Tag Archive | "Syria"

Critical Analysis: Report that alleges systematic killing in Syria released days before the start of the Geneva II peace conference

A report released just days before the scheduled start of the Geneva II peace conference “is a smoking gun,” for a war crime prosecution of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime according to David Crane, one of the report’s authors. Copies of the report, which allege the systematic killing of detainees in Syrian jails, were sent to both CNN and The Guardian. The Guardian noted the release “appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference.”

Detained Syrian men, blindfolded and handcuffed, in Qusair, near Homs. Photograph: Sana/Reuters.

Detained Syrian men, blindfolded and handcuffed, in Qusair, near Homs. Photograph: Sana/Reuters.

Evidence in the report comes from a single, unidentified Syrian government defector who shared close to half of the 55,000 images – equating to approximately 11,000 victims – he smuggled on memory sticks out of the war-torn nation. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police, and claims the photos were used to prove execution orders had been carried out, and to allow for death certificates to be provided without the need to show family members the bodies. The death certificates listed the cause of death as a heart attack or breathing problems that occurred in the hospital.

“Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence – the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime’s killing machine,” according to Crane. Activists say an estimated 50,000 detainees are unaccounted for, while tens of thousands of Syrians have been held and released. Released prisoners have shared stories of widespread use of executions and torture.

The gruesome photos include a variety of injuries, including beatings, strangulation and other forms of torture according to the report. A majority of the victims were men, estimated between 20-40 years old. One of report’s authors, Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, told CNN the emaciated bodies were “reminiscent of the pictures of those [who] were found still alive in the Nazi death camps after World War II.”

Representatives from approximately 30 countries are scheduled to attend the Geneva II Conference in an attempt to implement the Geneva Communiqué. The communiqué is intended as a resolution to the civil war in Syria, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced 9.5 million. The two main protagonists in the conflict have irreconcilable objectives: namely the role current President Bashar al-Assad would play in the transitional governing body called for in the communiqué. The force of the talks will also be limited by the absence of several of the largest opposition groups including the Syrian National Council.

Caroline Marfitano is a 2L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Critical Analysis: Can We Abolish the United Nations Security Council Veto? Thoughts in Honor of the +100,000 People Dead So Far In Syria

In a previous article on this blog, I discussed a tradition particular to this school –that of Myres McDougal – a tradition I am proud to be a part of. Myres McDougal advocated for law to be a subtle mixture of positive rule and moral aspiration. He emphasized that “the global public order of human dignity” should undergird any legal system.

Thus, since my turn is up again to put some of my thoughts into words, I feel obliged to stir the pot a bit (who will read another article on UN Security Council reform and the veto?) and urge us to take the opportunity to circumvent, do away with, ignore what may be positive laws that protect the UNSC’s structure and veto, and to answer the call of moral aspiration.

The Michigan Stadium holds 100,000+ people. Image Source: Wikipedia

The Michigan Stadium holds 100,000+ people, a conservative estimate of those lost in Syria. Image Source: Wikipedia

Moral aspiration or moral obligation?

The image to the right represents 100,000 people, a conservative estimate of the number of people who have died in Syria to date. Each of them is a parent, a child, a brother or sister. I recognize that the current status of the debate on what to do about Syria is quite different from when I first became interested in exploring UNSC reform.  Reform first came to mind when China and Russia cast a double veto that blocked the Western and Arab League-backed resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown on citizen protests and calling for regime change. While calls are being made to circumvent the UNSC, perhaps by invoking the Responsibility to Protect, the international community does not yet seem comfortable with the legitimacy of the collective use of force for humanitarian purposes without UNSC approval.  Therefore, the UNSC veto is still a critical and relevant topic.

Moral aspiration should compel ordinary global citizens to pressure the international community to do what it has to in order to respond effectively to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, even if it means flexing, circumventing, or ignoring certain laws that lead to a UNSC stalemate. Too often, we resort to a pragmatic approach because we think that the Permanent 5 will not give up their power without bringing down the entire system, or that perhaps it will be impossible to get them to do so. Wouters and Ruys urge that one cannot afford to be overly pragmatic on this point. What is at stake is the very survival, legitimacy and efficiency of the collective security system in the 21st century. I think the individual lives at stake are just as important. Therefore at least a substantive debate on the veto power is needed.

