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Syria: Reforms and Mediation

In Current Events, Democracy, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, World Law on July 3, 2011 at 6:49 PM


By René Wadlow

Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.

Studs Terkel

The situation in Syria seems to have reached a critical turning point. There is a possibility that popular protests continue as they have since mid-March and that they continue to be met by military and police violence in violation of the spirit and letter of humanitarian international law. The Syrian army and militias have responded to unarmed nonviolent demonstrations with disproportionate force. Humanitarian international law has as its base the Martens Clause named after the legal advisor of the Russian Czar at the time of the Hague Peace Conferences. The clause is included in the Preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention. It is taken up again in Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949. The Martens Clause states that “the means that can be used to injure an enemy are not unlimited” but must meet the test of ‘proportionality’ meaning that every resort to armed force be limited to what is necessary for meeting military objectives. The shooting of unarmed demonstrators does not meet the test of proportionality.

For several months, the Syrian people have been sending a clear message to President Bashar al-Assad: The time has come for him to step aside.

However, there seems to be a real possibility of negotiations between the government led by President Bashar al-Assad and members of different opposition groups. President Assad, after two months of silence during which time demonstrations spread and repression increased on June 20 has called for a “national dialog” that could usher in changes. However, there were few specifics as to what topics such a national dialog would cover.

Many opposition leaders consider the proposal as a bid for more time during which arrests continue and over 1,000 persons have been killed in response to non-violent demonstrations. Moreover, it is not clear that the leaders of the longstanding but divided leadership of opposition groups are in control of the demonstrators. As in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian demonstrators are young, come from an increasingly educated middle class and are influenced by the spirit of the ‘Arab Spring’ rather than by the ideology of the historic opposition groups.

As a sign that the proposal for a national dialog was real, the government allowed a meeting on June 27 in Damascus of some opposition figures. Those who met stressed that they did not claim to speak for all the demonstrators, and not all open opposition figures attended. In addition there are opposition figures in exile, and those in hiding fearful of arrest. There are also, no doubt, those who are waiting to see which way the wind blows. President Assad has spoken of starting the national dialog on July 12, but it is not clear who will attend and how representative they will be.

The savagery of the Damascus regime in suppressing dissent knows no boundaries. President Assad will resort even to heavy military force to silence his own people.

Civil society participation — religious, education, labor, women, cultural and media — is crucial to build public support for a real national dialog and to broaden constituencies for peace. A national dialog is merely the beginning of a deep reordering of the political and economic structures and relationships among elements of the society. There is a need for continual adjustments to adapt to new developments. There also needs to be quick post-agreement benefits to give people a stake in the readjustment process and to reduce the capacity of spoilers.

In some conflict situations, external mediators from the United Nations, national governments or nongovernmental organizations have played a useful role. Currently, the situation seems to have reached a stalemate when neither the government nor the protesters can resolve the crisis on their own terms. There are few signs that the government is open to external mediators, but with refugees from Syria going to Turkey, there is a real danger that the conflict will take on trans-frontier dimensions. A real national dialog could set out a framework for reforms which have been promised in the past but which never came to birth. As a result, sentiments have hardened, and trust has been lost. As external but concerned parties, we should encourage a broadly-based national dialog as a first important step on the road to reform.

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

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