucifixion, as well as 27 other forms of torture and severe mistreatment of prisoners, all of which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Moreover, there is detailed documentary evidence that these crimes are being routinely carried out by every layer of the Assad regime’s military, intelligence and security apparatus, including Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence and the Political Security Force. The Syrian political and army leadership should be put on notice that they will be held accountable for their grave violations of international law, and that their future is in the docket of the accused.
Seventh, and again pursuant to the Annan peace plan, the UN resolution must require the release of all arbitrarily detained persons and political prisoners.
Eighth, any resolution must order – and implement a means for verifying – a complete arms embargo, again as a condition of maintaining the peace. Indeed, there are reports of two ships – one from North Korea and another from Russia – that docked in the Syrian ports of Latakiya and Tartus, carrying arms for the Syrian army, thereby fueling aggression and assaults.
Ninth, any resolution — again pursuant to the Annan peace plan — should mandate an inclusive political dialogue and process that genuinely respects the legitimate aspirations of the whole of the Syrian people, including the large majority that are not Alawi, and in which, as the UN plan puts it, “citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs” and with a view to President Assad stepping down as part of this process.
Tenth, the international community needs to leverage Russia and China – Syria’s main enablers – who vetoed two previous UN Security Council resolutions. Let there be no doubt about, in vetoing two binding UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to the violence, Russia and China emboldened Assad with a licence to kill and, in supplying Syria with arms, the capacity to do so. The US, the European Union, and the Arab League need to leverage Russia such that it appreciates that, as the Syrian assaults, killings and torture continue, Russia itself becomes complicit in crimes against humanity, rather than simply as their enabler, however reprehensible that too has been; and that a country like Russia, which is concerned with its international legitimacy as a super-power, and seeks to be a major player in the Middle East, is putting both its legitimacy and its standing with the Arab League at risk.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once put it, ‘loss of time means more loss of lives’
Finally, if Russia and China still remain steadfast and opposed to a binding UN Security Council Resolution in the face of these ongoing crimes against humanity, the 13 remaining members of the UN Security Council – including the United States, the Arab League and the European Union, acting along the lines of the Kosovo precedent – should use their preponderant majority to implement the Annan peace plan and mandate the end of the Syrian regime’s killing fields.
In conclusion, Syria is a case study of the 5Rs of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine:
First, the principle of “sovereignty as responsibility,” of a country’s responsibility to protect its citizens as “the first pillar of the R2P doctrine,” which has been manifestly violated in this instance by Syria being the very author of the war crimes themselves.
Second, the responsibility to remember the lessons – le devoir de mémoire – of the dangers of incitement, and the responsibility to prevent.
Third, the danger of indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocity, and the responsibly to act.
Fourth, the danger of impunity and the responsibility to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Finally, in the face of such crimes against humanity, the invocation and implementation of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in such a binding UN Security Council Resolution.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once put it, “loss of time means more loss of lives.” Tragically, we have not yet done what needed to be done despite our knowing the cruel, desperate reality of the situation on the ground in Syria. Indeed, after all this time — after all this killing — we still do not have a UN Security Council resolution.
It is our collective responsibility to ensure R2P is not empty rhetoric, but an effective instrument for preventing mass atrocity, protecting people, and securing human rights. If the Responsibility to Protect is to mean anything, it means acting here — and acting now.
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Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament, Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University, and the Former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada. He is the co-editor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time, a recent publication of Oxford University Press.