Friday, January 4, 2013

In Syria, evil now has a number

The United Nations human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, did not tell us much that we didn’t already suspect. And yet the reaction to a report put out by a UN commission claiming that some 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since March 2011 can only be shock. It means that an average of almost 3,000 people were killed monthly, mostly victims of President Bashar Assad’s followers.

The figure is considerably higher than that estimated by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, which places the death toll at around 45,000. The new figure for deaths may still be too low. Last year already, a well-informed Lebanese politician told me that death estimates had been underestimated, since they did not include the thousands of Syrians who had disappeared and were presumed dead.

These numbers lead to two questions. First, what is being done internationally to punish those responsible for the carnage? And second, morally speaking, what does the death toll tell us about the international community’s response to the Syrian conflict?

To the first question, the answer can be summed up in two words: Not enough. Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This means that any decision to refer Syrian officials to the court requires, first, a request by the UN Security Council to begin an ICC investigation. With both Russia and China having refused to condemn Assad during the period when most of the killings were committed, it is unlikely that they would turn around and initiate an investigation that may implicate them in the regime’s abuses. That makes improbable any resort to the ICC.

Option B is to create a special tribunal specifically focused on Syria. If it’s a UN court, once again it would require Security Council approval. However, if the Arab League wanted to set up such a body, as proposed by Aryeh Neier, the former president of the Open Society Institute, technically it could do so. However, how likely are Arab states to go down that path? Given the implication of many Arab leaders in crimes against their own populations, probably near to nil.

With this in mind, it’s possible that Assad will never stand before a judicial institution and answer for the actions of his army and security forces. Still, the Syrian president will always have to look over his shoulder, since someone will be tempted to take matters into his or her own hands and kill Assad themselves, wherever he resides.

As for the second question, pertaining to international responsibility for the deaths in Syria, the best observation came from Pillay herself. She recently remarked that “Collectively, we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.” That’s putting it mildly. The Security Council has been deadlocked for over a year on Syrian matters, thanks primarily to Russian and Chinese obstructionism.

Even the United States has shown indifference to the plight of Syria. President Barack Obama claimed that he had gotten involved in the uprising against Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi because he would not allow a massacre of the population of Benghazi by Qaddafi’s armed forces. Yet Syria has seen a secession of Benghazis, with civilians, above all children, routinely targeted by Assad’s men. Where has Obama been? Missing mainly, keen to ensure that he would be re-elected on the grounds that he removed the United States from the Mideastern labyrinths into which President George W. Bush had taken the country after September 11, 2001.

Obama will pay a price for his standoffishness. The Syrians opposition already holds America partly responsible for the death toll in Syria. As they see it, Obama was in a position to stop the killing, but didn’t do so. This may be shaky on legal grounds, but it is persuasive on moral grounds. For 21 months, Washington has largely stood by while the butchery has continued, expressing its fear of a Jihadist takeover of opposition ranks as justification for its shameful immobility.

Obama’s bankruptcy has been almost as bad as that of the Russian, Iranian and Chinese leaderships, or indeed that of Arab leaders, for instance Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, who should know better for having once suffered from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Assad has lasted for as long as he has because he is surrounded by counterparts as unconcerned about what constitutes evil as he is.

But with 60,000 deaths, most of them caused by the regime, evil now has a number that can no longer be ignored. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war led to the death of some 120,000 to 130,000 people, according to some estimates. For Syria to lose half that number in less than two years is astonishing, a grim illustration of the savagery of Assad rule.

That tens of thousands of people should die because a small clique of people won’t surrender power and influence is as good a definition of malevolence as we can conjure up. Assad will not escape the dead, whose fate has sealed his. A cell may be preferable for a man who will walk the streets in constant fear, the memory of his victims following him wherever he goes, 60,000 uneasy spirits seeking revenge.

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