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Crisis in Syria
II. Crimes against humanity perpetrated by Syrian government
a. Syrian government use of excessive force against protestors
b. Access denied to monitoring and humanitarian groups
III. Responses to the Syrian crackdown on protesters
a. Regional response
b. Response from the United Nations
c. Individual government responses
d. Response from Civil Society
Massive human rights violations in Syria have been committed as Syrian security forces have responded to protestors with extreme violence, resulting in an estimated death toll of over 5,400, according to the UN. Evidence of systematic acts of brutality, including torture and arbitrary arrests, point to a clear policy by Syrian military and civilian leadership amounting to crimes against humanity. Under international law, commanders are responsible for the commission of international crimes by their subordinates if the commanders knew about the violations. In keeping with the norm of the Responsibility to Protect, UN Member States, regional organizations and governments must urgently work together towards an end to the violence.
Protests asking for the release of political prisoners began mid-March 2011 and were immediately met by Syrian security forces who at first detained and attacked protestors with batons, and later opened gunfire, and deployed tanks and naval ships against civilians. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to halt the violence and implement meaningful reforms demanded by protestors such as the lifting of emergency law, broader political representation and a freer media. Assad continued to deny responsibility for the attacks on protestors, placing the blame for the violence on armed groups and foreign conspirators instead. On 16 February President Assad called for a referendum to be held on 26 February that would end single party rule in Syria; however governments, such as the United States, analysts, and members of the opposition expressed reluctance that the promise of political reform would be upheld, and noted that conducting a referendum during such a crisis was not a necessary course of action to end the violence.
As the conflict wore on, demands grew more splintered and protestors began to organize. One of the main opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC), is an umbrella organization that was formed by activists in Istanbul on 24 August. The SNC has received economic support from Turkey, who hosts an SNC office. The organization also met with the United Kingdom and United States. The SNC called for the Syrian government to be overthrown by a united opposition, rejected dialogue with Assad, and, though officially against military intervention, requested international protection of the population. In contrast, another main group, the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) advocated for dialogue with the government, believing that toppling the Assad regime would lead to further chaos. On 31 December, these two groups signed an agreement to unite against the government. Another group, the Free Syrian Army, comprised of an estimated 15,000 defected Syrian soldiers, executed retaliatory attacks against Syrian forces.
UN High Commission for Human Rights Navi Pillay marked the death toll at more than 5,000 when she briefed the UN Security Council in early December. Between 26 December 2011, when independent monitors mandated by the Arab League arrived in Syria, and 10 January 2012, there were at least 400 deaths, according to UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynne Pascoe. Though the death toll continued to increase with the ongoing violence in the months following, the UN stopped releasing estimates in January 2012 given the growing difficulty to verify casualties.
Humanitarian situation in Syria worsens amid continued violence
Clashes between government forces and the Syrian opposition continued into April 2012, despite efforts by the international community to end the violence. The appointment of Kofi Annan as UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy to Syria led to a 16 March presentation to the Security Council of a six-point plan, which included a ceasefire deadline of 10 April, the end of government troop movements towards population centers, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troop withdrawal. Contrary to skepticism from the international community - including France and the United States - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accepted Annan’s proposal for the ceasefire. The Security Council, after being briefed by Annan on 2 April, issued a presidential statement on 5 April in support of the plan and calling on the government to follow through on its pledge, and on all parties to cease armed violence. Additional demands made by the Syrian government on 8 April - including a written ceasefire agreement and observer mission deployment occurring simultaneously with the ceasefire – were refused by the Syrian opposition; the armed opposition group Free Syrian Army warned they would resume attacks if the government did not adhere to ceasefire deadlines.
Despite the 10 April deadline – and complete ceasefire deadline of 12 April - set by Kofi Annan, attacks continued with no sign of troop withdrawal. According to Syrian National Council representatives in Geneva, over 1,000 civilians were killed in the first two weeks of April, with shelling and mortar fire in the northern village of Marea and the city of Homs on 10 April. Reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch highlighted ongoing rights abuses, from the arrest of minors to extrajudicial executions. The impact of the conflict began taking its toll on the countries bordering Syria, with over 24,000 Syrians occupying the Turkish refugee camp of Kilis, which reportedly came under fire from government forces on 9 April; meanwhile Lebanese opposition leader Amin Gemayel has voiced concern that the fighting could spill over into Lebanon.
Syrian government use of excessive force against protestors
The Syrian government’s violent response to protests since mid-March has left over 5,400 people dead as of 10 January 2012, including at least 300 children, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Thousands more have been wounded, arbitrarily arrested, tortured and disappeared as protestors and their families within and outside of Syria have been targeted. Under-Secretary-General B. Lynn Pascoe informed Security Council members on 27 April 2011 that sources in Syria were “consistently reporting the use of artillery fire against unarmed civilians; door-to-door arrest campaigns; the shooting of medical personnel who attempt to aid the wounded; raids against hospitals, clinics and mosques and the purposeful destruction of medical supplies and arrest of medical personnel.” Over ten thousand refugees fled the country since March, many to Lebanon and Turkey, as noted in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Commission of Inquiry’s report to the General Assembly published on 23 November 2011. Amnesty International stated in its 24 October report that wounded civilians seeking medical treatment in at least four hospitals faced torture and other forms of ill-treatment from security officials and medical staff. Additionally, medical professionals attempting to help the wounded engaged in protests were threatened with arrest and torture. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported as early as June that the attacks by the government reached the level of crimes against humanity in multiple cities across Syria, such as Daraa and Homs. Later on 15 December HRW named over 70 Syrian commanders who imposed a ‘shoot to kill’ policy against protestors, making clear that these crimes were knowingly committed against the civilian population. In January 2012, violence in Syria escalated as evidenced by reports of a “massacre” in the district of Karm al-Zeitoun on 26 January which resulted in the death of more than 74 Syrian citizens over two days. Further reports were released by HRW on 3 February stating that authorities had detained and tortured children with impunity.
Access denied to monitoring and humanitarian groups
As President Bashar al-Assad deployed troops and tanks to meet protesters with deadly force, he compromised civilian access to necessities including food, water and medical supplies. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) raised awareness of the forced humanitarian crisis in its 28 July report, Bashar Al Assad: Criminal Against Humanity. A 25 October Amnesty International report provided detailed findings that civilian access to hospitals was also limited by the ongoing violence and by government control of medical staff and facilities. President Assad blocked access to the country of most outside humanitarian and human rights groups, the OHCHR fact-finding mission and the OHCHR Commission of Inquiry. Information from within Syria on the state of the humanitarian crisis remained limited as a result of the refusal of entry for journalists as well as cracking down on internet and social media use.
Following weeks of negotiations, the Syrian government agreed on 19 December to allow an independent monitoring mission full freedom of movement within Syria as part of a peace initiative brokered by the League of Arab States. However, shortly after the mission began reports emerged stating that the Syrian government was obstructing monitors’ access. Human Rights Watch reported on 27 December that Syrian security forces were moving detainees to more sensitive military sites where access to monitors would not be readily provided. HRW also reported that military personnel had in some cases been given police identification cards, violating the terms of the Arab League initiative for Syrian troop withdrawal. On 5 January, Syrian activists claimed the Syrian government was deceiving observers, who had begun their mission on 26 December, by painting military vehicles to look like police cars and taking observers to areas loyal to the government.
The international community grew increasingly alarmed as the violence in Syria escalated. However, compared to the crisis in Libya, which saw widespread international support behind an early response, regional and international organizations proved more hesitant in responding to the political and humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The League of Arab States
The League of Arab States initially remained passive in its response to the Syrian government’s crackdown, stressing that it would not take action itself in response to the crisis. The League issued a statement on 25 April that condemned the use of violence against protestors in Arab countries without highlighting Syria or proposing any measures to end human rights violations. Eventually, on 7 August, the League released a statement calling for a “serious dialogue” between Syrian authorities and protestors.
As the conflict wore on, the League took a stronger position. On 10 September Secretary-General of the League Nabil El Araby met with President Assad and urged him to stop all violent attacks on civilians, reaching an agreement for the implementation of reforms. However it wasn’t until 2 November that the Arab League secured Syria’s agreement to implement a peace plan, which included a promise to halt violence, release prisoners, allow for media access and remove military presence from civilian areas. Even then, according to Amnesty International, over 100 civilians were killed in the week immediately after Assad agreed to the plan.
In response, the League suspended Syria’s membership on 12 November, and in an unprecedented move, imposed economic sanctions on 27 November. On 19 December Syria signed a peace deal, agreeing to an Arab observer mission for an initial period of one month while explicitly ruling out intervention and protecting Syrian sovereignty. The initiative also included a ceasefire, the release of detainees and military withdrawal.
As the one-month mandate of the Arab League’s observer mission in Syria came to a close, the League met on 22 January in Cairo to discuss the mission’s future. Following the meeting, Arab leaders, in addition to extending the mission's mandate and providing additional equipment for observers, called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cede power to his vice president and form a national unity government. This plan was immediately rejected by Syrian authorities who called the plan “flagrant interference” in Syrian affairs. Meanwhile, the monitoring mission launched by the Arab League in December 2011 suffered additional setbacks as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States withdrew their support on 23 and 24 January respectively, citing Syria’s failure to implement the peace plan. Though Arab leaders initially agreed to extend the mandate of the monitoring mission for another month on 27 January, they later suspended the mission on 29 January due to "critical" worsening conditions. After the Security Council failed to reach a consensus on the Arab League’s strengthened stance, resulting in a double veto of a resolution on 4 February, Arab leaders agreed on 12 February to open contact with Syrian opposition and ask the UN to form a joint peacekeeping force to halt the violence in Syria.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
The GCC - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – issued a statement on 7 February recalling their envoys and expelling Syrian ambassadors. The statement was a strong condemnation of the “mass slaughter against the unarmed Syrian people,” and urged Arab leaders to take "decisive measures in response to this dangerous escalation against the Syrian people."
The European Union (EU)
The European Council announced on 9 May 2011 that it would impose an arms embargo on Syria and a visa ban and asset freeze on 13 individuals identified as responsible for the conflict. The EU later imposed targeted economic sanctions, additional travel bans and asset freezes against Syrian government and military officials on 1 August. In a statement issued on the same day, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton reminded the Syrian government of “its responsibility to protect the population” and denounced attacks on civilians in Hama and other Syrian cities. The EU also adopted a ban on oil imports from Syria to increase pressure on the regime on 2 September, and continued to expand its economic sanctions on Syria for the duration of the conflict. On 23 January the European Union announced an expansion of economic sanctions to twenty-two more individuals. The EU gave its support on 13 February to the Arab League’s call for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force.
Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and RtoP
On 2 June, the Advisers reminded the Syrian government of its responsibility to protect the civilian population, and called for an investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law. Later, on 21 July the Advisers reiterated their alarm at the systematic and widespread attacks targeting civilians and peaceful protestors and their call for an investigation, stating that “the scale and gravity of the violations indicate a serious possibility that crimes against humanity may have been committed and continue to be committed in Syria.” The Special Advisers issued a third statement on 10 February calling for “a renewed sense of determination and urgency to prevent further atrocities against the people of Syria”. The Special Advisers reminded that in order to uphold the responsibility to protect, Syria and the international community must “build trust among communities within Syria, (…) facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need, and (…) encourage regional cooperation in advancing human rights and preventing further rounds of violence against civilian populations.”
Human Rights Council and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
The Human Rights Council and OHCHR were seized of the situation in Syria early on and a Special Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) was held on the crisis on 29 April. In a Resolution adopted during the session, the Council condemned the crackdown and called for the OHCHR to dispatch a fact-finding mission to investigate into human rights violations. The Mission, which was successfully launched on 15 March, released findings on 15 September that the widespread and systematic attacks against the Syrian population could amount to crimes against humanity, including murder, disappearance and torture as well as deprivation of liberty and persecution. The Report also called on the Syrian government to prevent impunity, allow the safe return of refugees, release all detainees, and facilitate further investigation by the OHCHR and the Human Rights Council.
From 22-23 August 2011, the HRC held a second Special Session on Syria to investigate the ongoing human rights violations, subsequently adopting a Resolutionmandating an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations in Syria. The Commission’s Report was released on 28 November, detailing extensive human rights violations occurring in Syria and expressing concern that crimes against humanity have been committed. On 19 September, High Commissioner Navi Pillay urged the Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court, a recommendation she reiterated on 12 December as she warned that Syria was at risk of civil war.
As the crisis remained unresolved and the international community failed to take decisive action, Pillay stated on 8 February, “At their 2005 Summit, World leaders unanimously agreed that each individual State has the responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity and other international crimes...They also agreed that when a State is manifestly failing to protect its population from serious international crimes, the international community as a whole has the responsibility to step in by taking protective action in a collective, timely and decisive manner...The virtual carte blanche now granted to the Syrian Government betrays the spirit and the word of this unanimous decision. It is depriving the population of the protection they so urgently need.”
