International paralysis in Syria
The Council called on the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Syria to conduct a “transparent, independent and prompt investigation into violations of international law with a view to hold to account those responsible for widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, including violations that may amount to crimes against humanity."
In addition, the Council asked the Commission of Inquiry to identify those responsible for the atrocities and to submit a report on the results of its investigation at its next session, which will be held from June 18 to July 6, 2012.
The Friday meeting was the Council’s fourth special session on Syria since the crisis began 15 months ago. The UN estimates that over 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising began.
Unfortunately, the results of those sessions and inquiries have been dismal, as the killing has continued in Syria, with no signs of letting up.
I have written previously in Arab News on the UNHRC efforts and on this Commission of Inquiry, which was established at the UNHRC’s second Special Session on Syria. It presented its first report in November 2011 and concluded then that gross violations of human rights had been committed by Syrian military and security forces since the beginning of the protests in March 2011. It later implicated senior officials in those gross abuses, including crimes against humanity.
In March 2012, based on a report by the Commission of Inquiry, the UNHRC condemned Syria for its widespread and systematic violations against civilians. As testimony to international consensus then, as now, only China, Cuba and Russia voted against it. The resolution also urged the Syrian government to immediately stop all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups.
But the Commission of Inquiry reported to the Council in May that gross human rights violations had continued unabated despite Kofi Anan's efforts.
Needless to say, the Syrian government has not allowed this Commission into the country, just as it has prohibited other international organizations from operating in Syria, and refused to permit foreign media from entering the country. The reason is simple: it does not want any independent investigation of its continuing crimes against the Syrian people.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has been paralyzed from action by Russia's veto, thus allowing the Syrian regime to continue its gross human rights abuses.
Thus despite the fact that UN fact-finding system has made it clear that crimes against humanity and other grave breaches of international law are being committed in Syria, and despite the international consensus on the nature and extent of those crimes, the international community has sat idly by while the Syrian government is shielded from censure by its Russian allies.
Is it really true that there is nothing else that can be done? Are we really that paralyzed?
Could the international community act, legally, to protect those civilians in Syria in the face of the inability or unwillingness of the Syrian government to provide such protection? What can be done, legally, in the face of the government's responsibility for those crimes and the failure of the UN system to provide quick and effective remedies?
We have faced a similar situation in Kosovo in 1998-1999. Then, as now, Russia shielded its Serbian allies and adamantly refused to allow the UN Security Council to act to protect Kosovo civilians from annihilation by Serbia's killing machine. Then, as now, there was a gross mismatch between the Serbian powerful army and the feeble Kosovo resistance. However, a group of countries went outside the UN Security Council and were able to stop the massacres.
Could the Kosovo example be repeated? The principle of "Responsibility to Protect" could help crystallize international action. This concept evolved over the past several years and has been invoked in many conflicts, to very good results.
This principle of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) was given international stamp of approval in 2005, when the United Nations resolved that all countries have a shared responsibility to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Between 2005 and 2010 R2P was invoked in only in three important UN resolutions or statements. However, in 2011, it appeared in at least six resolutions, including four Security Council resolutions on Libya, South Sudan and Yemen. R2P was also invoked in action to protect civilians in the Ivory Coast.
The principle is based on the idea that state sovereignty is not absolute, but conditioned by other norms and principles. There is no question that international law holds certain crimes to be an affront to the international legal and moral systems. They are called "Mass Atrocity Crimes" and include genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. There is a shared international responsibility to protect civilian populations against those crimes.
The Houla massacre fits perfectly the definition of a "Mass Atrocity Crime." As such, it should trigger international action to stop such crimes from recurring. UN Security Council consent is useful, but is not necessary in such cases.
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