While action in the United Nations Security Council on the catastrophe in Syria has been stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes, the UN Human Rights Council and the organization’s high commissioner for human rights are taking the lead in responding to the crisis. On February 22, a panel of international experts submitted a well-documented, damning indictment of the Syrian government to the high commissioner, Navi Pillay, along with a sealed dossier listing names of high-level Syrian military and civilian officials whom the investigating experts charge with “a widespread and systemic pattern of gross abuses.”
The report suggests that the list could include President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle, and that the names may ultimately be turned over for prosecution to the International Criminal Court in The Hague—though this is unlikely to happen any time soon, since the court’s indictment process takes time and it has often been difficult to arrange taking custody of the accused. (Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has evaded arrest and trial by the court for almost four years for crimes in Darfur.) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on record saying that it was “almost certain” that crimes against humanity had been committed by Assad’s forces in Syria. An overwhelming majority of UN member nations recently joined in the condemnation of the Assad regime in a nonbinding General Assembly vote.
The new human rights panel report says that armed opponents of the Syrian government were also committing abuses, including torture, but not but not on the scale of the Syrian security forces or, apparently, as a systematic policy. Nonetheless, some Free Syrian Army members or units and other opposition fighters have been included on the list of alleged abusers.
A day after the report was released and on the eve of an international meeting on the Syrian crisis held in Tunis, the UN and the Arab League, in a surprising move, recruited Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general, to serve as a joint special envoy to Syria. It remains to be seen whether Annan will even be able to enter Syria under the current regime to accomplish his task of trying to create an interim transitional government and an end of hostilities, or at least a ceasefire between a government committed to a military solution and a divided opposition. (The appointment is interesting on a couple of counts. Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, still enjoys enormous respect and popularity internationally, often overshadowing his successor, Ban Ki-moon. The Syria assignment, bound to be fraught with difficulties, will put Annan back in the global spotlight, for better or worse.)
In the case of Syria, the report covers the situation from December of last year until February 15 of this year. The commission’s conclusions are unambiguous, showing a pattern of abuses growing steadily worse since March 2011.
“Following a further review of its evidence, including information collected since November 2011, the commission is satisfied that a reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of Government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations,” the report said. “The commission also identified particular army units, security agencies and their branch offices for which there are reasonable grounds to believe that they carried out gross human rights violations.” A full database has been supplied to the UN human rights commissioner.
The three-member commission, which was not permitted to enter Syria, collected evidence from a range of people in the region (some still inside the country) and abroad, including exiles with intimate knowledge of the workings of the Assad government and its security forces. The commission said that “It received reliable accounts that the National Security Bureau of the Baath Party National Command was used to translate policy directives from a higher level into joint strategic plans underlying operations.”
It added: “Most crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations were carried out in complex operations that involved the entire security apparatus, and therefore would have required superior directives.” As the year of confrontation progressed, the report said, “the elite army units closest to the leadership—the Special Forces, the Republican Guard and the Fourth Division—have played an increasingly prominent role.” Businessmen linked to the security apparatus, the report said, financed groups of armed freelance agents known as Shabbiha.
In human terms, the reports collected from Syrians spoke of unrelenting disintegration of national life and the national economy, which is being further weakened by international sanctions. According to estimates, 70,000 Syrians are displaced from their homes and more than 20,000 have become international refugees. Many thousands are trapped in their damaged houses and neighborhoods.
Opponents of the regime say that there are more than 18,000 people in detention, including 200 women and girls and 400 boys.
The plight of children is dire, according to the report, which was written before the recent spike in fighting in the city of Homs. An estimated 500 children have been killed in the last year, with the highest numbers recorded most recently, in December and January. Teenage boys are reported to be the most vulnerable. UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, has expressed outrage at accounts of children suffering in fighting caused by their elders: “They are, quite simply, the victims of this tragedy,” the executive director, Anthony Lake, said in a statement after the commission report was released.
The Syrian government told the commission that more than 1,300 soldiers and police officers had been killed between March 2011 and mid-January of this year, along with 2,493 civilians. Opposition sources say that nearly 7,000 civilians and 1,680 Syrian army defectors had been killed by February 15.
Behind the interminable discussions about what to do to help the people of Syria, as carnage in Syrian homes and neighborhoods fills television screens and social media sites, is a serious global policy debate rooted in the Libyan experience that is not frequently mentioned but helps explain why some Security Council members—not only Russia and China, but also notably India—are wary of authorizing any direct military-style action in Syria. Simply put, they believe that resolutions passed in the belief that they would protect Libyans under threat from Muammar Qaddafi were hijacked by NATO and Arab League members and used as pretexts to arm rebel militias and overthrow the Libyan government.
In 2005, member nations of the UN meeting in a summit session, overwhelmingly endorsed a policy they called the “responsibility to protect”—“R2P” to wonks. Under that policy framework, governments are expected, indeed required, to safeguard their citizens from mass crimes and atrocities. Failing that, outside nations could be asked to assist a government not meeting its obligation. Only if all else failed would foreign intervention be authorized, and then beginning not with military action but with sanctions, intense diplomacy and other nonmilitary efforts.
To many, the Libyan situation met the criteria for direct action under the responsibility to protect doctrine; it seemed a textbook case. But in the view of numerous nations what happened in Libya soon became something else: an invitation to regime change. They are hesitant to back a similar ploy in Syria, and that hesitation—in addition to the very different realities of Syria, a populous urban nation with a strong military and political structure and entrenched cultural or sectarian divisions—underpins the inaction so roundly criticized around the world.