Saturday, August 6, 2011
The Security Council’s Pro-Syrian ‘Defiance Coalition’ Crumbles
By Raghida Dergham in New York
At long last, the members of the UN Security Council have united in condemning the broad violation of human rights and use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities, and have placed the regime in Damascus under observation and accountability. Having hitherto categorically opposed the discussion of the Syrian crisis at the Security Council, the so-called ‘defiance coalition’ has crumbled, and its members have now joined the “consensus” over the need to break the deadly silence on Syria, as hundreds of civilians there have fallen victim to the brutality of their government.
This coalition in fact comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, or the BRICs. These countries had strongly resisted involving the Security Council in the Syrian crisis, using the Libyan predicament as a pretext. To the BRICs, the Western countries and NATO have gone too far in their understanding of Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 on Libya, which were, as a result, interpreted as a mandate for carrying out military operations that the BRICs did not have in mind when they approved the two resolutions.
The BRICs then overcame their demurral, allowing the Security Council to adopt a clear position on Syria. By contrast, the Arab League and with it the majority of Arab countries have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, and abstain from taking a stance on Syria similar to theirs on Libya. Whether this has stemmed from their duplicity or their argument that strategic circumstances in the two countries differ, the essence of the official Arab stance is to forsake the Syrian people, and the stance of the Arab League – as disclosed by its new Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby – reduces it to the level of an institution that represents regimes and governments exclusively, and not the Arab peoples, their rights and their aspirations for democracy and freedom. On the other hand, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proven much bolder in defending the Arabs peoples, and refused to remain silent vis-à-vis the oppression and the violence they are being subjected to at the hands of their ruling regimes. He has raised the banner of human rights high and declared his absolute devotion to the principle of ending impunity. Ban Ki-moon persisted in contacting the leaders concerned, and never stopped trying, even when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to take the UN Secretary General’s phone calls in protest of the latter’s criticism against the Syrian leader. This week, when the military stepped up its operations and killed 140 people in Hama in a single day, Ban Ki-moon did not hesitate to say that Bashar al-Assad had “lost all sense of humanity”. He made this statement while deadly silence continued to mar the Arab League, as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which had a staunch position on the Libyan crisis, but was nearly absent with regard to Syria.
This week’s developments at the Security Council were also worthy of note, in light of the stance taken by Lebanon, the only Arab member of the UNSC. Lebanon had taken the initiative over Libya, when Lebanese Ambassador Nawaf Salam carried the “document” designating the Arab League’s official position, with a view to gather support for the stances issued by the Council in this vein. Several precedents were recorded as a result, among them tasking the International Criminal Court (ICC) with investigating crimes against humanity – and the ensuing arrest warrants issued by the ICC against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his son. Yet when it came to similar violations in Syria, the role of Lebanon at the Security Council regressed, from taking the initiative to being elusive and silent, as Lebanon dodged its responsibilities. In truth, the Security Council members were very understanding of this, in view of the “special” relationship between Lebanon and Syria, in the sense that the Lebanese government is subjected to the dictates of the Syrian government.
The novel thing about Lebanon’s stance was the fact that it “disassociated” itself from the presidential statement issued by the Security Council, which called on Syrian authorities “to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under applicable international law”, asserting that “those responsible for the violence should be held accountable”.
Seldom does the Security Council issue a statement that does not meet the approval of all 15 of its members, although there perhaps were one or two rare precedents in the 1970s. The BRICs, in particular Russia, had tried to hide behind Lebanon and its inability to join the consensus over a presidential statement. However, the deteriorating situation in Syria forced them to allow the Security Council to issue some kind of statement, albeit preferring it to be a presidential statement rather than a formal resolution.
The Lebanese government, however, opted not to join this consensus, in order not to antagonize Damascus, and also out of fear that the Lebanese government would collapse as a result. At the same time, Lebanon did not want to bear responsibility for obstructing the presidential statement or to allow any party to use its stance as a pretext to do the same. This is why it opted for the idea of Lebanon “disassociating itself” from the presidential statement, as Deputy Permanent Representative Caroline Ziade said at the Security Council, stating that Lebanon believes that the statement “does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria”.
