COMMENT: The international community has failed Syria – Colm O’Gorman
“The world has betrayed Syria, and nothing can make up for the lives lost or shattered.”
Seventeen years ago, Kofi Annan stood before the United Nations and apologised.
The then-secretary-general acknowledged that the UN had failed the people of Rwanda during the 100-day genocide in which almost a million people were killed, and pledged to ensure that the UN would "never again" fail to protect a civilian population from genocide or mass slaughter.
In Syria today, Annan's promise is inaudible beneath the roar of bombs and the whimpers of children trapped under rubble, their faces caked with blood and dust.
One of my colleagues met a lady named Siham a few months ago.
“I have lived all my life in Aleppo city,” she said.
“I lost my daughter six days ago. A bomb fell in front of the building where she was playing. I can’t remember the last words she told me… I lost her just like that for nothing… absolutely nothing. I wish I had died with her.”
After years of images from this atrocious war being screened around the world, these are stories we know well. There is no way we can say that we didn’t know what was happening in Syria. We are watching, in real time.
Amnesty International has been researching human rights abuses since the conflict began, almost six years ago. The refusal to tackle human rights abuses has paved the way for a litany of horrors: hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, resulting from air and ground attacks; wanton destruction of cities and towns across the country, suspected chemical attacks and widespread use of cluster munitions and much of this targeting civilian populations.
We presented this evidence to governments across the globe and to the UN Security Council (UNSC). It has not stopped the bloodshed.
One of the core obligations of international law is to protect civilians from atrocities that "shock the conscience of humanity”. Instead of taking steps to end unlawful attacks on civilians, holding perpetrators to account and stopping the flow of arms that is fuelling the conflict, the UN Security Council has sat back.
For years, Amnesty International has been calling for the Permanent Five members of the UNSC to refrain from using the veto in cases of genocide and other mass atrocities, which would enable the UN to take action more easily when civilian lives are at risk.
The need for a dramatic overhaul of the UNSC is painfully clear. With every civilian death in Syria the message gets louder: we must act now. We must stand up for the protection of civilians and demand respect for international law. We must not accept the wilful destruction of lives, communities and a country. With your support, we can expose these horrific human rights abuses and demand that perpetrators be held to account.
What has happened in Aleppo is deeply shocking. But is it really surprising? We have seen this international inaction before, in Rwanda and Srebrenica, in Cambodia and Yemen.
In the 1990s, in Chechnya, Amnesty documented Russia using many of the same tactics now being used in Syria. First came the levelling of cities, which left tens of thousands dead or injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless and displaced. Then came sweep operations, mass arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and executions, the same type of operations that are now being reported from Syria.
There has not been sufficient accountability for violations committed in the Chechen conflict which has led to Russia feeling so emboldened that it no longer even worries about flagrantly violating international law. By allowing Assad and his Russian supporters to continue their assault, the international community has become complicit, every day, in their crimes against humanity.
What's more, it is sending a clear signal to any other leader who might decide to murder civilians on a mass scale that we don't really mean "never again".
The world has betrayed Syria, and nothing can make up for the lives lost or shattered.
But what we can do is recognise that this catastrophe is an alarm bell signalling the desperate need for the international community to overhaul the way it responds to atrocities. After the protection of civilians, which is paramount, the focus must turn to holding perpetrators to account, to send an unequivocal message that war crimes have consequences.
Otherwise, we could well be faced with another Aleppo, and the cries of "never again" will, again, ring hollow.
Join Amnesty International to help end human rights abuses in Syria. Visit amnesty.ie/whitechristmas.