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Syria: echoes of a paralyzed international community

The double-veto by Russia and China has emboldened the Assad regime, which continues its campaign of wanton massacre against the besieged people of Homs. The immediate priority must be to end the bloodshed and hold Assad and his government accountable, but reform is needed for a paralyzed international community.
Muath Al Wari
20 February 2012

Much has been written about the spectacular display of political impotence at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on February 4 with regards to the Syria resolution. A double-veto by Russia and China of what was, in any case, a weak resolution emboldened the regime in Damascus which promptly continued - even intensified - its campaign of wanton massacre against the besieged people of Homs. Verified figures are not available because independent monitors and media are not allowed free access in the country but the number of Syrian dead - largely at the hands of government forces - is believed to be north of 7000.  

To know something of what is happening in Syria we are dependent on incredibly brave activists on the ground in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and elsewhere in the country determined to voice their revolution. Their written word is difficult to read, but their videos sear into your memory the image of eviscerated human flesh that you are certain, if configured properly would resemble a human being - someone, maybe like yourself or your neighbour or her doctor. A boy like my brother, no like the four kids that play football with in our backyard: they all lay dead, slumped to the ground with their blood-stained bullet-ridden backs turned at us, for our consciences to bear witness to.

There are always sounds and voices to these videos: defiant, dignified, and condemning. Danny Abdul Dayem telling us “we are not animals, we are human beings, we are asking for your help.” Dr. Mohammed Al Mohammed documenting what brought each case to the field ‘hospital’ with whatever voice he has left. The silent and piercing cries of pain from the many injured who don’t know if they will see another sunrise. And finally, there is the voice of Bashar Al Assad spoken through bomb explosions, not far or near - just there. You wonder how many lives did you just hear end, and how many will be permanently disfigured. You turn off the computer and go to bed hoping for no additions to the death toll as you sleep, with a sinking recognition “that it will be higher when [you] wake up. People will be dying in [your] sleep.” 

These sounds are spatially scattered all over Syria, this is true. But they are also the echoes of the dysfunction of the UNSC in New York. They are the echoes of a paralyzed international community, most of all they are the echoes of the veto, the exclusive right of the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom - the permanent members of the Security Council - to ensure the failure of any resolution with which they do not agree. What legitimacy is left in an institution of the United Nations (UN) hamstrung by the very divides, the very clashing self-interests, the very power-politics whose effects it was meant to mitigate? What legitimacy is left in an institution that does not extend permanent membership to India, Japan, or Germany, or indeed not to a single South American, African, or Muslim country?

Proposals to reform the veto have gathered dust while its futility in addressing international crises becomes the norm not the exception - demonstrated best by the Arab-Israeli conflict. A ‘United for Peace’ resolution is thought of as the answer. Where the council has failed in living up to the Charter and its responsibility for international peace and security, a two-thirds majority vote at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is, at least theoretically, presumed enough to overrule. Yet, to move a resolution from the Security Council to the General Assembly in Turtle Bay’s legendary bureaucracy takes time, time that people under constant bombardment so seldom have. It took nearly two weeks for the adoption of a symbolic resolution at the UNGA. In the meantime at least 800 people perished.

Often these high-politics agreements and disagreements materialize in a setting that excludes the voices and experiences of people on the ground. Decisions made and not made in far away places are conceived with barely any serious reference to those whose lives that are most impacted by them. We grapple with the failures of the international community as if it is an academic subject, as if real communities do not hang in the balance. A few days ago, Anthony Shadid, a brilliant journalist and wonderful human being died in Syria, as he lived, trying to put ordinary people desperately locked in extraordinary chaos at the centre of the story - where they should be.

Syria, sadly, is not unique in highlighting the impact of the veto and what it represents. It is just the latest tragic example. While the immediate priority must be to end the bloodshed and hold Assad and his government accountable, the greater priority is not to lose sight of what matters. People, just like us with hopes and aspirations who display remarkable courage in unimaginable situations yet are failed by people, just like them. That, in the words of the Ambassador of France to the UN a fortnight ago, should compound our shame

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