Irwin Cotler
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While the world dithers, Syrians die

The ongoing crimes being committed against civilians make it more urgent and necessary than ever to intervene in Syria

For Syrians, 2013 has brought death, destruction and devastation on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, Assad’s most recent aerial barrel-bomb assaults in Aleppo have even been described by activists themselves as being unprecedented. The indiscriminate air strikes this past week – which occurred amidst yet another upsurge in violence – were reported by Al-Jazeera to have caused more than 125 deaths, including many women and children.

At year’s end, Assad’s killing machine – and increasingly that of Jihadist rebels – will have resulted in at least 130 000 dead – with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimating that the real figure is actually much higher. As well, the number of internally displaced people now stands at 6.5 million and growing, while there are more than 2 million refugees – at least half of whom are children.

While the international community speaks of a political solution, it is difficult to regard the oft-delayed Geneva II conference – now scheduled for January 22 – with anything but studied skepticism. The belated agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program came after a year of Obama “red line” warnings that served more as “pink advisories” than preventive action. In fact, the chemical weapons agreement has served as a green light for mass atrocities by other means, and which have accounted for 98% of the horrendous death toll.

Indeed, the mass killings through the litany of conventional weaponry were not even addressed by UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which called for the dismantling and destruction of the chemical weapons regime alone. Accordingly, Assad has intensified and even widened his conventional scorched earth strategy with continuing impunity. Indiscriminate aerial attacks have destroyed schools, hospitals, bakeries,and mosques using cluster bombs, thermobaric weapons, scud missiles, combat helicopters, and – perhaps most horrifying in their scope of destruction and the resultant horror – incendiary weapons designed to ignite whatever they strike.

The scale and scope of destructive weaponry deployed has resulted in a litany of horrors not only as regards those killed and maimed but also the catastrophic numbers of those internally displaced and rendered refugees. Indeed, the following is a shocking inventory of recent war crimes and crimes against humanity of the last week alone:

The deliberate bombing of bakeries and food depots in rebel-held areas caused a food crisis of unprecedented proportions. Moreover, Assad has specifically impeded foreign aid and food distribution resulting in mass starvation as exemplified in Aleppo.

The deliberate bombing of hospitals – let alone the targeting of doctors, nurses and pharmacists who provide desperately needed medical treatment to civilians in opposition areas – has exacerbated the plight of Syrian civilians. The recent UN Report “Assault on Medical Care in Syria” – published by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – documents the use of assaults on medical targets as a weapon of war.

The combination of mass starvation and the targeting of hospitals and medical personnel have led to a growing polio epidemic that is not only threatening Syrian civilians but is now extending beyond Syrian borders.

A report this week by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry titled “Without A Trace: Enforced Disappearances in Syria” documents the witness testimony of those who have survived these forced disappearances. The Report has called part of “a widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population” constitutive of crimes against humanity.

Amnesty International reported this week that Islamic militants are perpetrating a “shocking catalogue of cruel and inhuman abuses” in secret jails accross northern Syria, including torture, flogging, and killings after summary trials. AI said the “al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), one of the most powerful jihadi groups, is operating seven clandestine prisons in rebel-held areas.”

The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at Kings College in the United Kingdom also reported this week that “based on more than 1500 sources we estimate that up to 11,000 individuals from 74 nations have become opposition fighters in Syria – nearly double our previous estimates in April.” Among Western Europeans the number has more than tripled since April.

According to reports this week on the plight of vulnerable minorities in Syria, about 45,000 Christians out of a total Christian population of about 2 million have fled Syria, and the pace is increasing. As well, 1,800 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the violence nearly three years ago, the Working Group for Palestinians in Syria said this week.

The report by the independent Oxford Research Group titled “Stolen Futures: The Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria” documents in numbing horror how 11,420 children have lost their lives (as of August 2013), and many more their innocence. The report chronicles the myriad dimensions of horror – of children dying from explosive weapons, from Syrian army assaults on their neighbourhoods, and from torture, execution, and sniper killings. Simply put, as the report states, there is “a war on childhood,” with devastating impacts on their families and communities.

