Comment and Analysis

Saving Syria

Irwin Cotler

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine is in danger of being deemed useless as thousands of Syrian civilians continue to die at the state's hands.

In a cruel mockery of the rights and lives of the Syrian people, who are under escalating assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, Russia and China vetoed the United Nations Security Council’s efforts two weeks ago to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and just days ago opposed a United Nations General Assembly resolution even though it would have no binding authority or sanction. In a particularly mocking defiance, the UN Security Council 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, about two weeks after the “licence to kill” veto, about 700 more have been killed through intense and incessant tank, mortar and artillery fire targeting civilian neighbourhoods in Homs.

The total death toll now stands at about 8 000 persons murdered, with the grotesque gunning down of people attending funerals for those gunned down the day before. Witnesses also tell of the wanton killing and torture of children, detainees and the torture even of hospital residents—purportedly using techniques taught by their Iranian instructors as reported by Al-Jazeera—and the reported cutting of electrical supply to hospitals in Homs and elsewhere, resulting in the deaths of the newly-born—in short, the slaughter of innocents.

Successive 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 mobilise to save Syrian lives.

Tragically, China and Russia used their vetoes to kill any security council resolution—and then voted against even a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a “travesty”, while European and Arab leaders referred to it as “appalling” and “unacceptable”, and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon characterised 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”.

Syrians want international intervention
Indeed, since the mass protests—and the mass murder—began close to a year ago, 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 similar justification—to save lives, even though some believe that the Libyan intervention went beyond the original mandate.

At the UN world summit in 2005, more than 150 heads of state unanimously adopted a declaration on the Responsibility to Protect, authorising 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 Russia and China. It did not call for a condemnation of Syria’s murderous action, or protective action to prevent it—or sanctions to deter it—though these are threshold requirements.

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

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 chairperson of the US 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”.

Are China and Russia accomplices?
China and Russia, then, should be called to account for their complicity in allowing the bloodshed to continue. This is particularly scandalous behaviour by Russia, not only for its obstruction of an already-compromised UN Security Council 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 should not be given exculpatory immunity by Russia. It is not surprising that the Assad regime received Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as a hero when he came to Damascus, while Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against interference in the “internal affairs” of Syria.

What remains beyond UN action under R2P—even if a 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 Canada, US, Europe, Turkey and the Arab League—the R2P 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

  • 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 banning of import of precious metals; and 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.

Irwin Cotler is a professor of law emeritus (McGill University), a member of the Canadian Parliament 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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