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Irwin Cotler

Saving Syria

Even the vetoed UN resolution was itself a watered-down compromise to appease the Russians and Chinese.

Irwin Cotler, posted Feb 18, 2012

In a cruel mockery of the rights and lives of the Syrian people, who are under escalating assault by President Bashar Assad’s murderous regime, Russia and China vetoed United Nations Security Council efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria. In a particularly mocking defiance, the vote was held on the same day that Syrian forces killed 200 people in Homs – referred to as “the capital of the Syrian revolution.” It was the highest death toll reported for a single day since the uprising began almost a year ago. Indeed, some five days after the “license to kill” veto, some 300 more have been killed through intense and incessant tank, mortar and artillery fire targeting civilian neighborhoods in Homs.

The total death toll now stands at more than 7,000 persons murdered – including now also by rocket attacks – and the grotesque gunning down of people at funerals for those gunned down the day before. Witnesses also tell of the wanton killing and torture of children, detainees and even hospital residents – and the reported cutting of electrical supply to hospitals in Homs, resulting in the deaths of the newly-born – in short, the slaughter of innocents.

Arab League proposals to halt the killing, sanctions to deter it, and a monitoring mission to prevent it were only met with more murder and more violence. And so, the Arab League – in concert with the US and the European Union – underpinned by anguished appeals from the Syrians themselves, turned to the UN Security Council in the hope that it would finally mobilize to save Syrian lives.

Tragically, China and Russia used their vetoes to kill any Security Council resolution.

It was a move that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized as a “travesty,” while European leaders referred to it as “appalling” and “outrageous.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon characterized it as “a great disappointment to the people of Syria [and] to all supporters of democracy and human rights,” adding that it “undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community.”

Indeed, since the mass protests – and the mass murder – began, Syrians seeking freedom and democracy – and simple human security – have looked for international support and solidarity in their struggle against the Assad regime. In particular, it was hoped that the UN Security Council would finally, however belatedly, invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine with respect to Syria, as it had with Libya – and with no less compelling justification.

At the UN World Summit in 2005, more than 150 heads of state and government 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.

Simply put, it is as shocking as it is shameful that the Security Council has yet to adopt a resolution of condemnation, let alone invoke R2P. Indeed, even the vetoed UN resolution was itself a watered-down compromise to appease the Russians and Chinese. It did not call for a condemnation of Syria’s murderous action, let alone protective action to prevent it – or sanctions to deter it – though these are threshold requirements.

It did not authorize the provision of necessary humanitarian assistance or an arms embargo – though these are essential to protect the Syrian people.

Indeed, it did not call for the invocation of the R2P principle – as a foundational principle of international conscience and commitment – thereby averting its gaze from the human suffering and carnage.

In fact, the resolution was regarded by some as sufficiently weak that Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on the US government to veto it, saying that the draft resolution “contains no sanctions, no restrictions on weapons transfers, and no calls for Assad to go” and “isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.”

China and Russia, then, must be called to account for their complicity in allowing the bloodshed to continue. This is particularly scandalous behavior by Russia, not only for its obstruction of an already-compromised UN resolution, but for its supply of arms to Assad that are used to massacre civilians, its political support for a regime engaged in crimes against humanity, and its exculpatory cover for that regime.

Moreover, Assad should be brought to justice for crimes against his own people – as the author of this mass atrocity – and not given exculpatory immunity by Russia. It is not surprising that the Assad regime received Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as a hero when he came to Damascus, while Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against interference in the “internal affairs” of Syria.

What remains, beyond the need for UN action under R2P – or even if a UN Security Council resolution cannot be secured – is for an international “coalition of the willing” to act, as was done in the case of Kosovo, to stop the then-murderous Milosevic regime.

With 13 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council supporting the resolution – and with a rare international coalition comprising the US, Canada, Europe, Turkey and the Arab League – the Responsibility to Protect should now find expression in collective action to ensure: the deployment of an international protection force led by the Arab League; the provision of badly needed humanitarian assistance and relief; the withdrawal of Syrian tanks and troops to barracks; the implementation of no-fly and nodrive zones; and support for the Syrian National Council, the nascent Syrian representative body.

Other possible measures would include implementing worldwide travel bans and asset seizures; expanded economic and financial sanctions, including the sanctioning of the Syrian Central Bank; an arms embargo and import of precious metals; and the initiation of international criminal investigations for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while putting Syrian leaders on notice that they will be held responsible for their crimes.

As Ban Ki-moon once put it, “loss of time means more loss of lives.” It is our collective responsibility to ensure R2P is not empty rhetoric, but an effective instrument for preventing mass atrocity, for protecting people, and for securing human rights.

Tragically, we have not yet done what needs to be done, despite our having known the cruel and desperate reality of the situation on the ground in Syria for close to a year now. The Economist ran a cover story headlined “Savagery in Syria” last April. No one can say we did not know.

Yet after all this brutality, we still do not have a protective UN Security Council resolution or equivalent protective action. If the Responsibility to Protect is to mean anything, it means acting here – and acting now.

The writer is the member of Parliament for Mount Royal and a 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.
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