Our Responsibility to Prove Assad Wrong

Canada's reaffirmation of its leadership on R2P is a welcome as the war in Syria continues says Tina Jiwon Park.
By: /
May 24, 2013

In an exclusive interview on May 18, President Bashar Assad of Syria told an Argentinean newspaper that “We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria.” Assad’s interview took place just after the UN General Assembly passed the fifth UN resolution on Syria since 2011, condemning the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons and “widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Assad’s statement could be dismissed as just one more disingenuous, calculated remark in a long-running media offensive.  In the same interview, Assad not only denied his own responsibility for failing to protect his own citizens but also announced his intention to run for election in 2014. He accused the western countries for arming the rebel groups and denied the UN statistics about the death toll rising to 80,000 civilians. Most importantly, Assad accused the western countries of arming the rebel groups and thereby prolonging the conflict in Syria.

But is it really true that the West doesn’t want a solution in Syria? Unfortunately, one can see why Assad is pushing this narrative.

After all, the UN Security Council remains divided over Syria and the international community has stayed largely on the sidelines. China and Russia have repeatedly used their veto power to protect Assad’s regime, while countries like Iran, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey have shipped arms and facilitated the movement of jihadists.

“Syria is following the footsteps of Rwanda in 1994,” said Minister Eugène-Richard Gasana, Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the UN, drawing a direct line to the months when the international community stood by while 800,000 civilians were massacred in 100 days.

In the past 800 days, military clashes between government forces and the Syrian opposition have continued to escalate, resulting in record-high civilian casualties. Thousands more have been wounded, raped, arbitrarily arrested, tortured, or disappeared as protestors and their families within and outside of Syria have been targeted. There are over 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. There are over four million people internally displaced, many as a result of the fact that at least 119 locations in Syria have been bombarded with cluster munitions, a banned weapon under international humanitarian law.

The situation in Syria invokes our responsibilities under international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international refugee law, and most notably, our collective pledge under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle.  As agreed unanimously at the 2005 World Summit, the international community has the responsibility to protect populations at risk from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, especially when the national government fails to protect its own people. 

Since 2005, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has fleshed out implementation strategies for R2P through annual reports, such as a three-pillar approach for implementing R2P focusing on prevention and protection, as well as mobilizing political will in a timely and decisive manner. Yet, in order for R2P to be used to undermine Assad’s claim that no solution is being sought for Syria, for it to become relevant outside the academia and meeting chambers in New York, political leaders must “turn words into deeds.

Earlier this spring, the 128th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly which met in Quito brought together nearly 630 MPs from 121 countries to adopt a resolution called “Enforcing the Responsibility to Protect: The Role of Parliament in Safeguarding Civilians’ Lives.” The IPU resolution on R2P, which represents the culmination of efforts which began last fall in Quebec City when Canada hosted the 127th IPU Assembly, is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, despite all the controversies that resulted from the Libyan intervention, the IPU debates in Quito made it clear that R2P has come a long way as an emerging norm in international relations. Every single delegate who spoke at the IPU, even the usual dissenters like Cuba, Iran, and China, acknowledged the importance of preserving the consensus reached at the 2005 World Summit Outcome. Member states vowed not to open up the Pandora’s box again on the conceptual aspects of R2P and instead focus strictly on the implementation.

Second, rather than a closed drafting committee which the IPU has traditionally followed for its resolutions for its existence since 1889, this R2P resolution marked a first attempt to draft the resolution in the open plenary. Over 40 member states were actively vocal and engaged throughout the four days of intense debates on the language of R2P – one by one, every single paragraph of the resolution was voted upon by the delegates.

Third, this R2P resolution clearly underscored the special plight of women and children in situations of armed conflict, especially in countries like Syria where women risk becoming the victims of sexual crimes on a daily basis. The R2P resolution recalled that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute crimes against humanity, urged parliaments to guarantee the human rights of women and further enhance their role in peace and security initiatives, and called upon governments and humanitarian agencies to mainstream gender throughout their programs. All gender-related suggestions made by the Committee of Women Parliamentarians of the IPU were unanimously adopted.

Lastly, the Canadian delegation, composed of Senator Donald H. Oliver and Mr. Blain Calkins, MP for Wetaskiwin, showed exceptional tact and diplomacy in strengthening the language of the R2P resolution. Canada was the main government sponsor for the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report, a pivotal negotiator for the R2P paragraphs in the 2005 World Summit, and was instrumental in giving birth to this important humanitarian principle. But the Harper government has generally avoided R2P. The active interventions by Canada at the Quito Assembly, which point to a possible shift in the government's approach and the potential for renewed Canadian leadership on R2P, were wholeheartedly welcomed by delegations from the North and South alike.

As we all know, there is no simple blueprint for bringing peace to Syria. While it is easy to say that something must be done, it is national governments that must ultimately allocate financial, military, and political resources. The more work that is done on R2P, the clearer the roadmap for action will become, and the more difficult it will be to watch the conflict from the sidelines. The IPU’s resolution on R2P is a step in the right direction – it is a step toward implementation and toward proving to Assad just how much the West wants a solution in Syria.