When it came to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where military forces overwhelmingly refused to fire on their own people gathered in mass unarmed protests, New Delhi resorted to platitudes, releasing a statement in support of the “articulation of the aspirations” of the people and backing a peaceful resolution.
Now, India is facing a challenge called Syria. The Syrian military, with the exception of some brave individuals within its ranks, has followed the government’s instructions to gun down ordinary people peacefully demanding their rights. The Syrian government insists that the protests are fuelled by “armed terrorist gangs”. On-the-ground reports are difficult to come by because Syrian authorities refuse to grant access to journalists and independent observers. But several human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, are gathering information from local activists and Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. They have found that the majority of protests have been peaceful.
Despite strong evidence of widespread human rights violations, including rampant torture, committed by Syrian security forces, New Delhi initially accepted the Syrian government’s claim of nonaggression at face value. Together with Brazil and South Africa, India at first resisted efforts to raise the issue of Syria’s crackdown at the United Nations Security Council, a move which was largely motivated by concerns over NATO action in Libya. When the Syrian deputy minister of foreign affairs, Dr Faisal Mekdad, came to India seeking diplomatic support, India’s public expression of concern was mild, encouraging his government to exercise restraint and “abjure violence”.
According to government officials, though, the private message was stronger. Sure enough, soon after India took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council on 3 August, the council unanimously condemned Syrian authorities for “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians”. Diplomatic action had been blocked for months due to the threat of possible vetoes by Russia and China, along with tepid support from India, Brazil and South Africa (known collectively as the IBSA Dialogue Forum), the three developing countries currently holding Security Council membership.
Instead of heeding the demands of the international community, however, the Syrian government has intensified its crackdown. The cities of Deir ez-Zor, Daraa, Saraqeb, Hula and Ma’aret al-Nu’man were recently attacked, and violence escalated in Hama, bringing the total number of civilians killed by the government since mid-March to roughly 2,000.
The protests in Syria were sparked from Daraa, in southern Syria, where, on 6 March, security forces detained and tortured 15 boys accused of painting anti-government graffiti on walls of the city. On 18 March, following Friday prayers, several thousand protesters marched through the streets calling for the release of the boys and for greater political freedom, and accusing government officials of corruption. The protests have since escalated, with more and more people joining the demonstrations and being met with bullets.
In addition to shelling neighbourhoods and shooting civilians, Syrian security forces have detained activists and protesters, holding them incommunicado. On 6 August, security forces arrested Walid al-Bunni, a leading opposition figure and former political prisoner, along with his two sons. Their whereabouts remain unknown. Security forces also began constructing large-scale detention centres in Hama and Deir ez-Zor. Since the beginning of anti-government protests in mid-March, Human Rights Watch has documented a systematic and deliberate policy of repression by Syria’s government that suggests that some of the violations constitute crimes against humanity.
Outraged by these continuing acts of brutality, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain expressed their dismay at the Syrian government’s attacks against its own people by withdrawing their ambassadors and issuing strong statements of condemnation. The League of Arab States expressed “growing concern”, while Turkey announced that it was sending its minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Damascus on 9 August with a “firm” message in hand.
India, together with Brazil and South Africa, also sent a delegation on behalf of IBSA to Syria, where they met with the foreign minister on 10 August. While an IBSA statement said that the delegation had “called for an immediate end to all violence”, and recommended “respect for human rights and international human rights law”, the Syrian government promptly portrayed the visit differently. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (Syria’s state media organisation), the delegation agreed that there was a “campaign targeting Syria in the UN Security Council”, and took a firm stance against any interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
It is a problem that often arises when engaging with abusive governments. The IBSA delegation had remained in Damascus, unable to travel around and see for themselves the evidence of the government’s brutality in Hama, Daraa and Deir ez-Zor, or to visit Syria’s overflowing detention centres. Instead of allowing Syria to hide behind what it claims to be “foreign interferences and the misleading media campaigns”, Human Rights Watch believes IBSA should press Syria to comply with the Security Council’s demand to end attacks against peaceful protesters and cooperate fully with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has been investigating the abuses and violations in Syria.
If Syria refuses to heed the international community, India, together with Brazil and South Africa, should escalate pressure on the recalcitrant government. Concerns about Libya should not come in the way of protecting the rights of the Syrian people. President Bashar al-Assad needs to hear loud and clear that even his friends will not tolerate any contempt for a united call for Syria to change its course.
Meenakashi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.