In Syria, Human Rights are Falling Quickly Out of Reach/China
Syria is no stranger to war crimes. The UN Reported in March of 2017 that in Aleppo alone, the Syrian government has dropped chlorine bombs on its own citizens, purposefully targeted hospitals, and deliberately attacked humanitarian aid groups. Moreover, the Syrian government has used siege warfare as a tactic to force citizens to surrender. Syrian troops surround cities, preventing the entry and exit of not only civilians but also crucial supplies, including food. In addition, the Syrian government has committed mass executions, up to 13,000 people, since the civil war’s beginning. Many of these acts of violence amount to war crimes under humanitarian law and clear violations of human rights. However, the United Nations (UN) is severely limited in the actions it can take. UN Security Council resolutions require unanimous approval by the 15 Security Council members. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s actions are vetoed time and time again by Russia. Russia is a key ally of Syria and has used its Security Council veto 11 times to prevent the Syrian government from being punished. Russia views the Syrian rebels opposing Assad as the cause of conflict and therefore refuses to support resolutions that solely blame the Syrian government. Similarly, China has also leveraged its veto power to prevent sanctions against the Syrian regime, citing its history of noninterference in other countries’ affairs. Due to vetos, the United Nations ended its investigation of Syrian chemical attacks and the Security Council was unable to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. These actions create a “dangerous stalemate” in Syria. The role and power of outside actors in the Syrian conflict make widespread calls for Syrian human rights difficult to achieve.
Yet, it would be remiss to ignore the United States’ failure to achieve human rights in Syria as well. Amnesty International elucidates that the United States has used white phosphorous munitions, an act that may be a war crime, killing at least 14 Syrian citizens. The United Nations reveals that in the first four months of President Trump’s presidency, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS has caused a “staggering loss of civilian life.” Yet, even when the United States urges restraint and limits action, humanitarian crises unfold. For instance, President Obama’s decision to not enforce the red line after Assad used chemical weapons is argued by many as a sign of U.S. weakness on human rights. Moreover, Human Rights Watch notes that U.S. failure to crack down on Assad has led to “brutality unleashed by the Syrian government [which] has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians”. Although the United States has not committed crimes to the severity of Assad or Putin in Syria, the U.S. certainly cannot wash its hands of guilt in worsening the Syrian conflict.
Beyond a focus on international institutions to enforce human rights in Syria, outside groups play a role in bringing attention to the crisis at hand. For instance, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability has over 750,000 Syrian government documents and others have smuggled 50,000 images of detainees within Syrian prisons. Kevin Jon Heller, a professor at the University of London, believes that this evidence capturing Syria’s crimes could be analogous to that used in Nuremberg trials following World War II. Similarly, Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor believes that as the world is actively working against Assad, he could potentially be removed from power. Yet, the gathering of data on the Syrian government is only truly effective when the government can be tried in international court. However, as the international community is more and more limited by Russia’s actions, it becomes imperative for individual nations to take unilateral action.
The cries of “Never Again” follow Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Holocaust, but the chants ring hollow as the Syrian crisis enters its seventh year. It is time for the United States, Russia, and the rest of the international community to act and ensure that human rights are truly preserved.