The Security Council was a source of disappointment for many due to its consistent inability to form a consensus around the crisis. The Council released a presidential statement on 3 August that condemned the violence while reaffirming the Council’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty…and territorial integrity of Syria.”
September saw renewed discussions in the Council on a possible Resolution, but Permanent Members Russia and China vetoed the text, which came to a vote on 4 October 2011. The text included the condemnation of ‘grave and systematic human rights violations’ and included a warning of possible sanctions should the situation continue to deteriorate. Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa abstained from the vote, while opponents of the Resolution argued that the Council needed to prioritize a Syrian-led dialogue rather than condemn the government. The Resolution’s critics also cited concerns over the implementation of Resolution 1973 in Libya as reason for caution over Syria. Civil society organizations and several Member States announced their dismay at the double veto.
On 15 December, Russia introduced a draft resolution in the Council. The draft condemned the violence committed by all parties in Syria and heavily emphasized that the Resolution did not mandate a military intervention. Though Security Council Members welcomed the draft, it never came to a vote as some Member States, including France, Germany, and the United States felt that the resolution language was too lenient on the Syrian government.
In late January, Secretary General of the League of Arab States Nabil El Araby traveled to UN Headquarters with Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani to seek support for the Arab League’s 22 January plan which called for Assad to transition out of power and for the formation of a unity government. An Arab and Western supported draft resolution based, in part, on the Arab League’s plan was introduced to Members of the Security Council by Morocco on 27 January. The resolution comprised four key aspects: an end to all acts of violence; release of detainees; withdrawal of armed forces from civilian areas; and freedom of access to the UN, NGOs and human rights monitors. During a 31 January U.N. Security Council high-level debate on the situation in Syria, where al-Thani and El Araby briefed the Council and advocated for the adoption of the resolution, statements of support were presented by the Foreign Ministers of France, US, UK, Guatemala, Portugal, Morocco and Germany.
In the statement by Guatemalan Minister of Foreign Affairs Harold Caballeros, he reminded Security Council members of their duty to act under the principles of RtoP, recalling “the obligation of all States to observe certain norms of conduct in relation to their own populations”. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé recalled every state’s “responsibility to protect its civilian population”. Opposition was voiced by the Permanent Representatives of Syria, Russia and China. South Africa and India urged all sides to work with the Arab League in a Syrian-led process, one that respects the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria.
On 21 March 2012, the UN Security Council adoped a presidential statement expressing "its gravest concern" regarding the situation in Syria. The statement voiced full support for the United Nations-Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and called on the Syrian government and opposition to work with the Envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and the implementation of his initial six-point proposal. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the "clear and unified voice of the Council", expressing his hope that the united action by the Council will mark a turning point in the international community's response to the crisis.
The Third Committee (human rights) of the General Assembly (GA) passed a Resolution on 22 November that condemned the Syrian government’s prolonged crackdown against protesters. A total of 122 states voted for the resolution, with 13 against and 41 abstentions. Introduced by Britain, France, and Germany, the resolution carried no legal weight, but called on the Syrian government to end all human rights abuses and urged Assad to immediately implement the Arab League’s November peace plan. On 21 November, the Syrian envoy to the UN characterized the Resolution as declaring “diplomatic war” against the country. However, the vote at the GA was marked by strong regional support for the Resolution, with Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all co-sponsors of the Resolution – voting in favor. Russia and China abstained from voting, along with India and South Africa.
On 19 December, the GA adopted a second resolution calling for Syria to implement a peace plan brokered by the Arab League, which included allowing observers into the country. The Resolution, which passed with 133 votes in favor, 11 against and 43 abstentions, also called on Syria to cooperate with the independent international commission of inquiry establish by the Human Rights Council.
The General Assembly was briefed by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a meeting on Syria held on 13 February. Ms. Pillay again recalled her earlier statements urging the Security Council to refer the situation of Syria to the International Criminal Court so as to ensure that crimes do not go unpunished. On 16 February, a third resolution, circulated by Saudi Arabia, was passed in the GA with 137 votes in favor, 12 against and 17 abstentions. Based on the vetoed Security Council resolution text of 4 February, the resolution issued support for the League of Arab States’ peace plan in Syria and stressed the importance of ensuring accountability, the need to end impunity and “hold to account those responsible for human rights violations, including those violations that may amount to crimes against humanity”. The resolution further called for the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy to the country.
