A Question for Assad to Ponder

5/3/2011

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Despite the Syrian government’s effort to curtail the information flow, credible reports suggest hundreds of people have been killed or injured in the violent crackdown on demonstrators seeking change. The images of tanks and snipers on the streets of Deraa, a city on the Syrian-Jordanian border, or soldiers firing indiscriminately into crowds of mourners, indicate the levels the repression has reached. Reports from local human rights groups speak about the campaign of terror that includes hundreds of abductions of dissidents and torture of detainees.

In the case of Deraa, Assad’s security forces are using methods reminiscent of those used by Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad in 1982, when government forces surrounded Syria’s fourth largest city, Hama, and killed thousands in a scorched-earth campaign against the city’s population, which was accused of supporting a revolt against the government’s rule. However, while Hafez al-Assad was able to do this far from the attention of the world and get away with it, the information disseminated via the Internet and social media today prevents the same scenario. The world is now watching.

The extent of violence prompted the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution creating a commission to investigate the alleged crimes in Syria. Despite the opposition from nine countries including China and Russia, the council adopted the resolution “condemning the use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters by the Syrian authorities... and urging the Syrian government to immediately put an end to all human rights violations." The commission of inquiry will have a fact-finding mandate and report back in June on what took place and how best to achieve accountability.

At the same time, in Yemen, as the Gulf-brokered deal between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition hinges on Saleh’s readiness to commit to leaving the office in the coming months, the world has witnessed killings of protesters by security forces on an almost daily basis since the protests began in January. Some 130 people have reportedly been killed by uniformed and plainclothes police in Sanaa, Hodeida and elsewhere in Yemen as people took to the streets demanding the resignation of Saleh and his government.

In the deal Saleh negotiated with the Gulf mediators, he insisted on one thing in exchange for stepping down: immunity from prosecution for him and his family. This betrays Saleh’s anxiousness about being held accountable for ordering or sponsoring the killings of protesters, which would eventually be subject to investigation by either national or international bodies.

In Bahrain, the martial law declared by King Hamad in March has left the door wide open to a brutal crackdown aimed at suppressing protests and silencing dissent. Wounded protested were reportedly denied medical care, doctors treating injured demonstrators were arrested, ill-treatment of detainees is widespread and special military courts with very little consideration for the rights of the defendants have been set up and already sentenced a number of protestors to death.

The fact that under international law there can be no amnesty for crimes against humanity is only one of several good reasons for Assad, Saleh and Hamad to be certain that in the end somebody will be held accountable for those crimes. The lessons learned from other countries constitute another.

A good example is Argentina, where some 30 years after the military junta’s campaign of terror, key leaders, direct perpetrators and civilians who contributed to the junta’s crimes—including senior security officials, judges and former ministers—are on trial. As of 2010, more than 800 accused faced criminal charges, and 200 have been sentenced. Calls for justice never disappear, however successful governments think they are in avoiding accountability for state repression and human rights violations.

However, the governments of Syria, Bahrain and Yemen don’t have to look that far away to witness what the prevailing trends are when it comes to accountability for state repression of its citizens. There is the recent start of the trial of Habib el-Adly, Egypt's former interior minister, on charges of having ordered the shooting of unarmed demonstrators during the protests that toppled Mubarak’s regime. There is also Tunisia’s fact-finding commission, charged with investigating violence against protesters of Ben Ali’s regime, which may open the door to criminal trials.

The challenge is to see fair trials in accordance with international standards. Distorting justice to accommodate impunity for short-sighted political solutions or, at the other extreme, to pursue political revenge, will ultimately fail.

Syria is now subject to an international investigation, but even as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was passing the resolution, protesters were still being killed in Deraa and elsewhere in the country. Assad, and other leaders in the region, must know that somebody will be held responsible for the serious crimes committed against their citizens. The times when states could carry out such acts of repression against their own citizens with impunity are gone.