By Rajan Philips –
Eight years after its birth the so called R2P (Responsibility to Protect) norm of the United Nations is going through yet another traumatic phase in its slower than slow evolution. This time it is in Syria where the international community, far from exercising any responsibility to protect, has been responding with monumental inaction to a catastrophic human tragedy. The civil war that began in March 2011, as an extension of the Arab Spring has become a prolonged winter of violence consuming 100,000 lives and displacing as many as a third of the Syrian population. Seven out of 21 million are refugees in a country that has traditionally had 1.8 million refugees from surrounding countries. For two years, the UN and the international community have been paralysed from doing anything by the veto power play of the Russians and the Chinese in the Security Council.
Last month the Assad regime used chemical weapons in an attack killing 1000 civilians, marking only the fifth time the use of chemical weapons in history and the first time ever their use by a state against its own people. President Obama’s threat of military retaliation as punishment for chemical warfare was beginning to fizzle out as a result of his curiously cautious decision to obtain Congress support in advance. Obama has since been saved from a huge embarrassment by the diplomatic life line thrown by his arch detractor Vladimir Putin. After months of vetoes and weeks of denials, Russia and Syria are now offering to turn over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons for international scrutiny and destruction.
On Friday, the generally cautious Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly sent shockwaves in the New York UN Headquarters with his statement that there was overwhelming evidence of the use of chemical weapons and that President Bashar Assad “has committed many crimes against humanity”. The Secretary General went on to say that Assad will be brought to justice and “there will be, surely, the process of accountability when everything is over.” This is indeed shocking and it did not stop there.
UN’s failure in Syria
Usually known and criticized for his deference to the Security Council Members, the Secretary General candidly admitted to the UN’s failure in Syria, calling it an “incredible situation that the Security Council has not been able to adopt any single resolution.” Better late than never, for the Secretary General could and should have taken the matter to the General Assembly when he found the Security Council hopelessly divided and deadlocked. The General Assembly may have supported sanctions against the Assad regime given its general isolation in the Arab world and among Islamic countries, barring, of course, Iran.
Syria has not been President Obama’s finest hour and Vladimir Putin added insult to injury by lecturing to the Americans in the op-ed page of the New York Times. Never mind, Mr. Putin will not extend such free media courtesies to his opposition in Russia, but Putin and Russia now find themselves in a position that they could have put themselves in several months earlier, far more pro-actively and far more positively, and could have contributed to a diplomatic ending of Syria’s civil war even if not a final resolution of its political conflict.
There is still much distance to go before anything positive can be achieved on the ground in Syria. While it is true that President Obama’s military threat was not masterminded to push Russia into undertaking the diplomatic initiative that it is now championing, it is also equally true that the self-same initiative would not have come about without the American military threat. The Americans are unlikely to withdraw that threat without a binding and unanimous Security Council resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons. And in case the Syrians decided to go along with the Russian initiative as a stalling tactic, the Syrians now find themselves answerable to the Russians who have put their credibility on the line, in addition to risking missile attacks by the US.
On the other hand, after insisting all this while that there can be no solution in Syria without Assad’s exit, the US and the West are now constrained to deal with the Assad regime, directly and indirectly, to implement at least a potential agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons. The main unknown, however, is the response of the rebel groups. Without their participation no diplomatic initiative can survive, and it would be virtually impossible to prevent violence continuing on the ground if there are no talks in Geneva, or elsewhere, with all the main rebel groups represented at the table.
If at all, the diplomatic initiative represents at least a partial and tortuous fulfillment of the R2P norm, and nothing more. R2P itself is meant to prevent only one or more of the principal international crimes identified by the 2005 UN resolution: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. R2P is no mechanism to address the fundamental causes of Syria’s problem. As in the case of Egypt, a permanent political solution must bring together multiple forces now violently pulling in different directions, namely, a secular military, several minority groups who are beneficiaries of Syria’s state secularism, and the alienated majority of Sunni Muslims who make up about 50-60% of the population and are themselves torn between moderate democrats and Jihadists.
