Irwin Cotler Headshot

How Can the World Stand By and Let this Happen?

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The Syrian government's slaughter of innocents has already claimed more than 8,000 lives with "merciless disregard" for their humanity, as UK foreign correspondent Marie Colvin put it the day before she was murdered as well -- and at the same time 150 more were murdered in the aftermath of the "Referendum farce" which would have authorized Assad's rule for another 14 years. As Colvin wrote in a courageous and poignant final dispatch amidst the shelling in Homs: "No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen."

Indeed, one might ask, what happened to the hallowed Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine? Colvin's last words on the scale of atrocity and inhumanity in Syria bear posthumous recall:

"In Baba Amr. Sickening. Cannot understand how the world can standby, and I should be hardened by now. Watch a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless."

Simply put, Marie Colvin wanted to sound the alarm on the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Assad regime against the Syrian people -- the classic rationale for the invocation of R2P.

Tragically, we have known this for close to a year now. The international community continued to dither and delay, while the savagery in Syria, as The Economist reported last April, continued unabated. And when it finally sought to invoke R2P in a UN Security Council Resolution, Assad's enablers, Russia and China, vetoed even what was a watered-down resolution.

And while the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunisia last week debated the action to be taken -- and what form of humanitarian corridor should be established -- while forswearing any armed intervention or even the arming of the rebels -- the Saudis and Quataris left the conference deploring the lack of military action, while Syrian opposition activists deplored the seeming lack of resolve in not providing them with the arms to defend themselves against the Syrian onslaught.

And so the plaintive plea captured in the headline of the Sunday Telegraph in the immediate aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting -- echoing the cries of the Syrian people caught up in the inferno of Assad's assault: "Can anyone stop the Syrian slaughter?" Indeed, the Syrians in the aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting unleashed the most ferocious assault yet, as tanks, troops, and columns of armor advanced toward the rebellious cities not just of Homs, but also in Hamas, Derra, and Idlib. The assaults used the latest generation of Russian-supplied heavy duty mortars, more lethal and indiscriminate in their destruction than anything seen before, and launched multiple rocket launchers targeting civilian neighbourhoods that were reduced to rubble. Moreover, there was the brooding omnipresence that this was but a fraction of the force that Assad can exercise in this slow motion slaughter of innocents. And there was the lurking reminder that the slaughter in Homs began -- not fortuitously one suspects -- on the 30th anniversary of the mass murder of 20,000 Syrians in Hamas by Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad.

And so the question, what must be done?

First, the International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent must be given secure access to tend to the sick and wounded, evacuate those requiring immediate relief, and retrieve and repatriate the dead for burial. It is simply scandalous that Syrian forces can continue to block the necessary humanitarian relief as of the time of this writing. As Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross Committee, put it: "It is un unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help;" while Rupert Colville, a spokesman for UN High Commissioner Human Rights said in Geneva that the agency and hadF received reports of a "particularly grizzly set of summary executions in Baba Amr."

Second, humanitarian corridors must be established to secure the necessary access and provide the needed humanitarian relief and assistance including the provision of food, goods, and medical relief. People are dying of hunger as by bullets -- by neglect as by artillery. As the Sunday Times reported, "The government's inhumanity persists, while the injured and sick, deprived of the necessary medical care continue to die."

Third, the international community needs to leverage Russia and China, the Syrian enablers, to bring about a ceasefire. Let there be no doubt about it. In vetoing the UN Security Council resolution, calling for an end to the violence, Russia and China emboldened Assad with a license to kill. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said at the time: "It is just despicable, and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people." In the immediate aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting, President Obama said: "It is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government"... "[it is] absolutely imperative for the international community to rally and send a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition. It is time for that regime to move on." For Syrian activists, words were not enough and the rhetoric was yet to be matched by concrete deeds.

Fourth, in the aftermath of the Friends of Syria meeting, European Union foreign ministers adopted new sanctions against Syria, including sanctioning its Central Bank, travel bans against seven cabinet ministers, prohibiting trade in gold and other precious metals with Syrian state institutions, and a ban on cargo flights in Syria by the country's carriers. The decisions followed the oil embargo imposed last September, and extended the list of sanctioned individuals already facing asset freezes and visa bans, together with the banning of business with some 40 Syrian companies and institutions.

