Negotiated settlement fades from view in the unending Syrian conflict

The prospect of justice or a negotiated diplomatic solution seem evermore remote, to the detriment of all Syrians, writes Sharif Nashashibi.

It is often said that the international community has failed the Syrian people. There are times when the blame is much more specific. The most recent occasion took place last week, when Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The Assad government’s description of the draft as “biased” is laughable. The resolution expressed “strong condemnation” of violations by both sides, whose perpetrators – rebel and regime – would face the ICC. It also sought full cooperation with the Court from both sides.

It is thus noteworthy that in defending their vetoes, neither Russia nor China objected specifically to the resolution’s text. How could they when it was aimed at both sides? Instead, Moscow and Beijing questioned its timing and motives.

Syria’s UN ambassador said the resolution was a bid to undermine the June 3 presidential election, as if the conditions and restrictions placed on it had not already made the result a foregone conclusion.

He said the establishment of a national committee at the start of the uprising to investigate all crimes “confirms the desire and the ability of the Syrian government to achieve justice.” Never mind the absurdity of crimes being investigated by a regime whose atrocities have been amply documented – the committee is evidently doing a terrible job.

“Ultimately, those suffering are the people of Syria and other countries in the region,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesman. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin joined in the hand-wringing, decrying the “the destruction, loss of life and suffering of people” in a conflict that “has been dragging on for too long.”

Churkin added: “We’re convinced that justice in Syria will eventually prevail. Those guilty of perpetrating grave crimes will be punished ... Russia will continue to exert every effort to stop the bloodshed.” One would think the resolution was drafted by Moscow and Beijing.

The veto is the latest piece of evidence that neither country is interested in justice in Syria. Similarly, both pay lip service to the need for a negotiated solution.

This, in addition to the veto, sends a clear message that the regime can continue to commit war crimes with impunity. However, it inadvertently sends the same message to the rebels. In other words, it is open season on all Syrians.

While denying a role for the ICC, Russia and China have not provided a credible alternative to ensure accountability. And to think that peace in any conflict is possible without justice is nonsensical.

Furthermore, the veto has little to do with any inherent Russian or Chinese suspicion of the ICC. Similar referrals were made by the Security Council regarding Libya in 2011 and Darfur in 2005. Moscow supported both referrals, while Beijing backed the former.

There have been “repeated appeals by senior UN officials for accountability” for “horrific crimes” committed in Syria, the UN News Centre reported on the day of the vetoes. The UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry has recommended referral to the ICC, as has the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (most recently last month). In March, UN human-rights investigators added to their list of suspected war criminals from both sides.

As such, the necessity of an ICC referral is gaining greater urgency and support as the conflict grinds on. Nonetheless, Moscow and Beijing continue to turn a blind eye, and are increasingly isolated in doing so. They were the only Council members to vote “no,” and the resolution was co-sponsored by 62 countries and backed by more than 100 civil society groups.

The Council “can’t be inured to mass tragedies,” Rwanda’s UN ambassador said on May 22. His warning has a particular resonance given his country’s 1994 genocide, enabled by a lack of international action that is being repeated over Syria.

“Moscow and Beijing can veto a resolution but they can’t suppress the desire for justice by the Syrian people and the dozens of governments that stood for their rights,” wrote Human Rights Watch. Unfortunately, desire is not enough against such vetoes.

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC. As such, the Court can only obtain jurisdiction via the Security Council, or if Syria accepts voluntarily. Neither scenario will happen, not least because – as UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said in April – the regime’s human rights violations “far outweigh” those of the opposition.

The vetoes came less than 10 days after the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria. As such, the prospect of justice or a negotiated diplomatic solution seem evermore remote, to the detriment of all Syrians. Assad’s supporters should ponder the devastating consequences of their allies’ actions.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs

Published: May 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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