The increased scale and scope of the regime’s mass atrocity crimes – and the attending death, destruction, and devastation – demands urgent international action as follows:

First, we must reaffirm and reassert the moral, juridical, and humanitarian imperatives of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Given the daily crimes against humanity in Syria – and the horrific humanitarian situation – acting upon R2P is more urgent and necessary than ever. Simply put, if mass atrocities and devastation in Syria are not a case for R2P, then what is?

Second, we must continue to seek to engage the Security Council despite the opposition of Russia and China. Indeed, Russia has just blocked a proposed UN Security Council statement – not even a resolution – which would have condemned violence in Syria including this week’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, especially in and around Aleppo. Indeed, it is shocking to appreciate that, given the spiraling trajectory of daily crimes against humanity in Syria, not one Security Council Resolution has yet to be adopted after close to 3 years of mass atrocities.

Third, we must establish safe havens in Syria to serve as zones for the protection of civilians from assault, as refuge for the 6.5 million internally displaced, and as corridors for the delivery of medical and humanitarian relief. These are particularly needed along Syria’s international borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. One lesson learned from the chemical weapons agreement is that Russia has the leverage needed to influence Assad’s behaviour. It should be called upon to pressure Assad to allow access for humanitarian workers and outside observers to monitor aid distribution.

Fourth, we must factor into the daily Syrian assaults the intensified military and political involvement of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. Let there be no mistake about it. It is the thousands of Hezbollah fighters battling alongside Syrian government forces – aided and abetted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – that have significantly tipped the scales in favour of the Assad regime.

Fifth, we should seek to refer Syrian mass atrocities to the International Criminal Court where Assad and his inner circle, Hezbollah commanders, and jihadist rebels can be brought before the ICC for their grave violations of international law. Such a Reference, which was included in, but removed from, an earlier draft of UN Security Council Resolution 2118 on the Chemical Weapons Agreement, could help deter mass atrocities and combat impunity by threatening individual prosecutions for the daily crimes against humanity.

Sixth, all parties to the conflict must refrain from targeting civilians and civilian objects such as schools, hospitals, food depots, and places of worship. The humanitarian law principles of distinction and civilian immunity must be strictly applied and the unlawful killing of civilians must end.

Seventh, parties to the conflict must also be called upon to respect the obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2000, and the Geneva Conventions obligations relating to the special protections of children, including the commitment not to deploy child soldiers.

Eighth, given the humanitarian devastation and the commensurate humanitarian needs, we must urge international donors to follow through on their humanitarian aid commitments, with 40% of this year’s appeal remaining unfulfilled according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Indeed, Amnesty International, in a briefing entitled, “An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis”, said that “the EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives,” adding that European leaders should “hang their heads with shame.”

Ninth, the immediate humanitarian crisis and the escalating death toll and refugee concerns demand focused and immediate action. Simply put, we cannot wait for a possible political solution before addressing the massive and immediate humanitarian crisis. This must include not only countries fulfilling their financial undertakings – the UN’s latest appeal is now for $6.5 billion for humanitarian relief, the largest such appeal ever – but countries must also fulfill their immigration and resettlement response commensurate with the immense humanitarian need. Regrettably, as AI has put it, “the number of refugees the EU is prepared to resettle is truly pitiful.”

Tenth, the international community must unite in boycotting Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport, which continues to supply Assad with his instruments of death and destruction. The Pentagon’s recent cancellation of a $345 million agreement is a welcome start. Britain, France and others must follow suit and disallow Rosoboronexport – for example – from advertising at arms fairs in London and Paris.

Eleventh, we must seek a conventional weapons agreement similar to the chemical weapons deal that has diverted attention away from Assad’s mass killing by other means. Indeed, the Security Council should be asked to adopt a Resolution requiring Syria to join the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, including Protocol III, which bans the use of incendiary weapons to target areas with “concentrations of civilians.” Indeed, 107 countries have joined this treaty, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In conclusion, given the daily crimes against humanity in Syria, acting upon R2P is more urgent and necessary than ever.

For close to three years some of us have been calling for the necessary protective action only to be told that it would lead to more killing, more sectarian strife, more regional instability, and more jihadist involvement. Yet, everything that we were told would happen if we intervened, happened because we did not intervene.

Let there be no mistake about it: Every day, more Syrian civilians die not because of what we have done but because of what we have not done – and are still not doing.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, longtime parliamentarian, and International Legal Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience. He is Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.
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