However, one such argument is that the UNSC already has a moral obligation to do better. This obligation, put forward by the four sponsoring States when the UNSC was created 1945, was based on the need to guarantee peaceful relations among the world’s main powers –which needed the assurance of their support to make it sufficiently credible and vigorous. This goal, the Allied Powers argued, could only be achieved by introducing a mechanism to safeguard the vital national interests of the most important UN Member States. The reverse side was the responsibility of these privileged members to maintain international peace and security through the United Nations.[1]

The Veto As It Is Used Today

The Council has had successes, but its record is more distinguished by its repeated failure to reach agreement on how to adequately deal with threats to peace and security. A principal reason for this has been the refusal of one or another of the Permanent Members to set aside their own interests.[2] Additionally, the veto is often “used in order to protect countries with which [permanent members] have close cultural, economic and/or political ties,” most notoriously in situations of mass genocidal killings.[3]

Since the beginning of its work, there have been 265 vetoes cast in the Security Council. The U.S.S.R./Russia Federation has cast 126, the United States 82, the United Kingdom 32, France 18, and China 7. The vetoes cast by Russia and the United States were cast largely in the period of the Cold War, and by each of them in defense of their client states. For example, Russia would veto on behalf of Eastern European clients and the United States would often veto for Israel.[4]

Thus the great privilege and great responsibility given to the Permanent Five has come to be appropriated by them as a right. The P-5 have behaved and continue to behave in ways that suggest that they see the power that they hold as rightful and free, to be exercised by them in whatever manner they choose. The notion that this power was given to them, over strenuous objections, because of the good that it might do in preserving the peace, has been substantially replaced by the idea that they have a power that they can use to protect and extend their own individual national interests.[5]

The Veto As It Was Intended to Be Used

The veto power was intended as a means of preserving unanimity between the Great Powers at the time, and far from being a menace to the small powers, it was their essential safeguard. Without that unanimity, all countries, large and small, would fall victims to the establishment of gigantic rival blocs, and in fact, the whole system would be threatened by such a situation.[6] There was no way the Great Powers would agree to take on responsibility for global peace and security without some guarantee that they wouldn’t be ruined at some point in the future. Thus, included in the veto was the ability to use it to protect “matters of vital importance to a permanent member.”[7]

This was not an easily settled issue. There was much debate and the entire world was very nervous about giving the P-5 such an extraordinary power. Efforts to influence Security Council permanent members’ voting behavior began within months of the Security Council’s first meeting. To convey the message that the veto ought to be used sparingly, opponents of the veto sought to instill in the permanent members a sense that exercise of the veto power was a profound act of disruption that had a moral dimension.[8] At that time, then Australian delegate to the Security Council, Herbert Evatt, stated before the Council that the veto “puts a special responsibility upon those members of the Council whose single vote may veto the action of the rest,” and he implored the permanent members to give “very serious consideration” before they chose to exercise their veto power.[9] Evatt was seeking to challenge any understanding of the veto as a morally neutral act; he aimed to present it instead as a destructive power that imposed on its holder a responsibility to the rest of the world. To Evatt, the exercise of the veto constituted a moral act that should require deliberation and should risk consequences. Forcing the vetoing state to bear the harsh light of publicity was part of his campaign against it. He was part of the efforts that ultimately lead UNSC voting results to be publicly available.[10]

What are ways we can remind the UNSC of this moral obligation or enforce it otherwise?

Evatt’s efforts suggest one strategy for counteracting the veto, which may have been diluted during the information age – public shaming. In her article “Shame in the Security Council,” Saira Mohamed unwraps shame as a powerful tool that has been used in situations like these in the past.[11] In fact, our very own Myres McDougal was active on this issue at the time as well. Myres argued that in order to veto a resolution, a state must “risk the censure of world opinion.”[12]  He did not want an absence from the UNSC to be counted as an abstention. A permanent member should not be allowed to obstruct global action simply by hiding; the power to defeat an effort at international cooperation should “be exercised in a formal, open manner, for all the world to see and hear.” Implicit in the argument was the notion that vetoing a measure should not be too easy, too casual, lest a permanent member too freely use its power in violation of the will of the rest of the world.

Should the UN Security Council veto be abolished?

Several options have been proposed, among them the idea that the UN Security Council veto should be abolished.

This argument can be brought into the modern era by creating some legal requirement that states explain their use of the veto, and some legal standard (clear and convincing evidence) that they must meet in convincing the international community that their decision was based on reasoned concern for international peace and security. Part of this might be defining when a matter is a “vital national interest.”[13] Vetoing U.N. action against a state that is clearly in violation of international law and practice because that state is an ally should not be acceptable.

