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The road to Damascus

india Updated: Aug 23, 2011 20:55 IST

There have been protests in Syria since March and after 41 years of repressive one-party rule, things seem to be coming to a pass. The movement for democracy has been sparked partly by the developments in Tunisia and Egypt and now, in Libya. Unfortunately the government of Bashar al-Assad has chosen to respond with force, security forces killing nearly 2,000 already, arresting thousands and torturing many in custody. Despite government repression, the protests have escalated throughout the country, with increasing demands for justice.

On August 18, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai asked the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer Syria to the Inter-national Criminal Court for the investigation of alleged atrocities against anti-government protestors. A report by her office found “a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity.” Just before Pillai’s deposition, US President Barack Obama and the European Union had recommended sanctions and called on Assad to step down. Obama said the Syrian president’s “calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.”

The Syrian government’s response was a predictably fierce denial. The UNSC’s past sanctions against Iraq and its recent involvement in Libya have made more than a few countries wary about its possible role in Syria. It is, therefore, crucial for emerging powers, particularly those that claim to speak for the less powerful, to comprehend fully the situation on the ground in Syria.

India, traditionally, shies away from any public comment on events unfolding in another country. With India worried about protecting its own sovereignty and anxious about any criticism of its actions in Jammu and Kashmir or in its anti-Maoist operations, the idea is to offer that same reticence to other States that it would like for itself.

However, as an emerging power, India now occupies a significant place in global diplomacy — or, at any rate, should. In fact, when Syrian vice foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad visited India recently, he sought diplomatic support. India publicly encouraged his government to exercise restraint and “abjure violence”.

Together with Brazil and South Africa, India initially resisted efforts to raise Syria’s crackdown at the UNSC, largely motivated by concerns over Nato action in Libya and because New Delhi accepted Damascus’ claims that the violence was provoked by armed groups. However, soon after India took over the rotating presidency of the UNSC on August 3, the council issued a statement unanimously condemning the Damascus for “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians”.

Later in August, India, Brazil and South Africa (‘IBSA’) sent a delegation to Syria. The aim was to encourage the Syrian government to exercise restraint and to initiate talks with the opposition. In a public statement after the visit, IBSA said that the delegation had “called for an immediate end to all violence” and recommended “respect for human rights and international human rights law”. Unfortunately, Damascus has refused to heed any such demands from the international community.

The Syrian government intensified its crackdown and continued to refuse access to a human rights fact-finding team mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. Damascus also promptly conveyed a misleading portrayal of the IBSA delegation, having the Syrian State news agency report that the delegation agreed there was a “campaign targeting Syria in the UNSC,” and opposed any interference in Syria’s internal affairs.

Faced with such defiance, India will have to make choices. Several governments from the region have already expressed their dismay with Syria’s actions. Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia have recalled their ambassadors to Syria. The Human Rights Council scheduled an emergency meeting for August 22 after 24 countries, including all four Arab members, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, joined the European initiative to convene the meeting. A resolution was passed, but India chose to abstain, claiming that it prefers dialogue.

This is a pity. India presently holds membership both at the UNSC and at the Human Rights Council. Its silence on Syria is becoming deafening. To avoid being labelled an eternal fence-sitter and a democracy that shies away from human rights protections abroad, India should urgently join in international efforts to escalate pressure on the Syrian government. It should take the lead.

( Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director, Human Rights Watch )

The views expressed by the author are personal