The Failure of an International Commitment to Human Rights

Middle Eastern political analyst Emile Hokayem recently tweeted “Being from, caring about and working on the Middle East is an endless heartbreak,” in reference to reports of the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria, on April 7th, 2018. When I first learned that a player in the Syrian conflict, presumably the Assad government, orchestrated a chemical weapons attack on civilians living in the last rebel stronghold in Syria, a somewhat similar thought crossed my mind. Approximately six years ago, upon my learning of the first chemical attack in Syria, I experienced anger and disbelief at what was happening. Today, after learning that yet another attack involving chemical weapons occurred in Douma – eerily, almost exactly a year after the attack on Khan Sheikoun on April 4th, 2017 – I admit that the first feeling that I felt was not shock, but a sense of defeat.

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Western missiles fly towards targets in Damascus. Photo via Sky News.

The developments in Syria since 2011 have thrown all my beliefs and assumptions about the political order of the world into disarray, and have made me think about the place of the international community in preventing horrific war crimes such as these. Particularly, I began to question the role of the international institutions and sovereign states in holding dictatorial regimes and their abuse of human rights accountable. Since the first use of chemical weapons in Syria, political analysts have speculated as to why president Bashar al-Assad would repeatedly use chemical weapons on Syrians, let alone Syrian civilians. Their analyses are too intricate to dissect here, but one reason states that the regime wanted to completely eradicate the will and resistance of the civil population, in light of the origins of the 2011 uprising that eventually led to the war. Another reason states that the regime felt like they were able to repeat chemical attacks because of the weak response of states when they first used the weapon, epitomized in President Barack Obama’s lack of action after his infamous “red line” speech. Regardless, seeing pictures and videos of entire families succumbing to chemicals time and time again set it aside in a completely different sphere for me than the other atrocities that have also been occurring since 2011. It amplified my cynicism, and, after its repeated occurrence, seemed to cement a new world view that in the 21st century, the international community’s professed commitment to universal human rights, peace, and justice extends only to an abstract scope, and exists in solely emblematic terms. It conveyed that the international institutions dedicated to defending human rights and promoting peace were only a formality, and that the era of international community and cooperation that they have fostered does not accommodate for a pragmatic approach to the commitment.

It is because of this abstraction, then, that the global dedication to human rights is difficult to criticize properly. It is repeatedly affirmed by nations and international institutions alike, but it is not always clear the extent of measures they are willing to take the materialize this commitment. It is abstract in origin, and it is effectively only symbolic as a result. After World War II, it was clear that nations at least appeared outwardly devoted to peace with the creation of the United Nations. Their dedication to human rights, moreover, was marked by the 1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN’s Human Rights Council has been documenting violations in Syria since 2011, and many Syrians are hopeful that after the war, war criminals will be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court. But today, after each tragedy in Syria, the United Nations steadily offers condemnation towards different factions involved in the war, but ultimately finds itself coming to a stalemate in terms of deciding how to act.

We are familiar with arguments that the United States, for example, could have intervened early on in the war, or that Russia could have been properly restrained if there was political will from its adversaries, and so on. Regardless, they remain what-if arguments because they have not been materialized. To me, the latest attack in Douma calls for a restructuring of the commitment on human rights, or at least a re-understanding of its nature. Ultimately, this responsibility cannot be upheld on the international stage as a result of the inevitable, and disappointing, shortcomings that we have come to see time and time again. Both in action, and increasingly, in rhetoric that recognizes their limitations, it is clear that international institutions and nations are unable to uphold a commitment to human rights when they do not have the capacity to police other sovereign nations’ actions. In this arrangement, states who are biggest violators of human rights are often enabled: they are able to pledge a dedication to human rights, peace, and justice while at the same time being active proponents of their violation, knowing that they are protected from intervention because of precedent. It is an instance seen in the Assad regime’s use of torture, rape, the detainment and systematic targeting of civilians, siege tactics, and now, yet another chemical attack that seems to purposely defy the international community.

The façade of an international will and resolve to stop atrocities from happening around the world, accompanied by the use of repeated language from state and international bodies alike about their dedication to human rights, has left Syrians hopeful only to be heartbroken time and time again. The protest banners from Kafranbel make this clear. We are only able to listen to strong condemnation from the United Nations – sometimes condemnation that is purposefully not actually substantial – for so long. It is unclear to what extent those living outside of Syria can help, particularly when it is apparent that international opinion continues to have no effect on the atrocities that occur. We must take a different course of action, then. What we must now realize is that the current upholding of this dedication is ineffective, and rather, we must reorient the responsibility to uphold these values so that it lies with states in the long-term. In the interim to reaching that point, responsibility must also rest with individual resistance, in the form of the brave activists that we see in Syria, risking their lives to demand the exercise of freedom and the guarantee of their human rights. It must be that sovereign nations are wholeheartedly committed to upholding the human and civil rights of their people, so that we do not need to despair when we are failed both by world states and our own. And without a doubt, civilians will be at the forefront of the fight to actualize this change.

There have been reports of civilians hiding underground in Douma on April 7th to escape government forces’ routine bombing, which made them more vulnerable to the chemical agent that was used and resulted in more deaths. Neither I nor the rest of the Syrian people have had the ability to focus on the civil rights and freedoms that we have asked for under tyrannical rule. Instead, we have resorted to begging for the luxury of not being the targets of chemical weapons attacks. Considering the international community’s history of a lack of intervention to stop these attacks, it is apparent that we will continue to beg. It is clear now that the continuing belief in the international community’s power to prevent these occurrences has not only failed Syrians, but has also set a dangerous precedent of global complacency and inaction that will be taken advantage of in the future.


Article written by Nina Farwal for The Youth Journal.

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