SA on Syria: Support the People, not Assad

July 7, 2011

South Africa, along with Russia, Brazil, and to some extent India, is currently blocking a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling on Syria to end its violent crackdown against pro-democracy protestors. In response, a delegation of leading Syrian human rights activists is visiting South Africa, in order to meet with government officials to try to change South Africa’s stance.

 

On Thursday, SALC attended a press conference hosted by Human Rights Watch and Civicus where the Syrian activists laid out the crimes the Syrian government has committed, and their reasons why the South African government should allow debate to go forward on the Resolution.

Human Rights Watch and Syrian human rights groups have documented 1,350 killings by Syrian security forces, including executed members of the security forces who refused to fire on demonstrators. An estimated 15,000 civilians have been detained, tortured, or disappeared, and 12,000 refugees have fled the country. In the face of such a brutal crackdown, the pro-democracy movement has remained largely peaceful and committed to pressing their demands nonviolently at the grassroots level. The activists even described failed attempts by Syrian authorities to induce the protesters to use violence by abandoning arms caches in areas with strong opposition support.

Based on their meetings with ANC officials the Syrian activists attribute South Africa’s stance at the UNSC to a strong feeling that they were deceived about the extent of the international community’s involvement in Libya. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, South Africa supported UNSC Resolution 1973, which authorized a ‘No-Fly Zone’ in Libya, as well as the referral of Muammar Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court. South Africa has since strongly criticised both, arguing that resolution 1973 is being abused to bring about regime change and that the ICC arrest warrant for Gaddafi is preventing a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

In seeking to allay the South African government’s concerns, the Syrian activists strongly emphasized that the situation in Syria is not analogous to the one in Libya. While the Libyan rebels based around Bengazi explicitly requested international intervention, the Syrian pro-democracy activists do not want international intervention. Instead, they would like to see international support for human rights and the rule of law in Syria, as well as targeted sanctions against those most responsible for the abuses. The activists believe that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad lost all legitimacy when he gave orders for security forces to open fire the on peaceful protestors. Although they require Assad’s resignation, the protestors have made it clear to members of the regime who have not supported the massacres that they still have a place in the national politics. According to the activists, the Syrian people’s goal is to establish a civic, pluralistic, democratic state in Syria based on equal citizenship and the rule of law.

The activists also emphasized that they hoped to spread awareness of the government’s action in Syria. Syria has a complete ban on all foreign media, making it difficult for the world to receive information about the situation there. The activists said that while Facebook played a crucial role in the protests in Egypt, the Syrian government has used Facebook to monitor protestors. Rather, YouTube has been the vital resource of the pro-democracy movement. Syrian youth use any video recording equipment available to them to record government abuses, and then send the videos to activists who place them online. In one instance, an activist was discovered, and then beaten, detained, and forced to make a false confession on television, showing just how much the protestors are willing to risk in order to inform the world about the abuses being perpetrated by the Syrian regime.

The activists are asking for the South African government to show moral leadership, to support the Syrian people’s right to choose their own government, and to condemn the gross human rights violations currently being perpetrated in Syria. Civicus argued that South Africa’s actions have consequences for who South Africa’s friends are, and for who South Africa wants itself to be.

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