International players fiddle while Syria burns

Mon, Feb 4, 2013, 00:00

OPINION:UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has warned of ‘hell’ if the crisis cannot be resolved

The United Nations human rights office has estimated that more than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s bloody civil war, surpassing the Syrian opposition’s estimates by one-third.

UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay blamed the entire international community, including the UN, for having “fiddled around the edges while Syria burns”.

As the violence threatens to engulf the region, the question remains what can be done to halt the slaughter of innocent civilians.

There are echoes of UN inaction in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. A recent report from the organisation was also strongly critical of officials for failing to protect civilians during the final days of the civil war in Sri Lanka when an estimated 30,000 civilians died.

The UN should be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities. Unfortunately, the international community through the auspices of the UN is failing to meet its obligations in Syria. Should the Arab League or other regional powers intervene? The Emir of Qatar and others have challenged the organisation’s efforts at resolving the conflict through negotiation by calling on Arab militaries to help stop the bloodshed in Syria.

The evidence suggests that intervention by third states in what are essentially civil wars more often than not leads to more violence. This in turn leads to an increase in casualties, especially among the civilian population. Ceasefires are often greeted with cynicism. What is not always appreciated is that such ceasefires, however flawed, invariably lead to a reduction in battle casualties. This alone is reason to support them.

Under resourced

Syria poses a potential threat to the whole region, especially Israel and Lebanon.

There is an urgent need for funding as UN agencies are seriously under resourced and the current political impasse is being used as an excuse for inaction on all fronts. Some of the neighbouring states are among the wealthiest oil producers in the world. Recent pledges of aid are welcome, but much more is needed to assist the refugees.

The concept of humanitarian corridors and safe zones to get the aid to those in need must be considered, preferably with the consent of the parties. A no-fly zone is another possible option, but direct military intervention to support the rebels will not reduce civilian casualties.

Pressure must be applied to all parties to reach a political settlement.

Outside powers supporting both sides bear a huge responsibility for what is happening. In the short term, British prime minister David Cameron’s idea of providing safe passage out of Syria to president Bashar al-Assad also has merit, though ultimately all those involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity must be held accountable.

Some commentators have suggested that a break up of Syria similar to that of the former Yugoslavia might be a solution. However, experts agree that the outcome is more likely to resemble the anarchy characteristic of warlord-controlled Somalia. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has warned of “hell” if no political solution is reached to end the crisis.

Military intervention is usually associated with increased battle deaths, though this alone is not a reason for doing nothing. Some argue that the war must be given a chance to take its natural course.

But the cost in human suffering is unacceptable. If the fighting continues it is estimated that casualties will reach 100,000 in 2013.

There have been several reports that the fall of the Assad regime is imminent. However, no one can actually predict how long this will take or what the outcome might be.

Evidence demonstrates that peace agreements are more likely to produce a sustainable outcome. Russian support for the transfer of power to a transitional government is critical to achieving this. Even when peace agreements fail, they are still accompanied by big reductions in casualties.

It is a mistake to argue that the Syrian crisis has marked the end of UN diplomacy. Russia and the West were able to find agreement on Yemen.

China and the US have collaborated to keep the peace between Sudan and South Sudan. Syria is on the verge of disintegration and the stalemate in the Security Council is facilitating this. Attention must also focus on what will happen when the conflict ends. Plans need to be put in place for peacebuilding and transitional justice, with special emphasis on the rule of law to prevent revenge killings and further sectarian strife. Members of the security council must find a way to resolve their differences.

Prof Ray Murphy is co-director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the School of Law, NUI Galway. He recently returned from working with Syrian groups in the region and has also served on UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East

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