What makes the situation even more complicated in Syria is the domination of the military and the state by the minority Alawite group, who are Shiite Muslims. The Alawites have been dominating Syria for fifty years and for more than forty years the country has been under a family dictatorship. Hafez al-Assad began the dynasty in 1970 and his son Bashar al-Assad took over after his father’s death in 2000. It is said that Bashar is a mere figurehead for the military establishment that does not want to relinquish power.
For Russia, the Assad regime represents a bulwark against the tide of Islamic fundamentalism and in seizing the opportunity to protect that bulwark Russia is asserting itself as “still a power of serious consequence” despite its declining influence in Europe and in the world. But the urgencies and priorities of the Syrian people as well as the people elsewhere in the Middle East are quite different and the international community is nowhere near to helping them deal with their internal challenges.
The Commonwealth and Sri Lanka
For whatever reason the world considers chemical weapons to be more horrible than others and even Hitler would not use them as a war weapon, even though he allowed poison gases to be used in the killing of Jews in concentration camps. All Sri Lankans must consider themselves fortunate that despite fears to the contrary, the dreadful chemical weapons were not collected or used in our 30-year long internal strife. This gives no solace to the dead and to those who are left behind to mourn for those who are gone. But the absence of chemical weapons has not insulated Sri Lanka from international involvement. All Sri Lankan governments and the LTTE tried to use such involvement to serve their own interests. After the war, the Rajapaksa government finds itself peculiarly placed under international scrutiny, and the UN High Commissioner’s recent visit was part of that scrutiny.
The sting of Navi Pillay’s visit was at the tail end of her statement – that “Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” This particular comment has provoked the usual cacophony of protests and denials, while there is also a sideshow over the DS Senanyake statue at the Independence Square.
In an exercise of political silliness, Ranil Wickremasinghe has actually written to Navanetham Pillay asking her to confirm or deny the veracity of the reported statement of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa that Ms Pillay had questioned the appropriateness of having the statue of DS Senanyake in the Independence Square. Either Ranil Wickremasinghe is expecting to use Navi Pillay to call Gotabhaya Rajapaksa a liar, or, at the least, blame the government as conspiring to take the statue of the father of the nation out of the square of its independence. But why waste time on this when there is bigger fish to fry in the political pan?
For instance, Mr. Wickremasinghe could have pounced on the internet story (in the Colombo Telegraph) that the Commonwealth Secretariat in London is working in cahoots with the Rajapaksa regime to make sure that Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Summit in November goes ahead as planned notwithstanding continuing concerns abroad over the government’s growing authoritarianism at home. But seriously embarrassing the government will be counter to the Mahinda-Ranil political script: no rocking of each other’s boat, only scratching each other’s back.
According to the Colombo Telegraph story, External Affairs Minister GL Peiris has tried to enlist the support of Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma to counter the offensive statements of Ms. Navi Pillay. The Commonwealth Secretariat has denied that there was a meeting between the Secretary General and the Minister when the latter was in London just as Ms Pillay was leaving Colombo. But two other parts of the story do not appear to have been either confirmed or denied by the Secretariat. First, according to the story, the Commonwealth Secretary General did not share with the members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the legal opinions on the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake that he had solicited and obtained from the former South African Chief Justice and a British jurist. The opinions are believed to have concluded that the impeachment process was flawed and unlawful. Second, the Secretary General is reported to have gone further and advised the Sri Lankan government to have the new Supreme Court overturn the earlier court rulings against the impeachment process in order to retroactively legitimize the sacking of Chief Justice Bandaranayake.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Official Opposition is not giving any traction to this story because Mr. Wickremasinghe was more a silent supporter than a vocal opponent of the impeachment process. What is interesting, however, is that the story shows that the Rajapaksa regime is not without powerful international support outside of Russia and China notwithstanding its complaints to the contrary. It seems to have in the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, a counter to the UNHRC in Geneva. As for the Secretariat, one would think that it could have used its good offices to advise the Sri Lankan government that impeaching its Chief Justice was not the proper preparation to host the Commonwealth’s next summit. The government instead seems to have received an improper advice. So much for international, rather Commonwealth (Secretariat), responsibility.