It was hard not to be deeply moved by the recent hospital bedside evidence of Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy and the massacres he has witnessed in the Syrian city of Homs. Mr Conroy, a veteran correspondent, describes the situation in Syria as a crime on a scale he has never seen before, involving the indiscriminate slaughter of women, children and old men by government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He compares Syria with the Chechen capital Grozny, with Rwanda, with France during the First World War; and as he recovers from his blast injuries, breathing with the aid of an oxygen feed, he says ‘The time for talking is long gone, these people are dying as we speak’, but that ‘once again the world sits by and watches. There should be an answer in this age.’
Weekend reports in the Canadian media, quoting figures provided by the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria (an opposition activist network), estimate the death toll at close to 10,000 civilians, while the official United Nations figures are already in excess of 8,000.
But what if anything can the law, international or otherwise, do about this unfolding genocide? And if the answer to this question is nothing, it is at least worth reflecting upon why that is so.
In Geneva on 29 February, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on the Syrian authorities to put an end to human rights violations and allow humanitarian aid to be delivered into the country by the UN and other organisations. 37 countries backed the resolution while China, Cuba and Russia voted against it. Ecuador, India and the Philippines abstained. The Council also stressed the need to end impunity and hold accountable those responsible for human rights abuses.
The UN Council resolution followed a mid-February Cairo meeting of the 22 member Arab League, which called for international efforts to end the conflict. At that meeting the League disbanded its own monitoring mission in the country, stating that it would ask the UN Security Council to form a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire. In an impassioned address to the League, the Saudi foreign minister stated: “How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people?”
Events in Syria follow the Arab Spring which has toppled a number of regimes; and for over a year now the struggle between the government forces of President al-Assad (a Ba’athist, in common with Saddam Hussein) and the popular uprising against his regime has played out in the world’s media. In November the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that crimes against humanity may have been ongoing in the country since last March. The alleged crimes included specific instances of torture and killing within a military hospital in Homs.
In May, President Obama made an Executive Order freezing all assets of President Assad under US jurisdiction. Canada quickly followed suit, and days later the Council of the European Union also resolved to impose travel bans and an assets freeze on President Assad and nine other Syrian officials. Both Turkey and the Arab League imposed sanctions in November; and in recent days the EU Council of Ministers has met again over the issue – however it has rejected any possibility of military intervention out of hand. “We must be patient,” said Luxembourg’s highly regarded Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, “We will unfortunately have to accept to see enormously more victims, but military intervention would be worse. It wouldn’t be thousands, but tens of thousands of dead.”
The highest level of international response to the situation in Syria is of course through the UN Security Council, whose five permanent members (The US, France, Russia, China and the UK) enjoy a right of veto against any concerted UN action. But last October a Council resolution – which in effect proposed sanctions against Syria – was vetoed by Russia and China; and there is no prospect that either of those countries will change their position. While sanctions have, therefore, been thwarted at the UN level, they appear to be already well implemented by the US, the EU and other countries and international bodies. One thing is clear, however: lawful military intervention would require a resolution of the UN Security Council to that effect (such as was obtained in the case of Libya, with Russia and China abstaining). As things stand, however, and bearing in mind the recent views of EU Ministers, such a resolution is highly unlikely.
Meanwhile, President’s Assad’s forces have begun shelling the southern city of Deraa; Turkey reports thousands of Syrian refugees pouring across its border; the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Omar, Qatar and Kuwait have all joined in closing their Syrian embassies and denouncing the Syrian government; and the United Nations has this weekend announced a humanitarian mission into the country, which hopes to work in tandem with the Syrian government in obtaining ‘unhindered access to identify urgent needs and provide emergency care and basic supplies.’ “There is no time to waste,” says UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.
Through it all President Assad maintains that his troops are fighting armed gangs which are seeking to destabilise Syria; and he has been emboldened in that course of action by the continued support of Russia. Much therefore rests on the position and enormous influence of the newly elected President Putin.