Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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The Syrian Threat to International Law

LONDON – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have jeopardized global security and dominated the headlines. But the current rules-based international system, which has been decades in the making, remains most seriously threatened by the civil war in Syria. Not only are millions of lives in jeopardy; the global framework of human rights and humanitarian law is on trial as well. Now these risks are in danger of being overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, with confrontation in the United Nations Security Council threatening to subordinate Syria in the pecking order of international problems.

Last month, on the third anniversary of the eruption of protests in Damascus and other Syrian cities, people around the world mobilized in street vigils and online as part of the “With Syria” campaign. They reached nearly a quarter-billion people on Twitter, and, for the first time, made a united demand of their leaders: Do not let Syria’s people lose another year to bloodshed. Even as other crises flare up, our leaders must heed that call.

In February, the Security Council closed ranks on Syria for only the second time. With the full support of the United States and the hard-won assent of Russia, the Council unanimously demanded that all parties to the conflict allow unhindered humanitarian access; that they lift sieges; and that they cease all attacks on civilians.

The provisions contained in Security Council Resolution 2139 provide clear political reinforcement to these basic tenets of international law, and they introduce some measure of accountability. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will give the Security Council a progress report every 30 days. His first report, presented to the Council at the end of March, and his second report last week, painted a picture of glacial progress.

Implementation of Resolution 2139 and the provisions on international humanitarian law that it underscores is a matter of life and death. Some 220,000 civilians are trapped in besieged towns in Syria, where they have been denied help and left to die. This is a medieval tactic outlawed in the post-1945 international order. Yet siege warfare is being used with impunity: Amnesty International reports that more than 200 people have been killed by starvation, shelling, and a lack of medical supplies in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus, as President Bashar al-Assad’s government intentionally blocks life-saving aid.

Yarmouk is not an isolated case. Almost a quarter-million people are currently under siege in Syria, with groups on both sides of the conflict callously disregarding basic tenets of humanity. And deliberate obstruction, together with ongoing fighting, currently is preventing another 3.5 million Syrians from reaching desperately needed humanitarian aid. It is a cruel irony that the US-Russia agreement on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons meant that inspectors could gain access to precisely the locations where aid workers carrying food and medical supplies have been repeatedly barred. If we can get chemical weapons out of Syria, surely we can get aid in.

If the Syrian government continues to block access to aid arbitrarily, several options could be brought to bear. For example, a coalition of lawyers argued this week in an open letter that the UN is being “overcautious” and has the authority to enter Syria without its government’s consent in order to provide aid. Aid should get to those who need it, regardless of which warring party controls the territory. That is international law, and it is being systematically violated. The UN must speak truth to power and fulfill the Security Council’s responsibilities to the people of Syria.

The “With Syria” campaign reminded world leaders of the parents, doctors, and teachers protecting and caring for their families and communities even as bombs fall around them. More than 130 organizations in over 40 countries – from South Korea to Sudan, from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp to Australia – demonstrated their solidarity with these Syrian heroes.

Today, the diplomatic fallout from the Ukraine crisis threatens to undermine Resolution 2139, which was adopted unanimously two months ago on the coattails of the Sochi Olympics. Now, in more treacherous times, with the West and Russia at loggerheads, the Security Council must ensure its implementation by supporting efforts to deliver the necessary aid. We must not see another year of bloodshed before our leaders recognize that, in Syria, defending the international system and protecting civilians are one and the same task.

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  1. CommentedChristian Frace

    Syria civil war is an internal political affair, that is not our business. I can"t stand the hate mongering against the Syrian government.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Lord Mark Malloch Brown makes the point that the conflict in Ukraine has eclipsed the unabated civil war in Syria. Assad's list of war crimes is long. Apart from slaughtering and gasing his citizens, he also employs the "medieval tactic" of denying those "trapped in besieged towns" food and medical aid and leaving them to die of starvation and injuries.
    Brown is urging all parties to uphold the "provisions contained in Security Council Resolution 2139". The question is whether this appeal is still realistic, given the regime's determination to fight to the bitter end. All efforts seeking a diplomatic solution to ending the war had failed. Various military gains in recent months have boosted Assad's confidence, which reflects in his seeking a third term in June. This will render the Geneva Communiqué drafted in 2012 null and void.
    The landmark humanitarian resolution 2139 was passed in February amid the flurry of the Geneva II talks, calling on all sides to lift sieges across the country, that entrap more than a quarter of a million Syrians, who are in desperate need of help. Assad was eager to present himself as a responsible leader and the UN's Relief and Works Agency, Unrwa was assured by the regime that the access to the besieged areas would be maintained and expanded.
    Yarmouk is not an isolated case. It is just a sideshow of a wider conflict and a reminder of the dark stubborn realities of a war-torn Syria, with many urban areas bombed to smithereens. The Yarmouk camp, much of which destroyed, was first built as a refuge for Palestinians fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. It became the focus of heavy fighting in late 2012 when armed opposition groups moved in. Since government forces cut off the rebel-held camp in July last year, some 20,000 refugees have been trapped inside, with Syrians among them. It shows vivid images of overwhelming distress and destruction, although the constant shelling has drowned out the desperate cries of the prisoners there.
    Indeed "the diplomatic fallout from the Ukraine crisis threatens to undermine Resolution 2139". The outcome of the civil war in Syria is uncertain, "with the West and Russia at loggerheads". Although Assad has been able to recaputred some strategic areas, large swaths of the country are lost to the rebels or Islamist militants. The Syrian Kurds, who in the past felt discriminated by the Alawite regime may opt for their autonomy. After three years of regime retrocities national reconciliation is unthinkable. Syria is on the brink of falling apart. Yet the international community is divided over the Balkanisation of Syria, fearing it may help the jihadists create an Islamist state.

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