November 11, 2011

V. International Response


Given the huge toll in human life extracted by the Syrian crackdown, the global response to this human rights crisis has been gruelingly slow and ultimately inadequate, despite strong actions by some states and the European Union. The governments of Australia, Canada, the EU and its member states, Turkey, and the United States have all issued condemnations of the violence against civilians, and have been willing to follow those words with actions aimed at pushing the Assad government to change course.

Most notably, the European Union imposed a ban on the import of Syrian crude oil and oil products and prohibited new investment in the oil industry in Syria in September.[132]Around 95 percent of Syria’s oil exports of approximately 150,000 barrels per day go to Europe, primarily to Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Later the same month, the EU banned certain investment in Syria’s oil industry and imposed a new ban on the provision of Syrian banknotes and coins.[133] While some of the provisions of these sanctions have only just taken effect, there are reports that the measures are having an impact on Syria’s public finances.[134] Similarly, Canada, Switzerland, and the United States all imposed bans relating to the import of Syrian oil. In addition, the EU, Australia, Canada, and the United States imposed targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans on designated lists of officials and entities in or closely linked to the Syrian government, including in some cases the Commercial Bank of Syria.

A number of Arab states joined in condemning Syria’s crackdown. In August, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Tunisia withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus for consultations.[135]In August, the Arab League voted to condemn the crackdown and call for an end to the violence, and on October 16, following an initiative by Gulf Cooperation Council states, it called for a dialogue between the government and the opposition to be held within 15 days at the Arab League headquarters in Egypt.[136] Turkey, until recently a close ally and major trade partner, repeatedly condemned the Syrian crackdown and stopped at least two weapons shipments to Syria. Its leaders have threatened Syria with sanctions if the violent crackdown does not stop and the country has hosted a number of meetings for Syria’s opposition.

After months of inaction in the face of Syrian abuses, the UN Security Council agreed on a Presidential Statement on August 3.The statement condemned “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities”, and called for the Syrian authorities to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under international law.[137] Unfortunately, that action proved to be the high-water mark in the Council’s response to the crisis.

Throughout the crisis, Russia has been very reluctant to subject its close ally to criticism, and has been unwilling to take even minimal steps to respond to the violence, such as halting its own supply of arms to the country. Russia’s intransigence has been echoed by China, which traditionally opposes Security Council action on “internal matters” such as the substantial human rights violations in Syria.

Significantly, however, the expected Russian and Chinese reticence for action has found support in the three influential southern countries currently members of the Security Council: India, Brazil, and South Africa. Those three countries have continually provided cover for Russia and China by withholding support for action by the Security Council in response to the Syrian crisis. They have also given undue credence to Syrian government claims of restraint, promises to reform, and allegations that the opposition protests are in part fueled by “armed terrorist gangs” or “foreign interferences and the misleading media campaigns.” They justified this weak response by claiming that they wanted to prevent a repeat of Libya, where in their view NATO had gone beyond the Security Council mandate of protecting civilians. Yet they also failed to support alternative approaches, such as sanctions and an arms embargo, that could help end the violence.

Instead, the IBSA countries sent a delegation to Syria soon after the Security Council statement. The delegation met with President al-Assad and his foreign minister on August 10, but did not travel outside of Damascus, did not meet with opposition figures, and stayed in the country less than 48 hours. Following its meetings, the IBSA delegation indicated that it had stopped short of calling on the Syrian government to cooperate with the fact-finding mission but instead urged it to consider the HRC resolution 16/1 “positively”.[138]

The dismal Security Council response to the crisis came to a head on October 4, when China and Russia both vetoed a European-sponsored resolution condemning the violence and all three IBSA countries abstained.[139] The resolution was supported by a majority of Security Council members, including Nigeria, which held the Presidency of the Council that month. The draft resolution had strongly condemned “the continued grave and systematic human rights violations and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities” and called for an immediate end to the human rights abuses.

The defeat of a resolution that did little more than codify the Presidential Statement unanimously agreed to by the Council two months earlier was deeply disturbing. The vetoes by Russia and China were seen as legitimizing Syria’s continuing abuses, and opening the door for further repression. The silence of India, Brazil, and South Africa was also extremely troubling. Ignoring the facts on the ground as documented by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)and human rights groups, the IBSA countries continued to raise objections to Security Council action, yet failed to offer a credible alternative path to end the bloodshed. Inaction and silence by the Security Council emboldens the Syrian government, and also compromises accountability efforts for serious human rights violations, recognized as crimes under international law.

Action by the UN Human Rights Council

At the end of April, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) held a special session on Syria, culminating in the adoption of resolution that called for the OHCHR to send a mission to Syria to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law “with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring full accountability”.[140]The resolution called on the Syrian government to cooperate fully with the mission, and grant it access, but the government refused all cooperation. A majority of the HRC’s members supported the resolution (26 votes in favor), and only 9 of the 47 members voted against the initiative, but those opposed included Russia and China. In its preliminary report, presented to the HRC on June 15, the OHCHR called the human rights situation dire, with alleged abuses on such a broad scale that a thorough investigation and full accountability were needed. It emphasized the need for the Syrian government to grant access to the mission.[141]

On August 18, the OHCHR published its final report, which included some of the abuses in the Homs Governorate. [142] Referring to the situation overall, the mission “found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity as provided for in article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.” [143] The report calls on the HRC to “urge the Security Council … to consider referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.” [144] On August 18, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay also addressed the Security Council on the matter, urging it to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court(ICC).

On August 23, the HRC, in its second special session on Syria, expressed deep regret over the lack of cooperation from the Syrian government with the fact-finding mission, and profound concern about its findings. It also decided that an independent commission of inquiry should be dispatched to “investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic, to establish facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and, where possible, to identify those responsible with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity, are held accountable.”[145]In this case, the resolution was adopted by an overwhelming vote, with 33 members in favor and only China, Cuba, Ecuador, and Russia opposed. The Commission of Inquiry, which has received no co-operation from Syria so far, is required to publish its report by the end of November 2011.

Next Steps

There are a number of concrete measures that the international community can take to protect civilians in Syria short of military intervention. These measures include:

  • Unhindered Access to Independent Observers: As reporting on Syria gets more difficult and countries interpret events on the ground very differently, there is a need to have independent observers on the ground who can document and publicize what is happening. States with influence in Syria should work actively to push the Syrian government to allow the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Human Rights Council to have access to the country, and full cooperation from Syrian authorities in conducting its investigations.
  • Deployment of Monitors: Another step that could make a difference on the ground immediately is the deployment of human rights monitors in Syria. An independent monitoring presence could help clarify the situation on the ground, ensure rapid responses to violations reports, and provide reliable reporting concerning ongoing violations, as well as addressing such issues as the extent of use of force by protesters. In addition, a monitoring presence in hotspots within Syria could lead the security forces to use greater restraint, and reduce the level of violations itself. The deployment of human rights monitors in Nepal in April 2005 is a good example of where a small number of independent monitors were able to help stabilize a conflict situation and deter abuses.
  • Implementation of Reforms: President Assad’s reforms are not credible as long as security forces are shooting at protesters and detaining activists. The international community needs to set a timetable for reforms and hold the Syrian authorities accountable for respecting the timetable. Some reforms should be immediate such as the release of all detainees held merely for peaceful protest or political activity, or an accounting for all those detained and being held incommunicado.

Various international actors can contribute to these measures. As this report goes to print, Syria has responded to the League of Arab States’ proposal of a summit meeting in Cairo by agreeing to allow a delegation of Arab foreign ministers to visit Damascus. The Arab League should make it its priority to push for access for the COI. The Arab League should also support the idea of on-the-ground monitors that would be deployed in sensitive areas, and should offer its support to any such UN-led mission. Finally, it is essential that the Arab League step in to guarantee implementation of certain reforms. As a symbolic gesture, they should insist on the release of all political detainees.

The IBSA countries have a particular stake in ensuring that Syria grants access to the UN Commission of Inquiry to conduct a thorough investigation of abuses by all parties since the crisis began in March, as they have placed more credence than many human rights organizations in Syrian accounts of armed groups that are responsible for a significant share of the violence.

Russia and China, having resisted efforts to criticize Syria at the Security Council, have a particular responsibility to protect civilians inside Syria. If their interest is truly the stability of Syria, then they should support the deployment of human rights monitors whose presence would reduce violence.


[132] See EU Council Decision 2011/522/CFSP (amending Decision 2011/273/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria),September 2, 2011, (accessed October 21, 2011).

[133] See EU Council Regulation No 950/2011 (amending Regulation (EU) No 442/2011 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria), September 23, 2011, (accessed October 21, 2011).

[134] See for example, Javier Blas “Ban forces Syria to cut oil production,”Financial Times, September 26, 2011, (accessed October 24, 2011);Obaida Hamad,“Syria’s oil sector feels the pain,” Syria Forward Magazine, October 10, 2011, (accessed October 21, 2011).

[135] Nada Bakri, “3 Arab Countries Recall Ambassadors to Syria,”The New York Times, August 8, 2011, (accessed October 21, 2011); “Tunisia recalls ambassador from Syria,” AFP, August 17, 2011, (accessed October 21, 2011).

[136] “Arab League expresses “growing concern” about Syria,” Reuters, August 7, 2011, (accessed October 21, 2011).

[137] Statement by the President of the Security Council, S/PRST/2011/16, August 3, 2011, (accessed October 24, 2011).

[138] See “Press Statement - IBSA Delegation Visit to Syria,” August 10, 2011, available at

[139] UN Department of Public Information, “Security Council Fails to Adopt Draft Resolution Condemning Syria’s Crackdown on Anti-Government Protestors, Owing to Veto By Russian Federation, China,” October 4, 2011, (accessed October 23, 2011).

[140]Resolution A/HRC/RES/S-16/1 on “The current human rights situation in the Syrian Arab

Republic in the context of recent events,” adopted by the Human Rights Council on April 29, 2011, (accessed October 24, 2011).

[141] Preliminary Report of the High Commissioner on the Situation of Human Rights in the Syrian Arab

Republic, A/HRC/17/CRP.1, June 14, 2011, para. 15, (accessed October 24, 2011).

[142] Report of the Fact-Finding Mission on Syria pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-16/1, August 17,2001, paras. 44 – 47.

[143] Ibid. para. 72.

[144] Ibid. p. 17.

[145] Resolution A/HRC/RES/S-17/1 of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), adopted on August 23, 2011.On 12 September 2011, the President of the Human Rights Council appointed three high-level experts as members of the Commission of Inquiry: Ms. Yakin Erturk, Mr. Sergio Pinheiro, and Ms. Karin Abu Zeid.