The Security Council adopted a presidential statement today backing Kofi Annan, the joint United Nations-Arab League special envoy to Syria, on his mission to resolve the year-long crisis there. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the press after the adoption that his country’s stance on Syria had not changed and that the statement reflected what Russia had been “advocating all along” while it also supported Annan’s new mission.
The council also issued a press statement, instigated by Russia, condemning the bombing attacks in Damascus and Aleppo last week.
Even as fighting continues in Syria, the Security Council’s presidential statement shows the first stroke of unity among the members this year that the situation on the ground is growing worse.
The statement clarifies the main elements of Annan’s proposals and requests that he keep the council regularly briefed on his diplomacy. It supports the proposals’ efforts to bring an immediate stop to all violence and human rights violations, secure humanitarian access and ease the way for a “Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system” involving dialogue between the government and “the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.”
“This is hugely important,” said Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies in New York. “This could be the last opportunity to keep Syria from the brink of something more catastrophic.”
Adams said that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is providing the framework for Annan’s plan, which will ultimately “help open up space in which mass atrocity crimes and crimes against humanity could be stopped.”
“Annan is well acquainted with the R2P doctrine,” Adams said, using its shorthand. “He’s a founder of the principal; he’s got the skills. I think there is a growing realization that this is it, the alternatives are too horrible.”
The Security Council statement called specifically for Syria to stop attacking and using heavy weapons against civilians and to begin pulling back military in populated areas. It also requests a daily two-hour humanitarian pause to allow aid to be administered; a release of arbitrarily detained people; freedom of movement for journalists; and the right to demonstrate and freedom of association.
Crimes against humanity
The statement closely matches the conclusions made in a report released last month by a UN commission investigating human rights abuses from December through February in Syria. The report compiled through first-hand interviews of 369 people systemic gross human rights violations directed from upper reaches of the government. The research team was led by Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat and UN special rapporteur.
The report suggested that a confidential list of names it gathered of people responsible for crimes against humanity could include President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle. The names could be turned over for prosecution to the International Criminal Court in The Hague — though that is unlikely to happen soon, Barbara Crossette wrote in an article in The Nation.
The presidential statement is the second declaration by the Security Council on the Syrian crisis, which has left at least 7,500 dead and some areas bulldozed after incessant attacks on civilians and rebels. The first statement, condemning the violence, was released during India’s Security Council presidency in August 2011 to little effect.
Like resolutions, the statement requires council consensus but is nonbinding. So far, the council has not been able to pass a more dynamic judgment on Syria, as Russia and China vetoed two resolutions that would have denounced the Syrian government and also called for a cease-fire.
The permanent-five Security Council members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, began discussing the French-sponsored statement yesterday, but snags hit when Russia held it up. Russia has been defending the Syrian government in the conflict, supplying arms to the military and maintaining its access to the strategic Syrian port of Tartus in the Mediterranean Sea.
The council drafted the statement after Annan’s private briefing to the group on March 16 by teleconference from Geneva, in which he asked that one mediation process be used to resolve the conflict. He also said that on his recent trip to Syria, he talked with Assad and opposition leaders, businesspeople and civil society as well as the chairman of the Syrian National Council, in Turkey, where the exile opposition group is based.
Annan sent a technical team on Sunday, March 18, to Damascus to pursue the proposals and said he would return to the region when more progress was made. The UN also announced that Annan will have a new deputy to assist him, Jean-Marie Guehenno, a former chief of the UN peacekeeping department who has been teaching at Columbia University. He is from France.
“Syria is committed to making Mr. Annan’s mission successful,” Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, said after Annan’s briefing.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.