Warning, there is an image below in this blog that may be disturbing to some, especially children, but we feel it is important for people to see if they can.
WITNESS 2: They have no mercy. We took picture. Children under 10 years tied their hands and shooting by so close distance, 10 centimetres, just 10 centimetres and by knife they cut their neck. Not exactly all neck, but they make a hole in his neck, a hole in his eyes.
This is the question we are all asking as we watch the tragic aftermath of the Houla massacre. With at least 108 dead (at least 32 of whom were children), the latest of an estimated 9,000 killed after more than a year of internal resistance to the Syrian government, it is important to ask whether the international community – acting through the UN – is failing in its responsibility to protect Syrians from crimes against humanity.
The harsh reality is that even when there in unanimity among its Member States, there are limits to what the UN can do. It cannot by itself save the Syrian people from massacre – except by authorizing military intervention, which would likely result in only more death and destruction and spark a regional imbroglio. It is the responsibility of the Syrian government to end this violence and to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, which it could do right now by implementing the six-point plan that it agreed with the UN’s envoy, Kofi Annan. Failing that, it is the responsibility of the UN Security Council, comprised of fifteen member states, to take timely and decisive action. The Council is – and was always intended to be – a political body. It needs the consensus of its permanent members – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – to be able to act. Even if such consensus can be mustered (to date the Council has rallied to support Annan’s initiative and the deployment of 300 UN monitors but has been unable to find a consensus on more coercive measures) it is not always obvious what the Council might do to end the violence. It must walk a difficult tightrope – applying sufficient pressure to change the Syrian government’s behavior without inflaming a volatile situation still further.
Since the crisis began, the French, German, British and American governments have pushed hard for the Council to take a decisive stand. Key non-permanent members such as India and (before it stepped down from the Council earlier this year) Brazil have repeatedly expressed concern about the plight of innocent civilians, but have raised legitimate concerns about where a more robust approach to the situation might lead. In the aftermath of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, these and other states are concerned about the potential for regime change and worry that measures against the Syrian government could inflame the situation still further. Significantly, India voted in favour of the last draft resolution on Syria that was vetoed. This brings us to the two elephants in the room – the permanent members who enjoy veto rights, China and Russia. China and Russia consistently blocked Council action though Annan’s skillful and careful diplomacy brought them on board to support the peace plan and monitoring mission. What we have witnessed in Houla is the breakdown of that agreement and the flagrant violation by Syria of the pledges it made to the UN, the Security Council and China and Russia. The question now is how they will react to this blatant disregard for their wishes. The reality is that the Syrian government either assisted with this massacre or sat and watched it happen. Both scenarios are a serious indictment on the capacity and willingness of the Syrian leadership to protect its population.
Persuading the Security Council to take further measures – such as more robust targeted measures aimed at starving the regime of funds – will require tactful and skillful diplomacy. Russia in particular has serious interests at stake and the proponents of stronger measures against Assad need to provide assurances to Russia that its interests will be protected. Whilst that diplomacy swings into action, two other avenues should be pursued.
The UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Independent Commission of Syria to investigate crimes against Syrian nationals in March 2012. This Commission should now be tasked to investigate events that led to the Houla massacre. This is the more likely political scenario.
The second avenue is, to be frank, no more likely than consensus in the Council on targeted sanctions but needs to be raised and considered: the UN Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of International Criminal Court (ICC) who will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring forward charges of crimes against humanity against individuals thought responsible for these crimes. Why the ICC? The ICC is a well-crafted institution with multiple checks and balances to prevent the politicization of its investigations. It contains numerous safeguards on whether to proceed to prosecution. The Court has been criticized for being too slow to act but it is slow for a reason – to avoid allegations of being pernicious and prejudiced it must apply the very highest of legal standards. The ICC’s investigations into the atrocities that occurred in the aftermath of the Kenyan elections in 2007 have played a crucial role in breaking the cycle of impunity in that country – laying the foundations for more peaceful elections in the future. The six individuals charged by the ICC are now to face trial for their part in the post election violence and atrocities. Those who deny the power of international justice should reflect on the fact that everybody indicted by the tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been arrested and tried.
The Syrian leadership’s sense of impunity must be shattered. The UN’s institutions are, tragically, limited in what they can do without the support of key neighbors and actors such as Iran, Russia and China.
The UN is not failing the Syrian people. The tireless work of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay, UN-Arab League negotiator Kofi Annan and Major General Robert Mood head of the (unarmed) UN Supervision Mission in Syria, have moved the international community towards action to protect Syrians and are keeping a spotlight on the hypocrisy and failure of the Syrian government to protect its civilians from mass atrocities (whether committed by state or non-state forces). Indeed, given the diplomatic hand he was given by Member States, Annan’s diplomacy in getting this agreement in place and the monitors in was nothing short of remarkable – students of diplomacy will study this for decades. This is the thinnest of blue lines between the army and the people and it is close to being shattered. The international community can only succeed if all members of the UN – particularly the veto wielding members of the Security Council – live up to their responsibility to protect.
Alex Bellamy and Sara Davies
Human Protection Hub