Navi Pillay must have shuddered as President Bashar Assad, in an hour-long
speech broadcast on Syrian TV, demonstrated yet again the sharp disconnect
between his view of the conflict raging in his country and the actuality on the
ground of death and destruction.
Pillay, the outspoken UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights, has been a rare voice of reason regarding the
Syria crisis. She has consistently called attention to the Assad regime’s human
rights abuses since March 2011, when he launched a crackdown that has struck all
of Syria with escalating brutality.
In Sunday’s televised address, the
typically truculent Assad continued to promote his view that Syrians still
support him in a momentous battle against foreign terrorists and their
supporters. He called for “a total national mobilization to save the country
from the clutches of a crisis which has no precedent in this
However, what is actually unprecedented is Assad’s unwillingness
to grasp that the uprising, beginning nearly two years ago, emanated from his
own citizens, inspired by successful, largely peaceful, protests in Egypt and
Tunisia, to bring about political reform.
Assad is determined not to
follow the paths of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar
Only a year ago Pillay reported that the death toll in Syria had
reached 5,000. The rate quickly rose during 2012, as the Assad regime pulled out
more lethal weaponry, including air force bombings and Scud missiles, and used
it more indiscriminately.
Pillay was skeptical of the widely reported
death figures, estimated at 40,000 in recent months. To ascertain more precise
numbers her office commissioned a US-based non-profit organization, Benetech, to
do a fuller assessment of the data compiled by a number of organizations
monitoring human rights in Syria that have tried to track the
THE RESULT, announced last week, was a stunning 60,000
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is
truly shocking,” said Pillay, who warned that the actual figure is probably much
“Only the killings that are fully identified by the name of the
victim, as well as the location and date of the death” are included, states the
“Significantly, there is an unknown number of killings
which have not been documented.”
Calling out governments for their human
rights violations is a primary mission of Pillay’s office. Indeed, safeguarding
human rights worldwide was a founding principle of the United Nations. That is
precisely why Jacob Blaustein, former president of the American Jewish
Committee, first proposed, in 1963, the creation of the High Commissioner post.
It was established in 1994.
The High Commissioner strives to spark
concerted, meaningful responses from the international community. That requires
cooperation by UN member governments.
On Syria, Pillay has bemoaned the
inaction of world leaders.
“The failure of the international community,
in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the
bloodletting, shames us all,” she said.
More than a year ago, she urged
the Security Council to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court for
crimes against humanity. The Hague-based ICC has issued war crimes indictments
against other Arab despots, notably Sudan’s Omar Bashir and, before his death,
Libya’s Gaddafi. But thanks to vetoes by Russia and China, the council has been
silent on Syria.
Assad’s defiance guarantees that the war his regime
initiated will go on and the recorded death toll will rapidly rise beyond the
60,000 figure. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has warned
that it could reach 100,000 dead in 2013.
With Syria’s security forces
dedicated to his regime’s survival and the help of such international allies as
Russia, China and Iran, Assad is confidently sticking to the narrative in his
Sunday speech, that the US State Department said is “detached from
As Pillay so aptly observed, the international community has
“fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.”
Indeed, the lineup of Assad
supporters effectively blocks the efforts of Pillay and her team. And the Syria
experience also raises profound questions about what will transpire the next
time citizens of a country seek freedom from a desperate regime.
writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.