With two weeks left in its two-year tenure on the UN Security Council, Brazil has a tremendous opportunity to make its vote count for the Syrian people. With Brazil’s support, the Security Council could overcome eight months of inaction and join the Arab League, Turkey, and dozens of other countries in applying real pressure on the Syrian government to end the bloodbath.
In November Brazil joined a large coalition at the UN General Assembly to condemn the killings and torture by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces. Brazil broke free of the straightjacket imposed by the so-called “IBSA” club; its two other members, India and South Africa, abstained, as did Russia and China.
This was a welcome departure from Brazil’s stance in the Security Council, where it abstained on October 4 on a resolution condemning the abuses, enabling Russia and China to veto it. Syria’s UN ambassador claimed diplomatic victory, and the killing accelerated.
Some justified inaction in Syria by citing Libya, claiming NATO overstepped its UN mandate, pursuing regime change under the guise of implementing its “responsibility to protect” against mass atrocities. But punishing the Syrian people for what NATO did in Libya was a tragic miscalculation. Brazilian diplomats are now confronting this by promoting an approach of “responsibility while protecting,” designed to head off any cynical use of the doctrine.
Others said the situation was confusing – but that cannot be a valid excuse after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the council more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown. This confirmed the report of a UN inquiry ably led by Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who concluded that Syrian security forces committed crimes again humanity. These findings are consistent with Human Rights Watch’s research.
In a new report based on interviews with more than 60 defectors from the Syrian armed forces and intelligence agencies, Human Rights Watch provides conclusive evidence that senior commanders and officials systematically ordered, authorized and condoned the killings. And we name 74 officials implicated in the abuses. The defectors told us officers gave them orders to stop the protests “by all means necessary,” which they understood to include the use of lethal force.
Consistent descriptions of numerous officers giving similar orders to military units all over Syria at different times leave no doubt that the crackdown was widespread and systematic and part of government policy, and therefore constitutes crimes against humanity. Regardless of whether Assad ordered the crackdown, as the commander-in-chief he bears command-responsibility for what his troops are doing: he knew or should have known about the abuses and failed to prevent them.
Brazil can change history at the UN: it can join efforts to impose an arms embargo as well as a travel ban and an asset freeze on Syrian officials involved in the violence. It can support referring the case to the International Criminal Court, as called for by High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. By moving its IBSA friends in the right direction, Brazil can shame Moscow and Beijing into abstaining.
Its actions now will show the world whether Brazil has the moral standing to match its emerging power, and whether it deserves a permanent seat on the Security Council.
Nadim Houry is deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.