UN Security Council Dithers As Syria Is Destroyed
TUCSON: If there is anything in this world that exemplifies the dark evil of the human spirit, it is armed conflict. When men in uniforms are forced to fight other men across the front-lines in order to defend their country, all of the niceties go out the window. It is, in many ways, a “kill or be killed” scenario — either you bare down and kill your fellow man, or you run the risk of dying yourself.
History is replete with examples of armed conflict ruining the very fabric of society. After two large wars in a span of thirty years, Europeans across the continent woke up and found themselves living amidst a pile of rubble. Entire cities in Germany, France, and Poland were destroyed through a combination of ground fighting between massive armies and indiscriminate bombing runs, where no target was off limits. The war in Vietnam, with nearly a million Vietnamese, 58,000 U.S. troops, and whole sections of the country depopulated, was another glaring example in the 20th Century of the worst instincts of humanity coming out. The common parlance that “war should only be a last resort” is therefore an apt lesson that responsible politicians around the world carry with them on a daily basis.
Yet even in war, there are rules that the combatants are required to follow. Indeed, failing to abide by them or deliberately violating them rightly results in the possibility of being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court or through a special tribunal. The Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols spell out in succinct detail what is allowed during a time of war, but more importantly what is not. They are, in effect, laws that nations are required to follow in order to keep the most horrific behavior in check.
By and large, the Geneva Conventions have proven to be effective. A few of those who have committed some of the worst atrocities on civilians, from torture and execution to the forced recruitment of children as soldiers, have been hauled before The Hague, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and sentenced to lengthy terms behind bars.
Unfortunately, the civil war that has been engulfing Syria for the past five years has shredded the Geneva Conventions as if they never existed. And the U.N. Security Council, the most powerful body in the United Nations system responsible for “the maintenance of international peace and security,” has essentially watched from the sidelines without doing very much to stop the bloodshed.
At first, that indictment may seem like a gross exaggeration. As an institution, the Security Council is not directly contributing to the war, even if individual permanent members like Russia continue to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime with political support and air strikes. The crimes of the Security Council, rather, are those of omission — passing resolutions that are supposed to be binding on the warring parties but are all too often considered as voluntary measures.
In a perfect world, the Security Council would not only issue a stern and resolute resolution when a horrific war crime occurred, but appoint a panel of experts to investigate the incident and send the case to the International Criminal Court for prosecution in the event that the investigation concluded that a crime took place. A referral to the ICC is one of the most serious decisions that the Security Council can take, but it also happens to be one that is absolutely necessary if international humanitarian and human rights law — including the Geneva Conventions — have any meaning.
Regrettably, we do not live in a perfect world, particularly when the subject at hand is the war in Syria. Despite repeated calls from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Security Council’s own Panel of Experts on the Syrian conflict, the Security Council has been both unable and unwilling to refer those individuals who have blatantly violated the Geneva Conventions to the ICC for a criminal prosecution. The one attempt by the French delegation to do so in 2014 was vetoed by Russia and China — the two permanent members of the Council that have exercised their veto power on multiple occasions to protect a regime that they support.
To be blunt: the same institution tasked with promoting peace and ensuring that the laws of war are abided by during a time of conflict are failing in their duty. While they sit on the sidelines and bicker amongst themselves over geopolitics, hundreds of additional civilians are killed in wholesale violence directed at where they shop, where they eat, where they sleep, and where they seek medical care.
On Wednesday, May 4, the Security Council again tried to elevate Syria on the agenda by discussing in an open session how the violence is impacting the hospitals, doctors, mobile clinics, and humanitarian workers trying to deliver health services and much-needed food supplies to the civilian population. Once again, every single delegation sitting around the table spoke of their utter contempt and condemnation of the warring parties targeting health care professionals and hospitals — six hospitals have been bombed in Aleppo by the Syrian Government and rebel forces in just a week’s time. Once again, Medecins Sans Frontieres pleaded for combatants and the international community to “stop these attacks” before even more doctors and patients are killed. And once again, the International Committee of the Red Cross laid before the U.N. a series of statistics that were as large as they were grotesque: 2,400 attacks on medical workers, clinics, and the sick and wounded in 11 countries; 60% of health care facilities in Syria demolished by the fighting.
The Security Council’s response was unified and strong. The resolution passed by the Council “[D]emands that all parties to armed conflicts fully comply with their obligations under international law, including international human rights law….and international humanitarian law…to ensure the respect and protection of all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties.” It was one of the few times when the U.N.’s top chamber was united on anything related to Syria.
What the world is likely to get other than these pleadings, however, is the same inaction that we have witnessed on Syria for the previous five years. Indeed, what the Security Council has seemingly failed to comprehend is that all of the resolutions and desperate calls for an end to the violence don’t do a thing to nip the bloodshed unless they are implemented to the fullest extent practicable. Unless and until rigorous enforcement occurs, Syrians will continue to die at the hands of their own government in crimes that not only shock the conscience, but make a mockery of the very Geneva Conventions that the international community is supposed to protect and uphold.
(Daniel R. DePetris is an associate analyst for the Raddington Group and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona. The views expressed here are those of the author alone).