By Arab News
By Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On Thursday, March 1, 2012, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva condemned Syria for its widespread and systematic violations against civilians. As testimony to international consensus on this matter, 37 member states voted in favor of the decision, while China, Cuba and Russia were against it. The resolution also urged the Syrian government to immediately stop all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups.
Where do Syrian civilians go from here? It is obvious that there are several avenues that are being explored to put pressure on the Syrian government to stop its attacks against its own people, but none have produced the desired results.
Already, a UN special commission had already submitted to the Council a report cataloguing gross violations of human rights, including crimes against humanity. It named 38 members of the Syrian government as implicated in those crimes.
During the meeting in Geneva, Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council that she supported referring Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague over those crimes against humanity allegations contained in the UN commission report.
Also on Thursday, in New York, the UN Security Council issued a statement on Syria, for the first time in months, deploring the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country and calling on the government to grant UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos “immediate and unhindered access.” At the meantime, debates are ongoing on a new draft resolution before the UN Security Council, while Russian and Chinese vetoes loom above those discussions.
According to the UN, over 7,500 people have been killed in the yearlong uprising and many more injured or made homeless in their own country or in neighboring countries. Countless others are cowering in fear of the onslaught of the regime. All are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and above all protection from their own government.
Incredibly, the Syrian government has refused permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide assistance or protection to the civilian population in Homs, other than evacuation of Western journalist trapped in the city, and the bodies of other journalists who had been killed there.
If it were up to the Syrian government, the situation is just fine and the world should respect its sovereignty over its own people, which it interprets to mean freedom to do whatever it deems necessary to deal with the uprising, regardless of how many human rights conventions and norms it violates in the process of crushing it.
What should the international community do to protect those civilians in the face of the inability or unwillingness of the Syrian government to provide such protection, or when the government itself if a party to the killing?
The principle of “responsibility to protect” could help crystallize international action. This concept evolved over the past decade in the theory and practice of international humanitarian law, and is based on the idea that sovereignty is not absolute, but conditioned by other norms and principles. There is no question that international law holds certain crimes to be an affront to the international legal and moral systems. They are called “Mass Atrocity Crimes” and include genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. There is a shared international responsibility to protect civilian populations against those crimes.
While a state first and foremost is responsible for protecting its population from those crimes, the international community has a responsibility to assist the state if it is unable to protect its population on its own. However, if the state fails to protect its population from those Mass Atrocity Crimes, and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene to provide such protection.
While military intervention should be the last resort, there is no question that other coercive means could and should be used first, including effective and smart sanctions, economic as well as political.
Most urgently, humanitarian assistance Under the Geneva Conventions and Protocols, the ICRC is the main power authorized to deliver humanitarian assistance in cases such as the Syrian conflict. Failure by the Syrian government to allow the ICRC to provide such assistance is in clear violation of those conventions and should trigger international pressure to ensure its access to Homs and other affected Syrian towns.
As a first step, the international community, through the UNSC or otherwise, the ICRC should be allowed to carry out its responsibilities in protecting civilians in Syria.