McDougal, however, went one step beyond Evatt.[14] He expressly asserted that a permanent member should be given the right of veto only if it was subject to the possibility of condemnation for exercising that right. If a state was going to veto a resolution, it should have to pay a price. This brings up another idea –why can’t we create some kind of adjudicatory body[15] that can hear claims that a state vetoed for reasons other than ultimate concern for international peace and security? Could the ICJ hear such claims?[16] Then we could create some form of punishment for states that do not uphold their highest of moral obligations.

One author suggests that the General Assembly should suggest that the Permanent Members be allowed to declare that they are casting a negative vote, without having such vote constitute a veto.[17] Professor Michael J. Kelly suggests a procedural veto (although this would be in conjunction with additional Permanent Member seats for underrepresented countries –another important issue). The procedural veto is one by which the permanent members for Latin America, Africa and Asia may veto an item just as one of the other permanent members may do with its substantive veto. However, when the procedural veto is cast, the matter is not automatically dead. Instead, it is referred to a special session of the General Assembly for consideration. A majority vote in the Assembly after brief debate, either for or against the matter without possibility of amendment, will then determine the matter’s future.

Proposals have been offered that limit the situations in which the veto can be used. One frequently recurring proposal consists in waiving the veto power in all proceedings arising under Chapter VI of the UN Charter on the peaceful settlement of disputes, or Chapter VII.[18] A variation on this idea is to establish a mechanism allowing for a veto to be overruled in the advent of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or large-scale massacres of civilians.[19]

A radical idea….

A majority of UN Member States support the abolition of the veto. Such a reform is being promoted by the African Union, the Arab League, the Group of Non- Aligned Nations, but also by numerous western countries. Apart from the P- 5 hardly any State explicitly supports the existing veto power (Poland, Australia, and Singapore figuring among the rare exceptions).[20]

A radical idea (that I like), suggested by Ambassador Richard Butler, is that the United States lead the way in modernization by declaring to the world that it will give up its veto. The United States could then seek to establish a two-thirds majority vote for the passage of any substantive decisions in the UNSC. The United States would then call upon all the P-5 members to do the same and make the fulfillment of its offer conditional upon the other four following suit.[21] Ambassador Butler calls this an act of leadership that would be “profound, imaginative, and graceful.” Quite in keeping with the tradition of Myres McDougal!

Call for further thoughts

I recognize that abolishing the veto is not the only answer to responding to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, nor is it necessarily the most effective one. I only wanted to take the time to find out what was being said about abolishing the veto for this post. I would love to hear any alternative suggestions you may have –as long as they are revolutionary! Of course, these are only my initial investigations. I welcome and invite comments, criticisms, and suggestions about abolishing or reforming the veto. Thank you!

For updates on UN Reform efforts, see http://www.centerforunreform.org/.


Jaime Menegus is a 3L and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


[1] Jan Wouters & Tom Ruys, Security Council Reform: A New Veto for a New Century? 29 (Academia Press 2005), available at http://www.egmontinstitute.be/paperegm/ep9.pdf.

[2] Richard Butler AC, Reform of the United Nations Security Council, 1 Penn St. J.L. & Int’l Aff. 23, 34 (2012), available at http://elibrary.law.psu.edu/jlia/vol1/iss1/2/.

[3] Brian Cox, United Nations Security Council Reform: Collected Proposals and Possible Consequences, 6 S.C.J. Int’l L. & Bus. 89, 119-20 (2009), available at http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=scjilb.

[4] Butler, supra note 2, at 31.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 29.

[7] Cox, supra note 3, at 121.

[8] Saira Mohamed, Shame in the Security Council, 90 Wash. U. L. Rev. 1191, 1214-15 (2013), available at http://digitalcommons.law.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6014&context=lawreview.

[9] Id. at 1216.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Myres S. McDougal & Richard N. Gardner, The Veto and the Charter: An Interpretation for Survival, 60 Yale L.J. 258, 286 (1951), available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3481&context=fss_papers.

[13] Butler, supra note 2, at 34; Wouters & Ruys, supra note 1, at 33.

[14] Mohamed, supra note 8, at 1218.

[15] Wouters & Ruys, supra note 1, at 37.

[16] Kamrul Hossain, The Challenge and Prospect of Security Council Reform, 7 Regent J. Int’l L. 299, 300 (2010).

[17] Amber Fitzgerald , Security Council Reform: Creating a More Representative Body of the Entire U.N.

Membership, 12 Pace Int’l L. Rev. 319, 353 (200), available at http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1231&context=pilr.

