03 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
With South Africa’s position on the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict still deeply ambivalent, it is perhaps time to get on the right side of human rights, writes Tony Leon
A US policymaker once described North Korea as "the land of lousy options". If that taxonomy is accurate, then Syria must rank, for both the US and the world, as North Korea on steroids. Its civil war has killed about 100,000 of its citizens over the past two years, and just two weeks ago evidence emerged that chemical weapons were used in precision bombing in the suburbs of Damascus. More than 1,400 people were killed, including 426 children, many of whom were "gassed as they slept … and awoke gasping for breath", according to medical witnesses.
More than 90 years ago, the world — seared by the experience of poison gas in the First World War — outlawed the use of such weapons. Winston Churchill wrote of the "hellish poison of German mustard gas", which in the Battle of Ypres alone killed 5,000 and wounded 10,000. The escalation of tit-for-tat chemical attacks in the Great War ultimately killed 100,000 people. In the words of Samantha Power, a human rights scholar and the US ambassador to the United Nations, "the gases blistered the skin and singed the lungs. The deaths were slow, the last days of life ghastly". In 1925, the Geneva Protocol prohibited in war or conflict the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases" and it is widely agreed that this convention is part of international customary law. In 1930, South Africa became a treaty party.
More than a year ago, US President Barack Obama faced searing domestic and international criticism for his reluctance to take a decisive stand on the conflict in Syria. He was accused by some of "leading from behind". But last August he announced that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad would mean it had "crossed a red line". Of course, as Obama told his country this weekend, "Americans are war weary". The invasion of Iraq, essentially on a false prospectus of its possession of weapons of mass destruction, which ultimately turned out not to exist, has had profound consequences for the international order and some of its key protagonists.
Of course, the evidence of the use of such chemical weapons, and by whom, still remains to be proven conclusively. On Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry — ironically now with the support of France, a staunch opponent of the Iraq invasion, but shorn of British approbation — laid out a strong case that the Assad regime used such weapons. He offered "high confidence" rather than proof beyond all doubt and indicated that the US would respond. Obama now requires the US Congress to green-light a response which will hit the regime with precision missiles, although not with a full-scale invasion.
On any version, it is clear that the Assad regime possesses stockpiles of chemical weapons — including mustard, sarin and VX — and also has the warheads to launch them. Such possession and capacity are beyond the reach of its opponents.
South Africa’s position on the internationalisation of this conflict remains deeply ambivalent. Almost from the beginning of the "Arab Spring", South Africa has been — in the words of The Economist – "all over the map". Surprisingly, and to some of us pleasingly, in March 2011, we parted with Russia and China and supported United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution 1973, which established a "no-fly zone" over Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. But almost immediately, the government resiled from the consequences of its vote.
From the moment the fires of the "Arab Spring" were lit in Syria, our position down the road of inconsistency has gathered pace. Ignoring the brutal nature of the Assad regime and its energetic slaughtering of its own population, South Africa’s ambassador to Syria, for example, announced that the social media used by regime opponents to expose its excesses created "false distortions". The Department of International Relations and Co-operation has pursued in its public pronouncements an extraordinary policy of spectacular even-handedness between the regime and its opponents. This could be interpreted as temporising with tyranny.
Last week, while correctly condemning the use of chemical weapons as "wholly unacceptable", the government announced that any attack on Syria "without a UN Security Council resolution would constitute a grave violation of international law".
Of course, this standard for military intervention has been recently breached by South Africa itself. Our military intervention earlier this year in the Central African Republic had no council approval. The Nato campaign to prevent the ethnic slaughter in Kosovo was widely welcomed, but also had no UN imprimatur. In the latter case, of course, just as with Syria now, Russia’s veto would have crippled any such resolution.
The eminent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, no poodle of warmongers, put it best: "International law does not prevent action to stop international crime."
Time for us, perhaps, to get on the right side of human rights.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA