Amid a swirl of political developments, President Obama is set to deliver a national televised speech on Syria at 9:00 p.m. EST tonight. The speech was originally expected to be an effort by the White House to argue for a U.S. military strike targeting Syria. But now there’s talk of U.N. Security Council proposals to remove Syria’s chemical weapons from the country, for presumed eventual destruction. And against a backdrop of growing domestic opposition to a U.S. military strike, the U.S. government is changing its political posture in response.
Given the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape, it is difficult to know for sure what President Obama will say in a few short hours. Indeed, it’s likely that White House advisers are themselves still editing the President’s script as you read this.
Amnesty International neither condemns nor condones armed intervention in Syria. However, we do welcome global diplomatic steps that would lead to the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Chemical weapons are internationally banned and the use of such weapons is a war crime. Our own research and analysis strongly indicates that chemical agents were used on August 21 near Damascus. We aren’t in a position to draw a clear conclusion as to who did it, but circumstantial evidence points to Syrian government forces being responsible.
Given the ongoing conflict in Syria, we aren’t naïve about the challenges involved in bringing to fruition the proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. But this is a rare and potentially important moment that should be built upon. The U.N. Security Council must not only tackle the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons. It must also address the role of conventional weapons in the conflict.
Conventional arms – including guns, bullets, and bombs – have caused the vast majority of the reported 100,000 or more civilian deaths in Syria. And nearly one-third of Syria’s population has now either fled across borders or been internally displaced as a result of the conflict.
That’s why U.N. Security Council action on Syria must include these six comprehensive steps:
- Standing up for Syrian refugees and civilians who have been displaced The U.N. has said that it will take $3 billion to help Syria’s 2 million refugees, but that only 40 percent of the funds needed have come in from donor nations. Countries with the means should step up their financial and technical support to Syria’s neighboring countries, increase contributions to the U.N. humanitarian appeal for Syria, and offer expanded resettlement and humanitarian admission programs.
- Referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court It is time to investigate war crimes and other crimes against humanity which Amnesty International has documented and ensure those who violate international law face trial. Outside, governments should also investigate and prosecute serious crimes committed in Syria using the principle of universal jurisdiction. That means investigating alleged crimes and bringing suspects to trial before national courts in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.
- Deploying human rights monitors Not only that, but demand that the Syrian government and opposition forces allow the U.N.-mandated Commission of Inquiry immediate access to Syria. This is necessary to assess who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons and to investigate other ongoing allegations of serious crimes committed during the conflict.
- Securing access for aid and relief agencies, both inside and outside Syria In addition to Syria’s 2 million refugees, there are now 4.25 million internally displaced people inside Syria. They need help.
- Freezing the assets of President al-Assad and his close associates
- Stopping the flow of arms that is fueling the conflict The U.N. Security Council must impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government. When it comes to armed opposition groups, all arms transfers must be stopped where there is a substantial risk of the group committing serious human rights abuses.
Syria turning over any chemical weapons it has to the U.N. and ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention would be an important step. But it is not enough. Bullets, guns, and bombs are a main source of terror for so many Syrian civilians today. Any steps that the U.N. Security Council agrees to must recognize this fundamental reality.
Let’s push U.S. officials to work with the Security Council to do the right thing and implement the measures outlined above.