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UN Security Council must act to end repression in Syria

By Salil Shetty, salilshetty

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

Majd Al Kurdy was a junior member of Syria's ruling Baath party in the small town of Tell Kalakh near the border with Lebanon.

One day in May, at an anti-government demonstration, he took a megaphone and announced to the crowd "I announce my resignation from the corrupt Ba'th Party!"

Days later, on 17 May, Syrian forces dragged Majd out of the house he was hiding in. It was two weeks before his family heard any news of him.

The authorities handed over his body in a nylon sack. It was clear he had been tortured before his death. His face was severely disfigured and his chest and thighs had been cut, and there were what seemed to be gunshot wounds on the back of his legs.

Given the weight of evidence that suggests that Syria's Bashar al-Assad's government has committed crimes against humanity and is continuing to do so as it continues to deploy tanks against cities at the forefront of the protests, the UN Security Council's continuing inability to react adequately to the carnage is deeply frustrating and dispiriting.

Already, over 1,500 people have died during the months-long onslaught mounted by President al-Assad's security forces against overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, yet the UN Security Council's only reaction to date has been to adopt a non-binding "presidential statement".

While the statement condemns the widespread violations being committed by the Syrian regime it falls far short of what is really needed, and merely urges the Syrian president to make good on his stated commitment to reform.

The Council's impotence in relation to Syria stands in stark contrast with the quick and decisive action it took in the case of Libya. But, in fact, it is the aftermath of its resolution on Libya that has paralyzed the Council.

Permanent Council members Russia and China, joined by temporary members South Africa, Brazil and India, say Western members have gone beyond the mandate in resolution 1973 on Libya by supporting the opposition and seeking "regime change" in Tripoli.

They suspect the proponents of a rather weak draft resolution on Syria – mainly the United Kingdom and France – of wanting to do the same with Damascus and have pledged to thwart them, which has effectively granted the Syrian regime a pass to continue the repression.

But why should the Syrian people pay the price – in lives, displacement, torture and other ill- treatment – of this political dispute among Council members?

It is perfectly legitimate to question what lies behind any measures on Syria proposed by France, the UK, the USA or others. But that something must be done – and done now - to stop the carnage in Syria is also beyond doubt.

If they suspect Western countries of ulterior motives, it is the responsibility of countries like South Africa, Brazil and India – states aspiring to global leadership – to engage with other Council members to try to ensure that any resolution adopted serves only to protect civilians.

To date, however, the three temporary members – let alone China and Russia, who have their own reasons for restraining Security Council action on Syria – have not proposed any credible alternative and refuse even to discuss the text of the draft resolution.

The focus on South Africa, Brazil and India is not accidental. The three are part of the increasingly influential BRICS grouping, together with China and Russia. Unlike the last two, however South Africa, Brazil and India are vibrant democracies. They also have recent histories marked by popular struggles for human rights and freedoms, which many in positions of leadership in all three countries remember or were even a part of.

The three are uniquely positioned to steer an independent path in the Security Council.  They are strong enough to resist political and economic pressures from the traditional power players and have regional, and even global, ambitions of their own.

As free and open societies that cannot be accused of harbouring neo-colonialist intentions, they arguably also enjoy more credibility and legitimacy when championing the human rights of people wherever they are trampled.

Were they to support a Council resolution on Syria that makes clear to al-Assad and those around him that they will not escape justice for their crimes, it would be very difficult politically for China and Russia to use their veto.

So far, however, South Africa, Brazil and India have failed to exercise the leadership many expected of them.

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, to the point where such key players as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and now the Saudi Arabian government have spoken out against the killings there, the question remains whether the three will continue to lockstep behind China and Russia.

They should not. Now is the time for South Africa, Brazil and India, together or individually, to stand up and be counted. They should show the world that they can and will act as strong and independent voices in the Council, defending internationally rights their own citizens should enjoy and which they consider universal. They should not fail the Syria test.

Read more:
UN urged to issue resolution on Syria bloodshed (News, 9 August 2011)
Demanding change in the Middle East and North Africa (Multimedia microsite)
Report reveals crimes against humanity in Syrian town (News, 6 July 2011)

Salil Shetty

A long-term activist on poverty and justice, Salil Shetty leads the movement's worldwide work to end human rights violations and has spearheaded a significant move of Amnesty International's work to the global south.