Thus, the Lebanese government dodged both a quandary and its responsibility at the same time. It did not stand in the way of the Security Council’s unity and consensus over a strong and firm statement that used a resolute language with Damascus. As one person said, Lebanon raised its arm to allow consensus to pass instead of bowing before pressures to reject any condemnation of Damascus, or to obstruct the presidential statement, something that would most likely have led to a resolution being issued by the UNSC. Yet at the end of the day, and whether it is a presidential statement or a formal resolution, a unanimous stance has been taken in condemning the Syrian authorities’ crackdown on civilians. The Lebanese government could not join in, however, in view of the “special relationship”. However, one must state that this relationship is not predicated on real independence, but rather the contrary. This of course is something that this government may be reproached for, and is indeed a source of embarrassment for the country.
Ultimately, every Security Council member state behaved in accordance with their responsibilities, even when some had acted previously with a great deal of demurral, defiance and obstructionism of accountability, while the Syrian authorities continued to shed blood. The stances of the BRICs thus seemed as if they were encouraging Damascus to go even further in committing its violations, as the regime felt that it was above being held to account and under the protection of the defiance coalition at the Security Council. Thus, those countries have done harm to the Syrian people, as they have prompted the Syrian regime to delude itself into thinking that it would not be held to account.
But the spectre of accountability and prosecution will continue to loom over Arab regimes, which have seen their people come out into the streets to demand that they leave and step down. This is while a difference in the magnitude of these regimes’ fear from international versus local accountability and prosecution indeed exists. The sight of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lying on a hospital bed inside a caged dock and under trial is doubtless a terrifying scene for any head of state watching his people rise up against him. Perhaps, as some have said, the trial of Hosni Mubarak, with his two sons Alaa and Gamal present with him in the dock in the white uniforms mandatory for defendants, will prompt the ruling class in the Arab countries to cling even more to power and to refuse to step down, out of fear of being subjected to a popular or official trial.
But this terrifying scene could perhaps also prompt those in power in Libya, Yemen and Syria, to consider the idea of stepping down and leaving in a more positive light. It could lead to doing away with their slogan of “I shall never leave”, because staying in the country would carry the risk of their being killed or prosecuted, while leaving with guarantees may ensure them a lesser extent of accountability.
The presence of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Saudi Arabia protects him, in effect, from facing the possibility of prosecution or accountability inside Yemen. The initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had presented him with the idea of stepping down and not being held to account or prosecuted. After he stalled for a long time in responding to this initiative, the events on the ground and his injury took him to Saudi Arabia for treatment, something that brought him in effect outside the scope of accountability, as he is to all intents and purposes stepping down from power.
Meanwhile, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi refused to listen to the advice given to him and to the offers for him to step down and leave before the ICC issues arrest warrants against him and his son, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, on charges of committing war crimes. This has reduced the possibilities of ensuring his safe departure. Even when countries not party to the ICC had presented Gaddafi with the idea of stepping down and offered him their willingness to host him away from prosecution, he presumed that, even if he became – as he now is – wanted by international justice, he would be above being held to account. He assumed that his case would follow the model of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s case, who was able to remain in power, and has even continued to receive Western and international officials, despite the arrest warrant issued against him by the ICC. By doing this he took the risk of possibly being prosecuted at home alongside being held to account by international justice. Perhaps the sight of Hosni Mubarak in the caged dock will push Muammar Gaddafi to reconsider, step down and leave to some corner of Africa. But then perhaps it will have the opposite effect.
As for Bashar Al-Assad, he does not seem likely to admit that the collapse of his regime has become inevitable, and still believes that those who will be held to account and prosecuted instead are those who dared to defy his regime and protest in Syrian cities. The sight of Hosni Mubarak in the caged dock may indeed lead him to reconsider and recalculate, and to decide that he would not expose himself to any local trial or international accountability. Rather, he may prove more intelligent than the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and step down in an orderly and respectable fashion. But yet the opposite may happen.
What is perfectly clear is that a radical change has taken place in the stances taken by the international community, and by important and influential countries both in the Security Council and outside of it. Meanwhile, the US Administration has indeed resolved to irrevocably step up pressures on the regime and cut off its lifelines. This is while Europe has been clear and determined in irreversibly abandoning the regime in Damascus. And as regards Russia, it has begun to reconsider its stances, and so have China, India, Brazil and South Africa. So perhaps what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said reflects the general atmosphere, when he pleaded with Bashar Al-Assad to “please listen more attentively”, adding that “just continuing like this is not sustainable” and that “he cannot, and they cannot, continue like this, killing their people”.
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 05/08/2011