Yet the EU's action was met with more shelling, more execution-style killings, and what Syrians in Baba Amr have called a "scorched-earth campaign." Indeed, there have been some 100 Syrians killed per day, both before and after the EU sanctions, while on Wednesday morning, the Syrian army announced its intention to "clean the city of Homs" and specifically the Baba Amr neighbourhood. Again, while the European sanctions were welcomed, they were not enough. What is needed is a total quarantine of Syria -- global travel bans and asset freezes, a complete arms embargo, and utter diplomatic isolation and condemnation.

As British photographer Paul Conroy, who escaped from Baba Amr, said in an interview on Friday, the Syrian onslaught was, "absolutely indiscriminate." He added: "There are remnants of people waiting to die... a systematic slaughter of the civilian population... in the years to come, we are going to sit and we are going to ask, how did we let this happen under our nose?" He concluded: "There are no military targets in Baba Amr, it is a pure and systematic slaughter of a civilian population."

Fifth, let there be no mistake about it: war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed on a daily basis in Syria, and, as a UN Report concluded this week, "gross human rights violations" had been ordered by the Syrian government as "state policy at the highest levels of the armed forces and the government." Simply put, there is detailed documentary evidence regarding the commission of these war crimes. The Syrian political and army leadership must be put on notice that they will be held accountable for their international criminality.

Sixth, the Syrian National Council has now finally been recognized as an "important interlocutor" on behalf of the Syrian people. Admittedly, the Council's internal divisions have kept Western and Arab governments from providing it with the recognition that was accorded the Libyan National Council, and the opposition remains, as the New York Times reported on Friday: "a fractious collection of political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, all deeply divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines." But Western and Arab governments, as they did with the nascent Libyan National Council, need to work with the Syrian National Council to provide them with the necessary training, logistical support, communications, and overall assistance that will allow them to evolve into a more cohesive and representative opposition body.

Seventh, what is so necessary now is to revert to the original Arab League plan for the deployment of a peace protection force in Syria, the withdrawal of troops and tanks to barracks and the establishment of humanitarian corridors. Clearly, the deployment of Arab League monitors ended up with the monitors being observers to the killing, rather than a protection force to prevent the killing to begin with. While Russia was initially opposed to that peace protection force, there are signs now that it might be prepared for such a deployment, albeit not yet by means of a UN Security Council resolution.

Eighth, in its first statement on Syria in seven months, the UN Security Council on Thursday finally adopted a statement deploring the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and calling on the Syrian government to grant UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos "immediate and unhindered access" which has previously been refused. In particular, the Security Council cited "the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in areas affected by fighting and violence in Homs, Hama, Deraa, Idlib," and called on Syrian authorities to "allow immediate full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all populations in need of assistance in accordance with international law and the guiding principles of humanitarian assistance."

Admittedly, this was only a statement and not a resolution, has no binding authority, is limited only to the provision of humanitarian relief, and does not relate to the overall killing fields. But its significance lies in the fact that it secured the agreement of all 15 Council members including Russia and China, who had already vetoed two earlier UN Security Council resolutions concerning the Syrian government assaults, and calling on Assad to step down, and had even objected to an earlier UN Council of Human Rights resolution this past week alone.

Ninth, it may well be that the opportunity to adopt a UN Security Council resolution may now be possible. Russia appears to be despairing somewhat of its Syrian ally -- indeed, now denies that it has any "special relationship" with Syria -- and has sent signals that it might be open, for the first time, to a UN Security Council resolution. Admittedly, such a resolution, like the Security Council's statement itself, may be one organized principally around the imperative of humanitarian access and assistance. But the US, European and Arab members of the Security Council may yet prevail upon Russia and China to go beyond that, and begin to invoke the responsibility to protect principle, albeit in a more muted form than in the Libyan resolution -- and without any authorization of military intervention. Still, it may well go beyond the humanitarian relief imperatives and provide for a peace protection force, the withdrawal of Syrian tanks and troops to barracks, and the provision for a ceasefire.

Again, as I have said many times before, quoting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "Loss of time means more loss of lives." We need a protective UN Security Council resolution now.


Irwin Cotler is a professor of law emeritus at McGill University and 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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