United Nations-Arab League Joint Special Envoy to Syria
On 23 February, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby announced the appointment of Kofi Annan as UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy to Syria, in accordance with GA Resolution A/RES/66/253. In a UN-Arab League statement on March 7, former Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Al Kidwa was announced as Deputy Joint Special Envoy, and was joined on 20 March by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. The Deputy Special Envoys are tasked to assist Annan in the exercise of his mandate.
In a meeting on 8 March in Cairo, the Arab League and Russia - in conjunction with Kofi Annan - ruled out military intervention, believing that it would only worsen the situation. Annan began talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 10 March, only to leave Syria without reaching a ceasefire agreement. Both Assad and the leader of Syria’s main opposition group rejected dialogue, with the opposition saying negotiation was “unrealisitic” and advocating for military force.
Following a presentation in mid-March by Annan to the UN of a six-point proposal for ending the violence in Syria, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on 22 March issuing support for the plan. Annan’s six-point proposal calls for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of forces by both the government and opposition, humanitarian aid deliveries, an inclusive political process and respect for freedom of association and demonstration.
Under-Secretary General on Humanitarian Affairs
In response to escalating conflict, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on 22 February for Under-Secretary General on Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, to “visit Syria to assess the humanitarian situation and renew the call for urgent humanitarian access”. On 7 February, the Under-Secretary General met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim in Damascus, before visiting the neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, an area where fighting between government and opposition forces has been centered.
Qatar was the first Arab state to recall its ambassador in Syria on 21 July, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain following suit on 8 August, and Tunisia and Morocco doing the same on 11 August and 17 November. Traditionally an ally of Syria’s, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced in a meeting with President Assad that Ankara had “run out of patience” with the situation on 9 August. Following several statements condemning the violence, Turkey imposed economic sanctions on Syria on 30 November.
On 15 January, a US news agency quoted Qatari leader Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani who suggested that Arab troops be sent to Syria to end the conflict. Syria immediately condemned Qatar’s remark, warning it would jeopardize Syrian-Arab relations and promising to “stand firm” against any intervention. After Arab leaders affirmed on 23 January that they were not in favor of a military intervention, Qatar maintained its leadership role in responding to the crisis, briefing the Security Council alongside the Secretary-General of the Arab League on 27 January.
Outside the region, the United States reacted quickly by signing an executive order on 29 April 2011 imposing sanctions on three Syrian officials responsible for human rights violations, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for providing material support to the Syrian government for the suppression of civilians and the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate for participating in crackdowns on civilians. Additional sanctions were issued on 18 May targeting President Assad and six government aides, and Syrian oil imports were banned on 18 August. The US also joined several European nations, including UK, France and Germany, in calling for Assad to step down on 18 August. Some governments recalled their ambassadors to Syria, including Italy on 2 August, Switzerland on 18 August, and France on 16 November. On 7 September French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé accused the Syrian government of committing crimes against humanity against the Syrian population.
Russia was criticized by many governments and civil society for its consistent support for Assad’s government even as it deplored the ongoing violence. Russia has been a long-time arms exporter to Syria, and throughout the conflict worked to ensure both that the opposition’s violence was internationally recognized and that Assad’s sovereignty was protected, even in its 15 December draft resolution in the Security Council. Other states were similarly hesitant to condemn Assad, including the India, Brazil, South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA), which released a statement on 11 August calling for an immediate end to all violence and for all parties to exercise restraint. However, the statement did not call for further action to protect civilians and, in regards to the violent measures carried out by the Syrian government, merely noted that President Assad “acknowledged that some mistakes had been made by security forces.” Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, stated on 7 February that the international community should try to “put the parties at the table and to arrange dialogue among them in order to find a political solution without further bloodshed.”
Following the second double veto in February, Member States remained seized of the situation, as evidenced by the U.S. government when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the formation of a “friends of democratic Syria” on 5 February. Echoing Clinton’s remarks, the Prime Minister of Turkey announced on 7 February that Turkey would prepare “a new initiative with those countries that stand by the people, not the Syrian government.”
Civil society called for a swift, decisive and unified response by international and regional bodies to end the targeting of civilians in Syria and bring the perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. Please see the op-eds, analyses, and calls to action from civil society actors, which related the responsibility to protect to the crisis in Syria.