U.N. Security Council Urged Not to Repeat Earlier Failure to Respond to Syrian Bloodshed

By Patrick Goodenough | August 2, 2011 | 5:45 AM EDT

Syrian anti-regime protesters gather during a rally in Hama on Friday, July 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, File)

(CNSNews.com) – When then Syrian President Hafez Assad 19 years ago oversaw the killing of tens of thousands of people in Hama, the U.N. Security Council was silent. As the death toll in the 2011 uprising against his son’s rule continues to climb, and with fresh bloodshed in Hama this week, there are mounting calls for the top U.N. body not to repeat that failure to respond.

But, as the government crackdown entered its 21st week, the Security Council Monday night remained unable to overcome the differences that have prevented it from passing a resolution – or even the far weaker option of a presidential statement – critical of the Syrian regime.

Scores of Syrians were killed in Hama in a renewed assault by security forces on Sunday and Monday, the latest fatalities adding to what human rights monitoring groups say is a toll now exceeding 1,600.

European members of the Security Council – Britain, France, Portugal and Germany – made a renewed push Monday for the council to consider a Syria resolution they first introduced last April with U.S. backing, and which ran into opposition led by veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China, and supported by temporary members Lebanon, India, Brazil and South Africa.

No progress was reported Monday night, and diplomats said discussions would continue on Tuesday.

Russia has attributed its opposition to concerns that a resolution critical of Syria could open the door to military action. It cites the situation in Libya, where Moscow says NATO’s operation has exceeded the mandate of the Security Council that authorized it last March.

Western diplomats reject the Russian argument, saying there has been nothing in the Syria draft resolutions to legitimize military action.

By contrast, resolution 1973 on Libya authorized a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect civilians under threat of attack by the Libyan regime (Russia, China, Brazil, India and Germany abstained in that vote).

The latest killings in Syria have brought fresh condemnation from the Obama administration, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deploring what she called “the brutality and viciousness” of the regime and calling on President Bashar Assad to “stop the slaughter now.”

She also urged opposing Security Council members to “reconsider their positions.”

Clinton repeated her earlier stated position that Assad had “lost his legitimacy with the Syrian people.”

Some want the administration to go further.

“It has been more than two months since President Obama said that Assad had a choice – either lead a transition to democracy or get out of the way,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in a joint statement Monday.

“It is beyond any shred of doubt that Assad and his regime are unwilling to reform and intend to use violence to beat the Syrian people into submission. We urge the Obama administration, together with the European Union, Turkey, and other international partners, to demand Assad leave power and to mobilize the full diplomatic and economic weight of the community of nations to support the Syrian people in establishing the real transition to democracy that they seek in their country.”

McCain and Lieberman recalled the 1982 killings in Hama – “one of the worst massacres in modern Middle Eastern history.”

The United States and our allies cannot allow this history to repeat itself in Syria today.”

To pass, a resolution needs nine votes in the 15-member council, while a “no” vote from any permanent member would also kill the measure.

Some critics of the Assad regime say Western members of the council should push ahead with the resolution notwithstanding the Russian and Chinese veto threats.

“Let the world see, country by country, who on the Security Council condemns what’s going on – and who countenances it,” American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris said Monday. “That vote will be telling. It will end the inexcusably long period of silence on Syria in the face of months of human rights violations that have revealed for all to see – at least for those who care to look – the brutal nature of the Syrian regime.”

‘A painful history of impunity’

In this image made from amateur video released by an anti-Assad group and accessed via The Associated Press Television News on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, military armored vehicles are seen in Hama. (AP Photo/APTN)

Hama, located 130 miles north of Damascus, is Syria’s fourth-largest city, with a population of some 700,000 people.

When President Hafez Assad sent armed forces to crush a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt in the city in February 1982, death toll estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000. Reports from the time said that the vast majority of those killed were civilians.

Assad accused the U.S. of involvement in the revolt, telling the London Observer in March of that year “I have no doubt that this was an American intelligence operation.”

The Security Council passed 29 resolutions during 1982, but not one related to the Hama situation. Seventeen of the 29 dealt with Israel, mostly in connection with the war in Lebanon that year.

Two months after the Hama massacre, Israel was in the firing line at the Security Council after a Israeli soldier – described by the government as deranged – opened fire at a mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, killing two people.

In an April 15 statement, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin criticized Arab states for exploiting a “human tragedy” by taking the matter to an emergency session of the Security Council. He cited several atrocities in the Arab world, saying that the Syrian government had, just weeks earlier, “destroyed dozens of mosques and massacred thousands of civilians – men, women and children” in Hama.

A Heritage Foundation report on the United Nations, published in 1984, also referred to the U.N. silence on Hama.

“The U.N.’s selectivity on human rights offends the American sense of fairness. Resolutions on the Middle East reveal the double standard,” the report said.

Noting a U.N. resolution in 1982 that accused Israel of “war crimes” in the West Bank, the Heritage report said there was “no evidence to support this bizarre statement,” then added, “More revealing is the fact that U.N. says nothing regarding such documented Arab human rights violations as when Syria killed some 10,000 unarmed inhabitants of the town of Hama.”

In a statement Monday calling on the international community to hold those responsible for the 2011 Syrian violations to account, the International Center for Transitional Justice, a non-governmental organization, also invoked the 1982 killings.

“Hama carries a painful history of impunity, dating to a 1982 massacre – in which state security forces reportedly killed 20,000 people – that has not yet been investigated,” it said. “The international community must learn from this grave mistake, and take urgent steps to avoid its repetition.”

“After failing the people of Hama nearly 30 years ago, the international community must take action to give Syria's citizens – and the broader Arab public – reason to believe in the possibility of justice,” said Habib Nassar, director of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa program.

“It is difficult for people in the region to understand why the international community, which acted quickly to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court, has remained impotent in the face of mass crimes being committed in Syria,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow