Tomorrow, 15 March 2016, marks five years of devastating and deadly conflict in Syria. Since 2011, more than 260,000 people have been killed, over 11 million displaced from their homes and 13.5 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Because of the civil war the multi-ethnic, multi-religious fabric of Syrian society has been torn apart and ordinary Syrians are trapped in the largest humanitarian crisis of our time.
After five years of misery there is now some dim hope, with a cessation of hostilities that has largely held since 27 February and intra-Syrian talks restarting today in Geneva. Two task forces created by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) are overseeing the cessation as well as the delivery of desperately-needed humanitarian aid to thousands of Syrians in besieged areas. The UN Security Council has endorsed these efforts.
But a cessation is not a permanent ceasefire, and the Syrian civil war is far from resolved. Monumental diplomatic efforts will be needed to sustain progress. Syrians cannot afford for the cessation to collapse or for the international community to retreat into passivity in the face of recurring atrocities.
Throughout the course of Syria’s civil war, every major principle of international law has been violated with impunity. The Syrian government has deployed illegal chemical weapons and cluster munitions, deliberately bombed hospitals and dropped barrel bombs on civilians. All parties to the conflict, including the government, have tortured detainees, perpetrated sexual violence, deliberately blocked humanitarian aid, and used food as a weapon to starve besieged communities. Crimes against humanity and war crimes continue to be perpetrated.
For five years the Syrian government has waged war against its own people, and has utterly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect. The government has contravened every resolution passed by the UN Security Council with regard to its attacks on armed rebels and unarmed civilian populations presumed to be supporting them.
In the midst of the civil war, the so-called Islamic State has gained territory and influence and has itself carried out crimes against humanity, including mass executions and sexual enslavement. The group poses an existential threat to all religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and must be held accountable for mass atrocity crimes committed in areas under its command and control. All other armed opposition groups who have perpetrated atrocities must also be held to account.
The world is fully aware of atrocities in Syria. But as Syrian refugees flee the country in unprecedented numbers, they now find it increasingly difficult to find sanctuary. Various governments have ignored their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and many desperate Syrians find international borders closed to them.
Syrians did not need to suffer this fate. For nearly five years the international community, and especially the UN Security Council, has watched the Syrian conflict deepen and deteriorate. The Security Council has been consumed with internal political divisions that have crippled its ability to respond to the Syrian crisis, and it has failed to uphold its responsibilities to the Syrian people. On this solemn anniversary we therefore call upon the Security Council to:
1. Demand full and immediate compliance with Resolution 2268, endorsing the cessation of hostilities, the ISSG initiative and a Syrian-led political process, in accordance with the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012;
2. Authorize targeted sanctions against all government and non-state actors who are responsible for mass atrocity crimes;
3. Impose an arms embargo on Syria; and
4. Refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation.
Finally, we call upon all 193 members of the UN to sign the ACT Code of Conduct regarding the Security Council and mass atrocities. No Security Council member should ever vote against a credible resolution aimed at preventing or halting mass atrocity crimes. And no people should ever again have to endure the suffering and death that has been inflicted upon the Syrian people as an ineffective UN Security Council has abdicated its responsibilities.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA