The military campaigns in Syria and Yemen have been characterized by non-stop brutality and indiscriminate attacks from the air that have killed and injured huge numbers of civilians. Not only have we witnessed the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Syria and thousands in Yemen, but the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as water and health systems means that millions of other civilians will suffer death, disease and injury that will set back these countries for decades.
The international community has been unable to achieve more than brief cease-fires that last just hours in most cases. Events in the past week have reached such a high point of inhuman warfare and civilian death and suffering that we have started to hear calls for action to investigate and hold accountable those who may have committed crimes against humanity or war crimes.
Among these are senior United Nations officials, and even the United States has asked if the Russian and Syrian governments should be investigated for their attacks on civilians and infrastructural facilities in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. In reality, the American call by Secretary of State John Kerry cannot be taken seriously because the United States itself has been directly involved in instances where its weapons and political support for Israel and Saudi Arabia have allowed equally vicious attacks against civilians to take place in Gaza and Yemen, not to mention some direct American attacks in Afghanistan and Syria.
Yet the rising international revulsion with the barbaric nature of the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen might provide an opportunity for the world to finally take action. The odds of this succeeding are slim, given the existing nature of the collective decision-making system within the UN, especially the Security Council. This is because the powers that enjoy veto power in the UN system are also the ones directly engaged in the fighting in Syria, so they will never accept to sanction or investigate their own conduct. In the case of Yemen, the UN secretary general also succumbed recently to Saudi Arabian financial pressure and removed Riyadh from a list of countries whose policies violated the rights of youth and children.
Yet events continue to achieve new heights of death and cruelty, which is why we hear now some voices asking for new mechanisms to investigate states’ conduct that may violate the existing rules of war. The most dramatic incident was the bombing of a hall in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last week during a private condolences ceremony, which resulted in at least 140 deaths and 525 injured, bringing the civilian death toll in Yemen to 4,125, with another 7,207 injured during this war.
The Sanaa bombing was carried out by the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen, using U.S.-manufactured and -supplied MK-82 guided bombs that were identified from fragments found in the rubble. The United States has supplied Saudi Arabia with some $20 billion of weapons during the past 18 months, and is also assisting the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen with logistical and intelligence information.
This follows months of Russian and Syrian bombings of civilian areas of Aleppo, including destroying hospitals and water facilities, using crude chemical weapons, and laying siege to neighborhoods and small towns for months at a time, leading to starvation and death. All these actions defy international humanitarian law codes that were developed decades ago precisely to shield innocent civilians from this kind of cruel and barbaric action.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, this week again called for the establishment of an independent international body to investigate these and many other incidents of apparent war crimes. Despite the UN Secretary-General also supporting this call, the UN Human Rights Council has twice rejected this, indicating the built-in problem of expecting countries that carry out such criminal policies in wartime to agree to investigate themselves.
So it is time to explore credible and effective mechanisms that can investigate war crimes allegations by all concerned parties, no matter how powerful or wealthy they may be, and hold them accountable to standards of law and human decency that remain a unifying force among people across our world, even though some governments lose sight of these values and act like barbarians sometimes. If existing structures within the UN cannot act credible, the world must explore global civilian action through non-governmental organizations, supported by those few honorable governments that do exist, to investigate war crimes allegations; in cases of proven guilt, such mechanisms should also develop punitive responses that individuals and corporations can undertake despite their government’s inaction or hypocrisy. These could include civilian boycotts and sanctions, as the world used against South African Apartheid decades ago, and is starting to apply against Israeli crimes and excesses in the occupied Palestinian territories today.
Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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