Stewart M. Patrick

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“A Moment of Truth” for Syrian Refugees—and International Justice

by Stewart M. Patrick
February 28, 2013

Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters) Syrian refugees at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)

Yesterday Antonio Gutteres, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, briefed the UN Security Council on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria. Gutteres’ remarks, delivered in closed session but subsequently published on UNHCR’s website, provide a chilling summary of the human cost of this grinding conflict. The crisis, in his words, presents a “moment of truth” to the international community. That is true in at least two senses. The world needs to take bolder steps to alleviate human suffering in Syria. And it needs to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is dire. In April 2012, UNHCR had registered 33,000 Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. Today, ten months later, this number has swelled thirty-fold, to 963,000—and it continues to climb. “Since early January, over 40,000 people have fled Syria every week,” Gutteres observed yesterday. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now exceeds four hundred thousand—nearly ten percent of that country’s population of 4.3 million. A similar number have found shelter in Jordan (population 6.2 million). On Monday alone, 4,585 Syrians entered that country. Many tens of thousands of more have fled to Turkey and Iraq. As the conflict deepens, the risk is growing that Syria’s Palestinian refugees, numbering half a million, may once again be forced to flee.

Syria’s refugees, Gutteres notes, have “lost everything they once owned—businesses, homes, livelihoods.” Most are living in austere conditions in crude camps, suffering through one of the harshest winters in years. An entire generation of children has been traumatized, their lives uprooted and shattered. Meanwhile, host countries (with the exception of prosperous Turkey) are straining to provide social services to refugee populations, who are taxing modest budgets and infrastructure. They are also struggling to manage the potentially explosive societal and political consequences of this massive influx—as well as the possible spillover of violence across their borders.

It is the situation inside Syria, however, that is “most tragic”. While precise figures are impossible to come by, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimate that more than 3 million, or over fifteen percent, of Syria’s remaining population is internally displaced. More than four million [PDF] Syrians are in need of vital food and other assistance from UN agencies to survive.

Particularly alarming are growing reports of mass atrocities committed by Assad’s military and, to a lesser degree, insurgents. On February 18, a special commission appointed by the Human Rights Council released a 131-page report documenting of widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by both government and opposition forces. Based on 445 individual interviews, the report details multiple instances of summary executions, massacres, targeting of civilians, abuse against children, and sexual violence. Yesterday, Zainab Hawa Bangura, a Sierra Leonean who serves as the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, provided the Security Council with what Britain’s UN ambassador termed a “disturbing” account of “the widespread use of sexual violence by the regime.”

While both sides have committed atrocities, the Human Rights Council report is a scathing indictment of the regime’s strategy of punishing civilians perceived as sympathetic to the opposition:

Indiscriminate and widespread shelling, the regular bombardment of cities, mass killing, indiscriminate firing on civilian targets, firing on civilian gatherings and a protracted campaign of shelling and sniping on civilian areas have characterized the conduct of the government.

Based on this growing body of evidence, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has repeatedly urged that the Syrian situation be referred to the International Criminal Court. But the UN Security Council, the one body that could authorize such a referral (since Syria is not party to the Rome Statute), has failed to do so, due to opposition from Russia and China. “It’s incredible the Security Council doesn’t take a decision, because crimes are continuing, and the number of victims is increasing day to day,” says Carla del Ponte, former chief prosecutor for the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia and a member of the special Human Rights Council commission on Syria. “Justice must be done.”

Meeting in Rome with Syrian opposition leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry promised to expand “non-lethal” U.S. aid to those fighting Assad’s regime. While a welcome development, the Obama administration should take two additional steps to reduce human suffering in Syria and bring perpetrators of mass atrocities there to justice.

First, the United States should increase its relief assistance both for refugees outside Syria’s borders and for those internally displaced within the country. Doing the former means directing more funds to UNHCR and other international agencies on the front lines. Doing the latter will require the United States (and other donors) to shift away from their current policy of directing relief assistance through the government of Damascus. As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch notes, that approach guarantees that little aid gets to rebel-held areas. The new approach would entail expanding cross-border assistance with or without the consent of the Assad regime, so that it gets to the populations in most desperate need.

Second, the United States should push the Security Council to refer the crisis in Syria to the ICC. By the beginning of the year, more than fifty UN member states had already called for this step, and several more EU leaders endorsed it last week. To be sure, Russia and China will likely cast vetoes against any such resolution. Nonetheless, there would be symbolic value in forcing a vote, likely to enjoy overwhelming support of the UNSC’s other members. The typical counterargument—that such a referral would be counterproductive, since it would only lead the Damascus regime to dig in its heels—seem untenable. When it comes to digging in, Assad is already up to his neck.

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