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SYRIA: Civilians Pay Heavy Price for Political Deadlock

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 9 2011 (IPS) - These days in Syria, “people dare not step a foot outside their homes because they’re being shot at. And so they pass food from home to home by ropes through windows,” Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters Friday.

“Communities are under siege,” she said bluntly.

According to the U.N., over 4,000 civilians, including women and children, have been killed by security forces since the Syrian uprising began in March, in what an independent inquiry established in August by the Human Rights Council said amounted to crimes against humanity.

The inquiry’s report, published at the end of November, found “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights”.

Yet despite the tales of horrific violence, which Pillay has warned could degenerate into a civil war, especially as army defections increase, the international community remains at an impasse, with leaders and governments seeming to grow only more entrenched in their views on how they – and others – should address ongoing events in Syria.

On Friday, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, a network of activists around the country, reported 35 killed by security forces and the army.

Yet in an interview with Barbara Walters on Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied that he’d authorised the crackdown, insisting, as he has since March, that foreign elements and terrorists were causing the unrest.

Political stagnation

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has remained in a deadlock since March, with Russia and China, both of whom exercise veto power in the council, refusing to support resolutions that might result in sanctions or a referral of members of the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court.

In October, those countries vetoed a draft resolution, demonstrating how nations have struggled to agree on a unified approach to the human rights violations in Syria and underscoring how different countries’ motives have influenced their policies towards Syria.

Although Russia has cited concerns that a Security Council resolution would lead to military intervention and a repeat of what happened in Libya, the country is also reported to be selling arms to the Syrian government.

Reuters reported on Dec. 1 that Russia delivered anti- ship cruise missiles to Syria in a deal estimated to be worth 300 million dollars.

Russia’s acting on geo-strategic interests, however, is more the rule than the exception, argues Jim Paul of the Global Policy Forum, and other countries, including the U.S., are no less responsible for their responses to the violence in Syria.

“Politics, in the sense of state interests, always trumps human rights,” he told IPS. “The holier-than-thou approach of some Western governments cannot be taken seriously.”

So although the United States has heavily criticised Russia for blocking Security Council resolutions on Syria, in some ways, it is no more innocent. It just so happens that it is not actively vetoing Security Council resolutions on Syria.

Paul, who has written extensively on human rights in Syria, has long been convinced that Syrian human rights have “no impact on U.S. policy, except as a form of public discourse”.

But even if human rights serve as a convenient, albeit thin, veil for political interests, the hard truth remains that people are dying while the international community seems only to stand by and watch.

Current measures

Although what some have referred to as the “Libya syndrome” remains prominent in many debates, military intervention seems to be the last intention or desire of any country, or the Syrians who are protesting.

“We are not asking about military intervention at all; we are just asking for civilian protection,” Catherine al-Talli, a Syrian activist who had been arrested and is now part of the Syrian National Council, an opposition organisation outside the country, told IPS.

On Nov. 28, the Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria, following its suspension earlier in the month from the regional organisation, with 19 out of the 22 member states supporting the measures. The EU and U.S. have already imposed sanctions on Syria.

Iraq and Lebanon refused to participate in the Arab League sanctions, which in his interview with Walters, Assad dismissed, along with the impact they would have on the country, saying, “In reality, we’re not isolated here,” and insisting that the countries around Syria would suffer.

The human rights group Amnesty International has called for a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and considers such a move the best way to stop the killing in Syria. But given Russia and China’s opposition to resolutions condemning Syria, an ICC referral seems logistically difficult to manage.

“The way to tackle these problems is not to pursue narrow routes like ICC referral, targeted sanctions, and so on,” Paul said. “There should be some clear thinking about how dictators like the Assads get in power and stay in power.”

“Look at Egypt today,” he pointed out. “It is the military, backed by the United States, that is standing in the way of the forces of democracy.”

“The situation of human rights in Syria each day is aggravated and requires the international community to immediately implement emergency measures… to stop the violence,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the international commission of inquiry, said at a press conference late November.

Similarly, “lives could have been changed if action had been taken sooner,” Pillay said Friday.

But how different is this rhetoric, really, from what has been said for months?

Finding and agreeing upon a unified, effective approach that exceeds mere verbal reprimands and condemnations from the international community, particularly through a global body such as the U.N., however, has been all but impossible.

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