Justice for Syrians?

syria

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

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Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

Côte d’Ivoire Votes: What is At Stake One Year Later

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch on December 12, 2011.

One year after the presidential election that caused the country to descend into chaos, Côte d’Ivoire held its first parliamentary election since 2000 yesterday, Sunday December 11. Media reports concur on a few points: voter turn-out was low and the election was generally peaceful, in spite of the boycott by pro-Gbagbo supporters.

The low turnout on Sunday can perhaps be explained in part because of the raw memories of the 2010 vote, and in part because of a generally apathetic view towards parliamentary elections, according to the National Electoral Commission Chair, Youssouf Bakayoko. BBC correspondent John James suggests that a combination of these elements, as well as the fact that the parliamentary assembly has limited powers, can explain the low level of participation. Because of the boycott by the pro-Gbagbo opposition party, most of the 1,000+ candidates hail from the governing party coalition, leaving little room for genuine choice in the ballot box.

Since Alassane Ouattara came to power last spring, he declared that legislative elections would be held in December – with or without Gbagbo’s opposition party – and, indeed, he has kept his word. As with the recent presidential election in Liberia, the lack of opposition participation weakens the democratic nature of the vote, as well as the mandate of those elected. A boycott in a parliamentary election, however, is likely less damaging for Ouattara. The fact that these elections were held, as originally planned, plays in his favor.

While the parliamentary elections have been hailed by Ouattara and the UN as a “step toward reconciliation”, it remains to be seen how Gbagbo supporters will react to the official announcement of the results on December 18th. As suggested by reports from Al Jazeera, Gbagbo supporters still have major grievances that remain unaddressed. The boycott itself, both by Gbagbo’s party and by his supporters who did not cast their ballot, suggests that much still needs to be done to ensure that tensions between different factions are not rekindled.

As Laurent Gbagbo’s trial in The Hague unfolds under the auspices of the International Criminal Court, it will be important to observe the repercussions in Côte d’Ivoire. Furthermore, the legitimacy and democratic nature of Ouattara’s government will continue to be tested in 2012. The parliamentary election will very likely hand Ouattara a good amount of legislative power, with a probable majority. How Ouattara will wield this power, and whether opposition parties, news media and individuals will be given the freedom and political space they need to operate and share their views, remains to be seen.

Can Inequality Fuel Revolutions?

Peru factory

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch. Many people shared comments and thoughts via Twitter and Google +, thank you very much for engaging. The title of this post has a question mark because I really think of this as a question – can inequality fuel revolutions? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Continue reading Can Inequality Fuel Revolutions?

Free elections in Guinea

Man votes in Guinea. Credit: Luc Gnano/Reuters

From the AP:

Among the millions who traveled by bicycle, foot and wheelchair to vote Sunday was Ouma Kankou Diallo, a 39-year-old teacher.

“A lot of people said this would never happen,” she said after slipping her ballot into a clear plastic urn at a seaside primary school within sight of the military barracks where Camara was shot. “But it has happened and we will forever be grateful. For us, this is a kind of dream.”

For the first time since independence in 1958, Guineans went to the polls yesterday for the first round of a free and fair presidential election. Results won’t be known for another few days, but it is widely expected that a second round of voting will take place in mid-July if none of the 24 candidates emerge with a clear majority in this first round.

The BBC reports that Guinean expats in Monrovia lined up for kilometers to take part in the historic vote.

I’m thrilled for Guinea, and hope this marks the beginning of a new era in the country’s history.