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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.