[18] Wouters & Ruys, supra note 1, at 25.

[19] Id. at 37.

[20] Id. at 25.

[21] Butler, supra note 2, at 39.

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Critical Analysis: Nobel Committee has a Strange View of “Peace”

On October 11, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a little-known watchdog organization based in The Hague, which has just begun work on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The announcement was greeted with surprise and some disappointment; the Prize had been widely expected to go to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani education activist who famously survived a Taliban assassination attempt. But the selection of OPCW is more concerning for other reasons – namely, it is effectively an endorsement of the international community’s gross inaction in response to Syria’s ongoing war, and follows a series of controversial decisions by the committee entrusted with what is supposed to be one of the world’s most prestigious awards.

The political influences of the Norwegian Parliament may be directing the recent choices by the Nobel Committee Peace Prize recipients. Source: PBS

The political influences of the Norwegian Parliament may be directing the recent choices by the Nobel Committee for Peace Prize recipients. Source: PBS

For all of its connotation as an august institution of elder statesmanship, the Peace Prize is not awarded by experts or experienced peacemakers but by politicians. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is a five-member body elected by the Norwegian Parliament, and its makeup usually reflects the political makeup of the Parliament. And in recent years, the Committee seems to be employing bizarre political judgments in its choice of prize recipients.

The 2009 award to President Barack Obama, less than a year after he took office, seemed oddly premature. Even Obama himself appeared perplexed by it. The 2012 choice of the European Union, in the midst of its profound mismanagement of the ongoing economic crises, came off to most observers as a bad joke. But the choice of OPCW risks not merely tarnishing the Prize’s prestige, but undermining the very causes of peace and human dignity it is meant to stand for.

OPCW was created in 1997 to oversee the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons and requires the dismantling of all stockpiles. The Nobel Committee cited the group’s “long-standing efforts to eliminate chemical weapons” worldwide, which have succeeded in dismantling 80% of declared stockpiles. This record might, in an ordinary year, put OPCW in worthy contention for the Peace Prize, which has often been awarded to disarmament organizations in the past. But the timing, in conjunction with the group’s work in Syria, was unmistakable. And the message it sends has tellingly provoked outrage among Syrians opposed to the murderous Assad regime.

The chances for success of OPCW’s mission in Syria are limited. And whatever its outcome, that mission is most certainly not bringing peace to Syria. The Russian-sponsored deal for Syria to dismantle its chemical arsenal contributes nothing to getting the Assad regime out of power or reaching any kind of settlement to end the conflict, nor was it meant to. It was fundamentally an effort by Assad’s Russian accomplices to lift the threat of American military action against the regime after it killed over 1,000 in August’s sarin gas attack in Damascus. And it succeeded in doing so, leaving Assad free to continue massacring Syrians with conventional weapons without fear of consequences. This is the deal that the Nobel Committee has now effectively granted its seal of approval. What kind of peace does the Committee think it is promoting? As usual, the Syrian town of Kafranbel, known for its poignant revolutionary artwork, makes the point clearest.


Scott Petiya is a 3LE law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a staff editor for the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy.

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Critical Analysis: The Deliberate Campaign Against Christians in Syria

Amidst a civil war and pervasive persecution, nuns gather for mass in the Catholic Patriarchate in Damascus in September. Source: Christian Post

Amidst a civil war and pervasive persecution, nuns gather for mass in the Catholic Patriarchate in Damascus in September. Source: Christian Post

News of human rights abuses in Syria, ranging from the plight of more than two million refugees to the use of chemical weapons against civilians, has filled international headlines over the last few months.  Conspicuously absent from any significant media coverage, however, is the persecution of the Christians remaining in Syria.  Though all religious communities have been devastated and suffered unthinkable harm, the Christian community in Syria faces an “existential threat.”

Prior to the current war, approximately seventy-four percent of the Syrian population was Sunni Muslim while thirteen percent were members of other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shi’a Islam, and Shi’as.  Members of the Druze sect accounted for approximately three percent of the population. And the ten percent of the country belonged to various Christian groups, including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic.  These religious communities enjoyed a “modicum of freedom of religion” under Assad’s authoritarian regime, tempered by government control of the selection of Sunni Muslim imams, occasional minor tensions between religious groups, and other restrictions.

As early as February 2012, whatever religious freedom existed in Syria had vanished.  Christian families expressed their fear of being trapped and targeted during the civil war.  Their fears have been confirmed. In early September 2013, Christians were forced to flee the ancient Christian town of Maaloula after extremist Islamists led an incursion into the town.  Maaloula is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria and is now nearly empty of inhabitants.  Due to the heavy shelling, one of the monastery was bombed, and more than thirty Christians went missing and six were killed. On September 21, rebels brutally beat a 26-year-old Assyrian Christian to death after they learned he was a Christian.  On September 26, 36 ulemas of Douma, a large suburb of Damascus, issued a fatwa justifying the confiscation of Christian homes and property to purchase weapons, to help orphans and the poor, and to provide for the families of martyrs. In October, Islamist militias began raiding Sednaya, another Christian village north of Damscus, killing and wounding some of the Christians who lived there.

These attacks are part of a pattern that some Syrian Christians believe is an attempt to eradicate them from the country.   As Nina Shea, a human rights activist and former commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, has explained that rebel groups have also targeted Christian leaders.  In June a Catholic Syrian priest was murdered, allegedly by beheading.  Priests and clergyman from various backgrounds were abducted, kidnapped, and killed during the summer.

In this context, it is naïve to think that the end of persecution will follow the end of the civil war.  The Christian population in Iraq has plummeted by fifty percent since 2003 due to religiously motivated acts of violence and intimidation.  In Egypt, the fall of Mubarak has led to a rise in attacks on Coptic Christians and their places of worship.  In fact, throughout the Middle East, sectarian bombings, murders, kidnappings, and threats have caused an exodus of Christians from the faith’s birthplace.  These precedents are ominous for Syrian Christians. The Apostle Paul visited the thriving church in Damascus in the first century, but if the suffering of Christians in Syria continues to be ignored, this millennia-old population, including some who even speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, could become extinct.  It is time for this possibility to rank equally with the other human rights violations in Syria.

Bryan Neihart is a third year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, a master’s candidate at the Korbel School of International Studies, and the Survey Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy. 

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Children of Syria

Lost Futures – The Children of Syria

As many, if not all of you, know, the conflict in Syria continues to rage on, affecting thousands in Syria and the surrounding areas. What started out as a desire to move towards democracy in a peaceful fashion has turned into a bloody and unrelenting war that only continues to get worse. In fact, the Syrian government has recently been accused of using chemical weapons in its attacks against rebels causing dire effects on the local population. However, amongst all the atrocities one tends to forget or overlook the most devastated victims of this two-year conflict: the Syrian children.

Children of Syria

The Children of Syria – In Dire Need of Help

During all times of war, children usually bear the brunt of the negative consequences. The conflict in Syria has been no exception. The Save the Children foundation recently released a report that claims nearly two million children in Syria are currently endangered by the ongoing conflict. More than 500,000 of those currently affected in Syria are under the age of 5. Access to basic healthcare and education has also been severely limited, threatening the futures of these children. Furthermore, dismal living conditions have led to widespread disease and hunger among these children without a steady source of help to turn to. With at least 1 of every 5 schools in Syria destroyed, homes in ruins, and shelters quickly filling to capacity, it is not hard to see that hope for these children and the situation in general is dwindling.

The consequences are not simply physical, either. The Save the Children report notes at least 3 in 4 children have experienced death of a close friend or relative, leading to startling psychological consequences, such as extreme withdrawn or aggressive behavior. Furthermore, these children are being forced to endure other atrocities such as sexual violence, torture, and forced recruitment into the armed forces. This is only antagonized by the fact that many of these children have been displaced from their homes, separated from their families, and forced to find refuge in neighboring countries. How can one expect these children to lead a decent, semi-normal life when they are constantly exposed to these horrors?

Many of the countries that are taking in these refugees are struggling with the task. Jordan, a refuge for more than a half million Syrians, has recently been forced to open up a second refugee camp in Mrajeeb al-Fhood as the influx of Syrian refugees into the country continues to grow everyday. This means it might be even more difficult for the refugees, especially children, to get access to basic resources. While Jordan is actually able to provide these refugees with shelter, other countries lack the resources to do so. Currently, there are no UN-funded refugee camps in Lebanon, where some 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled. Adding to their suffering, these refugees must fear for their relatives still living in Syria, as their act of leaving the war-torn country has put them at great risk of execution and torture by the government. Many children, who escaped to the safety of countries such as Egypt or Iraq, will most likely never see their families who are still trapped inside Syria again.

Not all hope is lost, however. The sobering realities described above have prompted generous action. Governments of various nations have pledged funds to help child refugees who have been forced into surrounding countries. Recently, the government of Japan contributed $1.5 million to the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to help the child refugees in Iraq. This money will go to basic sanitation, healthcare and education services. Also, the Mrajeeb al-Fhood refugee camp mentioned above is funded by the United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, the UN itself has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that the Syrian child refugees receive basic amenities. The World Food Programme (WFP), a project recently launched by the UN, provides refugee children with meals that support good nutrition and health. Along with the meals, the WFP has also set up programs to encourage children to continue their education, though they are displaced and have suffered much hardship.

The aid currently being provided is a promising start to providing hope for these children. However, not enough is being done. While many countries are making valiant efforts to help these children, UNICEF warns that those currently trapped in Syria are in danger of becoming a “lost generation,” as there is a severe lack of funding. Key agencies and life-saving aid may have to be halted, leaving those children in and around Syria without any help. UNICEF notes that it might not be able to provide Syrian children and their families with clean drinking water in the near future. The conflict seems so far away in our minds; however, we must remember those who have lost their futures because of this senseless violence.

If you would like to donate to the cause of these children, please visit this link: http://www.unicef.org.uk/landing-pages/donate-syria/.

 Bailey Woods is a 2L and a Candidacy Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy

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Asma al-Assad

A Co-Conspirator or a Casualty? A Second Look at Asma, wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

She doesn’t have bruises. She adorns photos and televisions with a near-perfect, pearly-white smile and a haircut fit for a queen. She’s a first lady who’s chic and fashionable. She laughs and jokes with gusto—even stating once that she was the “real” dictator of the family, and not her husband.

But once a friendly face to the West, she’s mostly been in hiding since the start of the Syrian Uprising in March of 2011. Rumor has it that she’s now pregnant with Bashar al-Assad’s fourth child. Media around the world have speculated her silence, questioning why she, a native-born Briton with Syrian roots, continues to stand by a man of sheer tyranny. What’s more, she’s been heavily criticized for her online shopping sprees while EU and other international sanctions prevent her from visiting her favorite boutiques in person. Her brief, public cameo at a charity event supporting children of government soldiers killed in the conflict in March was a source of complete media uproar.

Asma al-Assad

Asma al-Assad: Victim or Villain?

It’s easy to see Asma al-Assad as a self-involved, pretentious woman who cares little for her Syrian people.  To some, she may even be even a co-conspirator in her husband’s criminal enterprise. Many first ladies are often seen this way when their husbands involve themselves in bloody uprisings–a great and recent example being Grace Mugabe, the wife of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. And perhaps there is nothing more to Asma than complicity in mass murder. But it is also possible that Asma, as well as other, lesser-known ladies like Ri Sol-ju (wife of Kim Jong-Un), are actually the world’s most transparent, and most tragic, victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence—also called domestic abuse, battering, or intimate partner violence—occurs between people in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence can take many forms, including emotional, sexual and physical abuse and threats of abuse. And although men are sometimes abused by partners, domestic violence is most often directed toward women. For women of Asma’s caliber, tell-tale signs of domestic abuse between herself and Bashar al-Assad won’t be so easily detectable because of her husband’s sheer level of power. Furthermore, Asma represents a country where a quarter of married women reported experiencing some level of physical abuse by their husbands. She is not only politically isolated, but also culturally and perhaps religiously.

Asma may, in fact, be a purloined letter in the eyes of the media, government officials, and also the average person following the Syrian crisis.

It’s no secret that Bashar is no peacekeeper. He is quite the opposite: United Nations investigations into his involvement in the commissions of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide are set for referral to the International Criminal Court—so it is not so far-fetched to consider that such a man would also be less-than-kind to his own wife. In this aptly political affair, Asma faces a different level of abuse. Given the notoriety of her husband and the current state of the Syrian government, much of the mental and psychological abuse would stem from fear of being killed should she align herself anywhere but behind her husband. He may not physically abuse her, but less-obvious types of abuse may be occurring behind closed doors and away from the eyes and ears of the media or state governments.

He is most certainly doing one of more of the following, either intentionally or by virtue of his power: monitoring her movements, preventing or discouraging her from seeing friends of family, controlling how she spends money, and instilling a sense of fear or authority over her simply through his prominent and voluntary involvement in the brutal oppression, torture, and killing of Syrian civilians–including children. He may also be doing any or all of the following behind closed doors: unfairly accusing her of being unfaithful, getting angry with her in a way that is frightening to her, threatening to hurt her or the people she cares about, or threatening to harm himself or herself when he is upset. In fact, shortly before the start of the Uprising, Asma admitted to Vogue that her husband never wears his wedding ring.

