We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland. It considers the need for UN reform in light of the Syrian crisis. This piece first appeared in the Irish Examiner on May 3rd.
A couple of months ago I was watching a BBC report from the city of Homs, in Syria. At the end of the clip, a small group of young men dashed across rocky ground at night. They were burying a seven-year-old girl who had been killed that day. They were doing it at night because it was too dangerous to bury the dead in daylight.
Since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011 the images and testimonies coming from victims and survivors have been graphic and disturbing. But somehow, this stood out. A nameless young girl killed, but no time to mourn, instead a hurried burial under fire by young men risking their lives for a dead child.
This little girl was just one of the victims of the fighting in Syria. Peaceful protests for reform in February 2011 were met by guns and thugs. Amnesty International identified numerous cases of attacks on civilians by the Syrian security forces and an epidemic of the most brutal use of torture against anyone suspected of opposition sympathies. Hundreds, including children as young as 12, were tortured to death in detention centres, and even hospitals
In response, many protestors took up arms and the resulting conflict has left at least 6,000 people dead, though the real figure is likely to be far higher. Tens of thousands have fled the fighting to seek refuge in Turkey or Lebanon.
And for most of this the United Nations has proved able to do little more than issue pleas to both sides for the fighting to stop. They were ignored. The conflict worsened, becoming more intense, more brutal.
It is important to understand the United Nations did not fail to act in Syria because of indifference. It did not fail because of a lack of resources. It failed, and is in danger of failing completely, because powerful nations on the UN Security Council put their political interests ahead of human rights and, more particularly, ahead of the interests of the Syrian people.
Russia and China together used their veto on the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian government, giving President Assad immunity at the international level.
Instead of a forum where the world’s most powerful countries come together to ensure peace, stability and the protection of fundamental human rights, the UN Security Council has become a battlefield for the major powers. Each protects their allies, regardless of the crimes they committed. Days after one of the vetoes on Syria, the United States used its veto to block a resolution condemning the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The UN’s record of failures presents us with a hard question – do we abandon a system that so many people believe is discredited and feeble, prevented from doing its job by the machinations of the major powers?
But if we do, what is there to replace it with? UN peacekeepers have failed in many places, but they have also succeeded in others. Without the United Nations there is no global organisation acceptable to almost all the countries of the world. Abandon it, and we are even more at the mercy of power politics.
The reality is that we must continue to work within the UN system, not because it is perfect or even because it works most of the time, but because there is no alternative.
The UN can be reformed. What is broken can be fixed. But it will require courage to challenge those who want to maintain their veto power, to find ways of working around them if they refuse to enter the 21st century.
Ireland can play a role in this. We are a small nation, but one with a proud reputation within the UN for peacekeeping and support for human rights. UN reform might not be a domestic political priority for many governments, but it traditionally has been for Ireland. It may take decades to achieve change. But without it, we will watch other countries collapse on our TV screens and wonder why so little is being done.
None of this however, will help anyone in Syria today.
They cannot wait for UN reform. They are dying now. They are being tortured now. We need to do what we can with the tools available to us today, however imperfect.
The UN must move quickly to establish a larger presence on the ground to report on implementation of the Kofi Annan peace plan. They need a lot more than the bare 30 observers already deployed. The decision of the Irish Government to send Irish soldiers to Syria as unarmed military observers should be welcomed, but more countries need to follow this example, and do so quickly.
Since the UN mission began its work on 16 April Amnesty International believes more than 360 people have been killed. Reports have come in steadily of people who give evidence to UN observers being arrested or even killed by Syrian security forces. Violence surges in towns and communities directly after UN observers leave.
Unless a fully resourced team is sent immediately serious human rights violations will continue. The UN must also find a way to ensure that those who come to them are not targeted afterwards. Russia and China, who supported the sending of observers, must put pressure on Assad’s government to abide by the Annan plan and not retaliate against people who speak to the UN mission.
Right now, what is needed most in Syria is peace. But ultimately, the Syrian people need something else. They need, they deserve, justice.
Syrian security forces have deliberately shelled civilian areas, shattered communities and torn families apart. Reliable reports indicate armed opposition groups were involved in the execution of prisoners and in attacks that killed civilians.
Those responsible for what has happened in Syria must be punished.
When the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported in February 2012, it gave the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights a sealed envelope containing the names of those responsible for crimes against humanity.
Last week saw former Liberian head of state Charles Taylor convicted of war crimes. The month before, the International Criminal Court delivered its first conviction – a Congolese warlord.
Many of those who committed war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Sierra Leone and who thought themselves safe from prosecution have been sent to prison. The same must happen, however long it takes, for the war criminals of Syria – regardless of whether they killed to protect, or to overthrow, the Assad government.
The international community has a habit of promising, in the aftermath of atrocity and disaster, ‘never again’. We heard the same empty promises after the massacre in Srebrenica and the systematic slaughter in Darfur.
But it has happened again. And unless the people responsible are brought to justice and seen to be punished – unless the United Nations is reformed to put human rights and the protection of civilians first – it will happen again. And again. And again.