SYRIA: THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
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.
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 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.