Asma’s seemingly cheerful and supportive image is not incompatible with signs of a woman in an abusive relationship. She may believe that an abusive relationship with her husband is normal and continue to support him out of denial. Given her unique situation as a first lady, she also may believe she has no outlets or ways to escape without certain death or injury to herself or her children. Asma is also surrounded by a network of family that is heavily entrenched in the political and social underpinnings of Syrian affairs. It is highly likely, if impossible, that she would not receive any sort of physical or moral support from family if she decided to leave Bashar.

It’s also impossible to know if a woman involved in such an intricate political network will ever have a chance to speak candidly about her relationship with her husband.

For now, we may only have e-mail exchanges between Asma and Bashar to understand their relationship—exchanges filled with fleeting bouts of flirtation and electronic laughter. But before the media jumps to conclusions that a first lady like Asma is nothing but the supportive wife of a tyrant, it is important to take a step back and realize that such a woman can also be a victim of the most abusive of partners.

Maha Kamal is a third year law student at the University of Denver and a Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy. 

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Critical Analysis: U.S. Formally Recognizes Syria’s Main Rebel Group

Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria. (Fox News)

Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria. (Fox News)

On Tuesday, President Obama announced that the newly formed Syrian Opposition Council is the only “legitimate representative” of its country’s people.  This was a big step as the international community has increased its efforts to end Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reign.  By recognizing the Syrian Opposition Council, the U.S. joins Britain, France, and other Arab allies to recognize the Syrian rebel group.  The U.S.’ recognition comes as the Syrian government appears to have backed off using chemical weapons against rebel forces and after it was reported in the U.S. last week that the Syrian government might do so.  With this upgraded status, the Syrian Opposition Council will now receive more humanitarian and non-lethal aid from the U.S.  The U.S. may add military support for the rebel group too.  President Obama commented how the recognition comes with responsibilities and that the Syrian Opposition Council must “organize themselves effectively” and make sure “that they are representative of all the parties” including women and minority groups.

Another cautious element to recognizing the rebel group is the link between many who oppose the Assad regime and al Qaeda in Iraq.  For the first time on Tuesday, the Obama administration recognized an al Qaeda terrorist organization, Jabhat al-Nursa, as being directly tied to a powerful Syrian rebel group.  The U.S. sanctioned the terrorist group, freezing any assets it may have in the U.S. and preventing Americans from conducting business with it, out of fear that the group is becoming stronger than other rebel groups and could potentially overtake Assad’s regime in Syria.  The U.S. Treasury also publicly identified two Jabhat leaders by name for the first time on Tuesday, sanctioning them for their ties to al Qaeda.

The U.S.’s recognition of the Syrian Opposition Council comes a day before an international conference in Morocco.  The focus of the conference is to bring together 80 nations to support Syrian opposition groups.  While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to attend the conference, she has since canceled her trip due to illness.   Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will attend in her place.

Some critics have argued that the U.S.’s formal recognition of the Syrian rebel groups may be too little too late.  For instance, the recognition does nothing to change the military equation inside Syria.  President Obama’s move also does not give the opposition the legal authority of a state—the rebel forces may not have access to Syrian government money, take over the Syrian embassies globally, or enter into binding diplomatic commitments.   While the fighting inside Syria has intensified, it is unclear how this formal recognition will influence the Syrian Civil War.  What is known is that the U.S.’s formal recognition of the Syrian Opposition Council is meant as a “political shot in the arm for the opposition.”  More will soon be evident as the international conference takes place in Morocco later this week and as the fighting intensifies with each passing day.  Reports indicate that over 40,000 people have died since fighting began back in March 2011.

Dan Warhola is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Executive Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.


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Critical Analysis: The Role of the United States in Syria

A mortar attack in Akcakale, Turkey, on the border with Syria, killed a woman, her three children and a relative. (NY Times)

The Syrian crisis is a hot topic in the U.S. Presidential election.  Republican candidate Mitt Romney has criticized President Barack Obama’s policies in Syria and suggested that the United States should take a tougher stance on ensuring rebels receive the assistance they need.  So far, the Obama administration has limited its assistance to “non-lethal support,” such as providing communications equipment.  Amidst growing fears that the Syrian government’s crackdown on rebels may spark a regional war between Syria and Turkey, questions are rife in the U.S. political sector as to what role the United States should take in this conflict.

