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Syria: The Downward Spiral

In Current Events, Democracy, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa on April 30, 2011 at 10:45 PM


By René Wadlow


The United Nations (UN) has tried to stop the downward spiral of Syria into repression and potential chaos. It has been five weeks that what began as peaceful protests and demands for limited reforms have been increasingly met by government violence. Discussions on what the UN could do to help the Syrian people and to speed up necessary reforms started in both New York and Geneva. Governments and UN Secretariat members discussed different possibilities against the backdrop of the UN Security Council resolutions on Libya and the continued fighting there.

The representatives of China and Russia who had not blocked the resolution to use “all necessary force” to protect the civilian population in Libya but who have grown increasingly ill-at-ease with the NATO-led attacks did not want to open the door to a possible repeat over Syria. Thus all possibility of action within the Security Council was blocked with the insistence on the part of China and Russia that the situation was an internal affair of Syria and did not pose a danger to regional peace.

Thus the UN focus moved to Geneva and the UN Human Rights Council, for if events in Syria did not pose a danger to peace in the area, events were an open violation of the UN human rights standards. Syria is a party to all the major UN human rights conventions. Thus, on Friday, 29 April 2011 — when the eyes of much of the world were turned to London and a Royal wedding — in Geneva a path-making Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council was being held. A Special Session is the “highest profile” which the Council can give to a situation. It can be called on short notice, but before a Special Session is held, there are usually intense negotiations among governments. The representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also have a short time to prepare common positions and statements for a Special Session. Since NGOs speak after the governments, there is usually time for only a few statements prior to voting on the outcome resolution. However, for this Special Session, government representatives stuck to their time limits, and 16 NGOs were able to speak even if few said anything which had not already been said by governments.

Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, posing before the Syrian flag.

The human rights situation in Syria was well set out at the start by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Kyung-Wha Kang from Korea:

Information gathered since mid-March points a disturbing picture: the widespread use of live fire against protesters; the arrest, detention, and disappearance of demonstrators, human rights defenders, and journalists; the torture and ill-treatment of detainees; the sharp repression of press freedoms and other means of communication; and the attacks against medical personnel, facilities and patients.

“Yet even these deplorable practices have been exceeded over the past week. According to reports, entire towns have been besieged. Tanks have been deployed and shelled densely-populated areas. The delivery of food has been impeded. Access to electricity has been cut. And transportation systems have been shut down. There have been reports of snipers firing on persons attempting to assist the injured or remove dead bodies from public areas.

“We have noted with concern that military and security officers have been among those killed. Still, the preponderance of information emerging from Syria depicts a widespread, persistent and gross disregard for basic human rights by the Syrian military and security forces. Syrian and international human rights organizations have already documented more than 450 killings and around four times that number of injuries…

“Let me conclude by emphasizing the importance of holding perpetrators of serious human rights violations accountable, and in this regard, the urgent need for an independent, impartial, effective and prompt investigation into recent events in Syria. The convening of this Special Session should not only convey to the people of Syria that the international community is aware of their plight and supports their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms. It should affirm to people everywhere that the Human Rights Council will be resolute in ensuring justice for victims of human rights worldwide.”

As with all serious UN meetings, the decisions have been negotiated before the meeting starts. There was broad agreement that the Human Rights Council would vote the creation of a working group for an independent, impartial investigation to be named by the President of the Council after consultation. The consultations have started, but the names of the members have not yet been announced. It is unclear at this stage if Syria will allow the group to enter to carry out interviews and other investigations. The working group on the situation in Darfur was not able to enter Sudan, and Israel did not allow the working group chaired by Justice Goldstone to enter Israel. However, some countries have allowed Special Rapporteurs on country situations named by the Human Rights Council or the earlier Commission on Human Rights to visit the country in question.

Much of the debate during the Special Session concerned basic attitudes on general human rights matters over which negotiations would not lead to any compromise. There are States which do not want country-specific discussions, basically by fear that they might one day be discussed. This is the long-standing position of China and Cuba and can be taken up by others depending on the specific case. With the situation in Syria, there was a newer and more interesting balance to be found between those States who, in addition to the creation of an investigation body, wanted a condemnation of the current violations in Syria on the basis of information now available and those States which wanted “constructive dialog”. Those for constructive dialog stressed that while not opposing an investigation, felt that there was an opportunity to “engage in constructive dialog with the Syrian government”. They maintained that condemnation measures would hinder finding peaceful solutions. This group of States, largely led by Pakistan and the Russian Federation, put an emphasis on the reforms which had already taken place after the start of the demonstrations, in particular the lifting of the state of emergency, abolishing the State Security Court, the granting of citizenship to 250,000 Kurds who had been registered until then as “aliens” and the replacement of the Cabinet and some governors of provinces.

