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The UNSC has a responsibility to protect civilians in Syria - decisive action is needed now

Time is not on the side of the displaced, the disappeared and the thousands of Syrians in fear of death – which could come any second from a regime ballistic missile or a bullet to the back of the head.

If ever there was a time to increase the pressure on the UN Security Council to take decisive action to reverse the catastrophic human rights and humanitarian crisis in Syria it is this week. All efforts are needed to influence the content of a proposed UNSC resolution. All efforts are needed to ensure the Russian government can not, yet again block UNSC action. All efforts are needed to ensure the US and others do not retreat in the face of Russian counter offers designed to prevent the UNSC taking responsibility to protect civilians in Syria.

As for the Russian government, which likes to reframe its callousness as high principles, president Putin recently wrote a supremely cynical Op-Ed in the New York Times regarding Syria. Amnesty colleagues have already addressed some of the obvious omissions. However, let’s pretend Putin was being sincere and take him at his word when he says:

We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces.

If this is the case then we should expect the Russian Government to insist on the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria (CoI) to be allowed access to Syria to assess who was responsible for the attacks.

Russia may well object though given as the CoI would want to investigate other on-going actual and alleged crimes under international law being committed in the conflict. But if Russia really are more concerned with international law and not protecting the murderous and corrupt Assad regime then I hope journalists, activists and politicians challenge Putin and his government to explain why they would block such a call.

Remember, the commission of Inquiry has been denied permission to enter Syria since it was set up in August 2011 – the time to demand access is now. 

On the same theme of insisting on credible accountability, the UN Security Council now needs to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to ensure accountability for the use of chemical weapons and all other war crimes and crimes against humanity. In particular, the US, China and Russia, need to move beyond their complicity in preventing accountability and let international law take its course, unhindered. 

Further action, in pursuit of international law and not protecting the Syrian government should include targeted sanctions, namely a freeze on the assets of Assad and others who may be involved in ordering or perpetrating crimes under international law and the deployment of international human rights monitors (at the minimum). 

These are not the only actions the UNSC could take. Many will be following the debate on the possible use of force but let’s also increase our pressure to see the international community insisting all parties to the conflict allow unfettered access to humanitarian organizations and agencies to provide assistance to the beleaguered civilian population. Russia needs to openly call on the Syrian government to grant cross-border access, as well as cross-line access. Russia should be saying clearly to the Assad regime, humanitarian assistance must be on the basis of need, without discrimination. 

Another point, critical for the protection of civilians which Russia should do is cease supplying arms and equipment to Syrian government forces. Again, I hope those concerned would ask Putin and his officials why his government continues to give the Assad regime the tools and cover to kill civilians. If the Putin government feels the regime is merely fighting a counter insurgency then what is stopping them calling for the CoI to enter Syria to investigate opposition crimes?

As for the Kerry – Lavrov deal on the Syrian authorities giving up their chemical weapons - Amnesty has already said it welcomes steps that would actually lead to the removal of such disgusting weapons. 

Any move that could lead to the removal and eventual destruction of internationally banned weapons is undoubtedly a positive step but it doesn’t remove the need for accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes being perpetrated with conventional weapons on a daily basis in Syria and the need to urgently alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

I’m not under any illusions about how challenging such an initiative will be, given the context of the ongoing conflict and the understandably low level of trust in Syrian government promises. After all, it was Assad who said of the UN back in late 2011: “It’s a game we play. It doesn’t mean you believe in it”

I see more positives than negatives in this deal though. I know many others, including friends and trusted Syria contacts see otherwise. One key reason I see more positives lies in how to implement this agreement. If the Syrian authorities are to allow in and turn over for destruction, any chemical weapons and related equipment to the appropriate UN authorities then the questions arise; does this mean local ceasefires & safe corridors will be needed for CW teams to do their work? Does this mean these will need to be secured by UN forces?

If it does then will such a presence have a deterrent effect in those locations UN forces are present? Would this also open up more space for humanitarian access to reach civilians in desperate need of relief? Could there be other openings, such as a space for the UN CoI to enter, again with UN protection? So there are many possibilities, but what is not in doubt is that the UNSC should insist on practical action to help end crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria.

Unsurprisingly, many Syrians will be cynical and pessimistic given the regimes previous games with the UN but this Syrian regime feeds off pessimism. It is important not to feed it. If however, the regime does start to play its usual games, both the US and France have said they do not rule out military action. Then the debate around military intervention will step up again. I have already written about this previously but in general, Amnesty’s focus would be on how any proposed intervention is conducted and that’s why Amnesty calls on relevant parties to ensure respect for international humanitarian law is central to their thinking and actions. 

It is of course difficult to predict the impact a strike on Syrian military targets by the USA and other states would have on the civilian population and any subsequent displacement. It would depend on the scale and duration of the intervention and how the Syrian government responds. It is likely that any substantial escalation of the conflict will lead to growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people. If the stated intention of those states planning to intervene militarily is to “relieve humanitarian suffering”, one very obvious way of doing so would be to protect and assist refugees coming out of Syria. Right now the international community is still failing to respond adequately to this human tragedy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is now a slight opportunity for the UNSC, in particular the P5 and especially Russia, to prioritise the human rights of all Syrian civilians. Journalists, activists, politicians and many others can help ensure decisive action is finally taken. 


Kristyan Benedict is on Twitter as @KreaseChan

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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