Geopolitics heavy, humanity light - The Russian Governments approach to Syria
When reading statements by important political figures concerning the human rights & humanitarian crisis in Syria I often try, as much as is reasonably possible, to put myself in the position of those living in fear, those exiled, those injured, those tortured, those abused and those who have lost family members due to the violence. This is more than simple empathy; it is an attempt to see if the words of such important political figures are connecting with the ordinary people bearing the brunt of the violence ripping Syria and Syrians apart right now, this very second.
So this brings me to a statement from 7 September issued by Ambassador Yakovenko, Russia’s Ambassador to the UK. All statements from the Russian Government should be taken seriously, they are a serious player and hold considerable influence in the UN Security Council and with many elements within the Syrian state - whether that is within the political, diplomatic, military or intelligence fields.
The Ambassador starts by saying he has received many representations on Russia’s position on Syria and that "The Embassy has also been receiving letters from British citizens on those issues" and that he would like to answer them. No doubt several thousand of those letters and emails were from Amnesty UK members who have been calling on the Russian authorities to help stop the bloodshed in Syria. I've had my own opportunity to discuss with the Embassy what more Russia can do and such dialogues are appreciated by us at Amnesty as is feedback such as this statement. However, our primary concern at Amnesty is not with diplomatic civility or access, it is the urgent protection of civilians so I truly wonder how those being punished, humiliated and terrorised by the Syrian authorities for simply wanting a better life with more dignity, more human rights, less corruption, less poverty and less repression would feel about Russia’s current “thinking on Syria” as explained in the Ambassadors statement.
In particular, how would those screaming for help from the international community react to what is the same position we have heard for well over a year from the Russians that “Russia’s position on settlement of the Syrian crisis is a position of principle. The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of other states.” I don’t think I need to explain how that comes across to those willing to have a little bit of empathy with civilians suffering in Syria or indeed those very same Syrian civilians needing protection. I don't think I need to express the anger such a position generates.
It is one of those lines which reminds me of the old maxim “an Englishman’s home is his castle”, i.e. an “Englishman” can do as he pleases in his home – this is his sovereign territory. So if I am walking down a road in an ordinary suburban part of the UK and I hear screams from within a house and I see this “Englishman” punching his wife or raping his son do I walk away and do nothing, assured that what happens within this “Englishman’s” house is an internal affair, “a domestic”, for those inside alone to work out? Of course not and I am sure, I hope, that the Ambassador would agree there are several courses of action that must be taken to protect the woman or the boy inside. A commonality between all of them, whether going in myself (maybe with a big stick to also protect myself?) or calling the police to respond, is that they all involve an intervention by an outside party to stop the violence and protect the people inside.
Sure, I could bang on the window, wag my finger and tell the man to stop his violence but what if he doesn’t? And what if he does while I’m there but carries on when I leave? You see not only must the violence be stopped but effective protection comes from the woman or the child knowing this can not happen again. Here there needs to be some form of accountability which this man faces to ensure he can no longer beat his wife or rape his son. I think you can see where I am going with this easier, more domestic example to help us critically empathise with those Syrian civilians being abused and brutalised by state security forces…many in their own homes actually.
It is clear the Syrian government failed a long time ago in its responsibility to protect civilians in Syria. It looks as though they show no intention of changing course. The Russian ambassador says “To think that an outsider knows better is utterly arrogant”. Well for one thing, the Russian Ambassador is also “an outsider” and secondly it is sometimes the case that those outside a country or indeed a house, do know better. More than that, they also have a responsibility to take action because they can.
Making careful decisions about how one acts, as the Ambassador himself suggests, is of course of paramount importance whether it is dealing with the immediate crisis, an accountability mechanism or indeed forward looking transition plans. It is disappointing though that Mr Yakovenko does not see that the failed approach his government is pursuing is itself leading to more civilians in Syria being raped, tortured, disappeared and killed. If the Ambassador wants to explain Russia’s position to the world he should really start by explaining it first to those on the very sharpest end of the Syrian Government’s brutal onslaught.
Now I am not one to oversimplify the situation and the Ambassador is correct to warn about “unintended consequences” of taking action. That is why poor crisis and transition planning and poor mapping, screening, regulation and oversight of those opposition elements other states seek to or are assisting could well lead to a much worse human rights and humanitarian situation for Syrians and for people in the wider region. That is why much more needs to be invested in effective transition planning including from the Russians who will be seeking to ensure they have a place in the new Syria. Yes stopping the killing is the immediate priority but that does not mean planning for what comes next should be relegated or ignored.
This means the international community must intervene more actively in the planning of a new Syria and openly pass on their considerable knowledge of key issues like transitional justice, security sector reform, constitutional and electoral assistance as well as obvious commitments to help reconstruct a shattered Syria. We at Amnesty do not need to be told there is an unpredictable logic to transitions. That is why it is important that those with expertise intervene and assist the transitional process with the full and active participation of a credible cross-section of Syrians (which in itself is no easy task).
As we look at possible accountability mechanisms which is another essential component of civilian protection, I'll go back to the analogy briefly. Trying to defend the man who beats his wife and rapes his son just because it was in his castle/home is not just callous it breeds more violence through the impunity afforded to the abuser. This is currently Russia’s position – that of shielding the rapist and the wife beater.
Saying, as the Ambassador does, “The only realistic thing to do for the international community is encouraging the parties involved to display moderation and engage in an inclusive political dialogue” is actually perceived by many in Syria as like saying to actual woman and children who have been abused in Syria, that you must be moderate and engage in a dialogue with your abuser. Is the Ambassador saying the abuser need not face some form of accountability? In what reality does the Ambassador feel those that have committed grave violations should have a place in the new Syria as opposed to facing a credible justice and accountability mechanism? Amnesty would suggest that a referral by the UN Security Council to the prosecutor of the ICC is the way to go – as yet the UNSC as a whole has failed to propose this. It’s positive that the UK is now publicly moving towards supporting a referral but we also need the Russians and other UNSC members to ensure they do not block such a proposal.
(Of course there is also the hope that a future transitional government in Syria grants jurisdiction to the ICC to investigate allegations of violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict. Leading opposition elements may well want to publicly support this also.)
Continuing this point about accountability, the Ambassador should also explain why it is that his Government is apparently not opposed to the inclusion of those reasonably suspected of ordering or committing crimes under international law being in any transitional governing body in a future Syria. Amnesty would go further and insist that such people should be investigated and prosecuted if there is sufficient admissible evidence by independent and impartial courts, either in Syria or in other countries exercising universal jurisdiction over crimes, or ideally as said above, at the ICC if the situation is referred to it.
The Russian authorities, in holding to a position of “non interference” also directly contradicts the idea of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria which concluded that Syrian Government forces and the Shabiha have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It also concluded that such violations are committed pursuant to State policy. Does the Ambassador not think it reasonable that any person suspected of ordering or committing such violations should be investigated and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecuted? This would include persons in command or in positions of superior responsibility, which could include political leaders - Political leaders the Russian authorities seem to want to see sitting at some future negotiating table.
Now, I don’t believe Russia should be isolated from the Syria solution whether that is dealing with the immediate crisis, the lack of accountability or transition planning and I don’t believe they can be either. I think they have a valuable role to play in any resolution but it means them seriously adjusting the framework they use to analyse the situation.
Such an adjustment in thinking would see the Russian government evolving its tactics and strategy on Syria from one which is as much about geopolitics, important as that is, to one which equally prioritises humanity and human rights. Not just for the privileged few of Syria’s elite but for millions of ordinary people in Syria and indeed the wider region seeking a better life for themselves and the generations to come.
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