The Syrian Ambassador, Mr. Faysal Khabbas Hamoui, could have played on these calls for engagement and dialog, and he may have done so in private. In his public statements prior to the start of the debate and again just prior to the vote, his position was so “hard line” as to destroy any idea that “constructive dialog” was possible at all. He attacked the idea of having a Special Session at all and then went on to attack the protesters as agents of a foreign-led conspiracy and as extremists wanting violence. His presentation left no visible door open for dialog, and there was no call for a possible national reconciliation.

The United Nations Human Rights Council in session.

The vote on the only resolution, A/HRC/S-16/1 came with few surprises:

Votes in favor: 26.

Against 9: Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Gabon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Russian Federation.

Abstentions 7: Cameroon, Djbouti, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine

Left the room so they could not be counted in any category: 4: Angola, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar

The motivations of Angola are unclear. However, given the solid structuring of power in Syria, the inter-twinning of power and wealth, the mosaic of security services, quick reforms are unlikely. As President Bashar al-Assad has said “haste comes at the expense of the quality of reforms”. There may be a possibility for external NGOs, civil society organizations in Syria and the Syrian government to discuss peaceful advances toward a more just and inclusive society. We need to keep looking for possible doors even as people are being killed on the ground.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to  the United Nations Office in Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

World Citizens Call for a Thai-Cambodian Peace Zone: From Periodic Flair-ups to Permanent Cooperation

In Asia, Conflict Resolution, The Search for Peace on April 23, 2011 at 8:36 PM



By René Wadlow

In an April 23 Appeal to the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, Prof. René Wadlow, Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens (AWC), called for renewed efforts to promote a zone of peace along the Thai-Cambodian frontier where fighting had broken out on Good Friday, April 22, and was continuing on Saturday, April 23. “Quick UN action is required to halt these periodic flair-ups and to create a zone of peace that would facilitate permanent cooperation” said the World Citizen Appeal.

The early morning Good Friday fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops took place near the ancient temples of Ta Krabey and Ta Moan Thom some 150 kilometers southwest of the better-known 900-year-old Preah Vihear  Temple where fighting had broken out in February. There have been repeated clashes around the Preah Vihear Temple, especially after 2008 when UNESCO enshrined Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site for Cambodia over Thai objections. The World Court had in 1962 decided that Preah Vihear was on the Cambodian side of the frontier.  However the only roads for easy access to the temple are from Thailand.

The World Citizen proposal for a Thai-Cambodian peace zone is based on a “peace park-condominium zone of peace” between Ecuador and Peru proposed by Professor Johan Galtung at a time of growing military confrontations between the two South American countries and published in his collection of peace proposals: Johan Galtung 50 Years (Transcend University Press, 2008, 263pp.)

The Preah Vihear Temple, a World Heritage Site.

The troops of the two countries would disengage and withdraw, and procedures would be established for joint security, patrolling, and early warning of military movements.  A code of conduct would be drawn up.  Thus the two countries with a history of hostility could use conflict creatively to grow together at the disputed point and at the speed national sentiments would tolerate and demand.  Such a zone of peace would be important both for conflict resolution and for protection of the ecology.

The fighting in February had been brought for mediation to a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia which currently holds the rotating chairmanship agreed to send military observers to the frontier area.  However, they have not yet been sent, and Thai officials considered them unnecessary.

However, the new round of fighting and the evacuation of the population of villages near the frontier indicate that the situation remains volatile. Joint cooperation between the UN and ASEAN would be important to create a stable form of third-party mediation. As Prof. Wadlow pointed out in the World Citizen Appeal, “Buddhist groups in both Thailand and Cambodia have been working for reconciliation based on the common value of compassion. There is a growing role for citizen diplomacy and mediation efforts. The Thai-Cambodian conflict is one in which such citizen diplomacy can play an important role, especially in building up the institutions of a zone of peace with joint centers for Buddhist study and practice as well as increased protection of the fragile environment. However, in light of the increased dangers of renewed fighting, swift action by governments is needed. The UN Security Council is best structured for deciding on the swift action needed”.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to  the United Nations Office in Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

Aimé Césaire (1913 – 2008): A Black Orpheus

In Anticolonialism, Human Rights, Literature on April 7, 2011 at 10:29 PM


By René Wadlow

My negritude is not a stone,

nor deafness flung out against the clamor

of the day

my negritude is not a white speck of dead water

on the dead eye of the earth

my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral.

Return to My Native Land

On April 6, 2011, Aimé Césaire was honored by the President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the Pantheon, a monument in Paris where persons who have contributed to French political culture are honored. Aimé Césaire, the Martinique poet and political figure, was a cultural bridge builder between the West Indies, Europe and Africa. A poet, teacher, and political figure, he had been mayor of the capital city, Fort-de-France for 56 years from 1945 to 2001, and a member of the French Parliament without a break from 1945 to 1993 — the French political system allowing a person to be a member of the national parliament and an elected local official at the same time. First elected to Parliament as a member of the Communist Party, he had left the Party in 1956 when he felt that the Communist Party did not put anti-colonialism at the center of its efforts.

