No, this isn’t a bad joke.
The very same Syria that today is mowing down its own people in the streets could well be elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council on May 20th.
Here’s how it works:
The Council is comprised of 47 member states. Each is elected for a three-year term, with one-third of the seats becoming vacant each year. According to the UN General Assembly resolution creating the Council in 2006, Asia is assigned 13 of the 47 seats, with the other four regional blocs divvying up the remaining 34. Four of the 13 Asian seats become vacant now.
This year, there’s what’s called a “clean slate,” meaning that four countries were chosen within the Asia group for the four seats. They are India, Indonesia, Philippines, and, yes, Syria. (Syria’s candidacy has also been embraced by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.) Unless more Asian countries now opt to vie for the vacant seats, it could soon be a done deal.
Traditionally, when the general vote occurs, the candidate countries selected by their respective regional blocs are automatically endorsed, with perhaps a few dissenting votes, by the larger group.
To indicate its willingness to comply with the Council’s mission, Syria has formally pledged “its commitment to respect and to support the inalienable nature of all human rights,” adding it “would contribute to accomplish the objectives of the Council, and would support the national and international efforts for promotion and protection of human rights for all, without distinction and selectivity or politicization.”
Don’t laugh. The Syrian government expressed this with all due solemnity. Given the abysmal record of some others who’ve been chosen to serve on the Council, it could be enough to get itself elected.
Of course, putting Syria on the UN Human Rights Council would make a mockery of the whole exercise.
One hardly knows where to begin in documenting Syria’s utter and total disregard for human rights. And, incidentally, this long predates the current bloodshed.
For starters, the regime has no legitimacy. In 2000, Bashar Assad inherited power from his father, Hafez Assad, who himself was no Jeffersonian democrat nor was he, shall we say, the product of the free will of the people. The ruling elite come from the Alawite community, which comprises just 12 percent of the total population.
Open elections in Syria? No. Protection of civil liberties? No. Due process? No. Independent judiciary? No.
Emergency rule? Yes. Torture? Yes. Administrative detention? Yes. Censorship? Yes.
What’s more, Syria not only flouts human rights protections at home, but beyond its borders as well.
Damascus houses terrorist groups like Hamas, whose stated aim is the destruction of Israel and the murder of Israelis wherever they may live.
Syria, a bosom buddy of Iran, is involved in the trans-shipment of weaponry to Hezbollah from Iran, in flagrant violation of UN Security Council resolutions and with the aim of strengthening a terrorist entity at the expense of the centralized government in Lebanon.
Until 2007, when Israel took action, Syria pursued a clandestine nuclear-weapons program in collaboration with North Korea. To what end? It’s not hard to guess. Whether it has sought to restart that program remains an open question. What’s not in question, however, is Syria’s failure to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on inspections.
And it was clear to French President Jacques Chirac that Syria had a central hand in the murder of his friend, Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, and 21 others in Beirut in 2005.
But despite this deplorable record, Syria has gotten off quite easy.
Bashar Assad was mistakenly seen as a reformer from the get-go by many observers who presumably would rather not have their comments at the time recalled. Because he had spent time in England, was computer savvy, had an attractive wife, and represented a generational shift from his thuggish father, Assad was heralded as ushering in a new era.
Less than one year after he took office, Syria was elected to the UN Security Council as a candidate of the Asian group, with 160 out of 177 votes.
More recently, an unending procession of Western dignitaries have made their way to Damascus in the misplaced, if stubborn, belief they could draw Assad away from the Iranian orbit, laud internal progress, and encourage closer ties. The visitors have included several notable members of the US Congress.
After President Sarkozy took office in 2007, France began to reverse course on the hostile stance towards Syria of President Chirac. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan embraced the Syrian leader and struck defense and other deals with him. Russia agreed to sell deadly missiles to the Syrian regime. And the US returned its ambassador to Damascus in January, after downgrading bilateral ties in 2005 over the Hariri assassination.
Vogue, the fashion magazine, went so far as to feature the Syrian First Lady in its March issue. The spread could not have been more fawning – or ill-timed.
And now, lest there have been any doubts all along, Syria has shown its true colors for the world to see.
While uttering empty words about reform, Assad has unleashed the vast power of the state to kill hundreds of his countrymen who dared to peacefully and courageously challenge his rule – and the end is not in sight.
He’s tried to keep the media out, but social media can’t be stopped as easily, so we’ve heard loud and clear from opposition groups. The world knows what’s happening there.
Well, in the case of Libya, after initial hesitation, the international community sprang into action to confront Gaddafi’s crimes.
The UN Human Rights Council met in special session. It recommended the suspension of Libya’s membership – which itself had been a travesty when it occurred in 2010. The UN General Assembly endorsed the suspension. And, of course, the UN Security Council took important decisions.
With Syria, it’s still unclear. It could go either way.
Within weeks, Syria could be elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council and, despite its own horrendous record, sit imperiously in judgment of others for the next three years.
Or, like Libya, it could instead become the target of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council – and possibly other UN bodies – for its systematic violations of human rights and possible crimes against humanity.
The world should be watching closely.
It will reveal a great deal about how the Council works, how regional blocs – in this case, Asia – either embrace or reject murderers in their midst, and how individual countries act. Remember that each country has one vote, and those votes will determine the outcome.
We can only hope that a clear majority of the Council will get “Syria-ous.”