The Communist Party’s position was that colonialism would end by itself once the workers had come to power. Césaire went on to form a local political party which existed only in Martinique and was largely his political machine for creating municipal jobs. Césaire faced a massive rural to urban migration on the 400,000 person West Indian department of France. One answer to unemployment was to create municipal posts largely paid for from the central government budget — a ready pool of steady political supporters. Césaire also did much to develop cultural activities from his mayor’s office— encouraging theater, music and handicrafts.

Aimé Césaire’s wider fame was due to his poetry and his plays — all with political implications, but heavily influenced by images from the subconscious. Thus it was that André Breton (1896-1966) writer and ideologue of the Surrealists saw in Césaire a kindred soul and became a champion of Césaire’s writing. Breton had been interested in African art and culture, by its sense of motion, color and myth. Breton often projected his own ideas onto African culture seeing it as spontaneous and mystical when much African art is, in fact, conventional and material. Nevertheless, Breton, who spent some of the Second World War years in Martinique, was able to interest many French writers and painters in African culture. It was Breton who encouraged Jean Paul Sartre to do an early anthology of African and West Indian poetry – Black Orpheus and to write an important introduction stressing the revolutionary character of the poems.

Aimé Césaire’s parents placed high value on education — his father was a civil servant who encouraged his children to read and to take school seriously. Thus Césaire ranked first in his secondary school class and received a scholarship in 1931 to go to France to study at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure — a university-level institution which trains university professors and elite secondary school teachers. He was in the same class with Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Leon Damas. They, along with Birago Diop also from Senegal, started a publication in Paris L’étudiant noir (The Black Student) as an expression of African culture. One of Césaire’s styles in poetry was to string together every cliché that the French used when speaking about Africa and turning these largely negative views into complements. Thus he and Senghor took the most commonly used term for Blacks, Nègre, which was not an insult but which incorporated all the clichés about Africans and West Indians and put a positive light upon the term. Thus negritude became the term for a large group of French-speaking Africans and French-speaking West Indians – including Haiti – writers. They stressed the positive aspects of African society but also the pain and agony in the experience of Black people, especially slavery and colonialism.

In 1938, just as he finished his university studies, Césaire took a few weeks’ vacation on the coast of Yugoslavia. There he wrote in a burst of energy his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of the Return to My Native Land), his best known series of poems. In 1939, he returned to Martinique having married another teacher from Martinique who was also trained in Paris. Both started teaching at the major secondary school of Martinique and started being politically active. However, by 1940, Martinique was under the control of the Vichy government of France and political activity was firmly discouraged. Thus Césaire concentrated on his writing. He met André Breton who spent the war years in the USA. Breton encouraged an interest in the history and culture of Haiti. While Haiti is physically close to Martinique, Haitian history and culture is often overlooked — if not looked down upon — in Martinique. Césaire wrote on the Haitian independence leader Toussaint Louverture as a hero, and later a play in 1963 La Tragédie du roi Christophe largely influenced by the early years of the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier.

Aimé Césaire (1913-2008)

With the end of the Second World War, the French Communist Party had one third of the seats in the Parliament of the newly created Fourth Republic. The French Communists were looking for potential candidates from Martinique where the Party was not particularly well structured. They turned to young, educated persons who had a local base. Césaire, with his Paris education and as a popular teacher at the major secondary school fitted that bill. He was elected the same year both to Parliament and to the town hall. When in Paris, he took an active part in cultural life, especially with African students and young intellectuals. In 1947, along with the Senegalese Alioune Diop and Senghor, he founded the journal Présence africaine which later became also a publisher of books and the leading voice of the negritude movement.

As the French Communist Party had a rule of tight party discipline, Césaire played no independent role in the French Parliament until he left the Party in 1956. However, his 1950 Discours sur le Colonialisme, at the same time violent and satiric became the most widely read anti-colonial tract of the times, calling attention to the deep cultural roots of colonial attitudes. After 1956, most of his efforts in Parliament were devoted to socio-economic development for Martinique. His strong anti-colonial efforts were made outside Parliament, especially in the cultural sphere. Nevertheless, as a member of Parliament he could open doors that poets do not usually enter.

Césaire, who read English well, was interested in the writings of Langston Hughes whose poems were close in spirit and style. He translated into French some of the poems of the Negro poet Sterling A. Brown.

In the 1960s, Césaire turned increasingly to writing plays, especially on the history of Haiti, as the earliest independent State of the West Indies. These were verse plays as the actors’ dialogues were nearly poems. As the French African colonies became independent in the 1960s, he stressed that the end of colonialism was not enough but that colonial culture had to be replaced by a new culture, a culture of the universal, a culture of renewal. “It is a universal, rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars that are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.”


René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to  the United Nations Office in Geneva of the Association of World  Citizens.

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