On Wednesday, October 3, the Syrian government shelled Akcakale, a Turkish town on the border of Syria and Turkey, resulting in five deaths.  The victims were all civilian women and children.  Turkey retaliated for two consecutive days, shelling a Syrian military position, and authorizing its troops to move beyond its borders.  The U.N. Security Council condemned Syria for the attack, and urged both countries to exercise restraint.  The Council President, Gert Rosenthal, the ambassador from Guatemala, stated “the members of the council demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated.”  The relationship between Turkey and Syria began deteriorating when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began cracking down on Syrian protestors, which sparked an 18-month civil war between the government and rebels fighting to oust the Syrian President.  Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations stated that Syria does not seek to fight with Turkey, however, the ambassador called on Turkey to cease allowing armed Syrian rebels to cross the border, as well as to cease allowing media coverage for opposition groups operating from Turkey.

Syria has not confirmed whether the incident in Turkey was a mistake or intentional, but one possible motive behind the shootings is that rebels have allegedly been using Turkey as a safe haven to regroup and rearm.  The rebels are “severely outmatched” and are improvising weaponry, such as taking guns off of Syrian tanks that they have commandeered and mounting them on civilian automobiles.  The increase in improvised weapons is an indication that, without outside assistance, the rebels may be unable to maintain adequate weapons and ammunition.

The Syrian government, on the other hand, has continued to receive arms shipments from Russia, despite calls to from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many others in the international community to stop the shipments.  However, the Russian state-controlled arms dealer, Rosoboronexport, stated, “No one can ever accuse Russia of violating the rules of armaments trade set by the international community.”  The dealer further stated that while it continues to supply Syria with mobile gun and missile air defense systems, the contract was signed “long ago,” and the armaments that it supplies to Syria are defensive arms, not attack weapons.

Additionally, Syria continues to receive small arms, infantry weapons, and personnel from Iran, using Iraqi airspace.  In a televised interview between al-Assad and Iran’s intelligence chief, Saeed Jalili, Jalili stated that the situation in Syria “is not an internal issue but a conflict between the axis of resistance on one hand and regional and global enemies of this axis on the other.”  During the same interview, al-Assad stated that it was “unacceptable” that some countries were “supporting terrorism” by arming the rebels in Syria.

If the United States does take a tougher stance on Syria and ensures that the rebels are armed, the implications could be far-reaching.  Iran could interpret U.S. assistance in arming the rebels as U.S. assistance in backing terrorism in Syria, thereby inviting terrorism in return.  Additionally, the possibility still exists that the United States, in arming Syrian rebels, may be arming those who may be terrorists in the future, as happened in Afghanistan.  Given the candidates’ differing stances, the result of upcoming U.S. Presidential election may alter the fate of Syria and the region.

Lisa Browning is a 2LE at the University of Denver School of Law and a Staff Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 

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Critical Analysis: Syrian Passenger Plane Forced Down by Turkey

People speak on the aircraft steps of a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land in Ankara, Turkey. (USA Today)

Turkish fighter jets forced a Syrian passenger plane to land in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on October 10.  The plane was suspected of carrying weapons from Russia.  The airliner was traveling from Moscow to Damascus with only thirty-five passengers and two crew members, even though the plane’s maximum capacity is one hundred eighty passengers.  Turkish intelligence had reportedly received information that the Syrian plane could be carrying “non-civilian cargo.” The plane was forced to land and then held at Ankara’s Esenboga airport for several hours before authorities finally allowed it to take off again for Damascus.  In conjunction with the forced take down, Turkey declared Syria’s airspace unsafe and ordered its civilian planes to avoid it.

Turkish authorities have declined to announce what they found on the Syrian airliner.  However, reports have surfaced that parts of a missile were confiscated along with materials that should have been reported, but were not, before the flight.  Other reports have surfaced that the Turkish government seized ten containers on board that held radio receivers, antennas, and other equipment “thought to be missile parts.” The forced take-down comes amid growing tensions between the two neighboring countries as reports from the border reveal there has been Syrian mortar and machine-gun fire heard on the Turkish side of the border.  While it is unclear whether the firing from Syria was aimed at Turkey or errant Syrian rebel-government fire, the audible firing has heightened tensions on the border. Tensions have grown with Syria’s bordering neighbors since the Syrian civil war began nineteen months ago. Turkey, specifically, has been a safe haven for roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom crossed the Orontes River, which separates Turkey from Syria.

In response to the forced take down, Syria has alleged its continued innocence, calling Turkey’s actions piracy and claiming that nothing illegal was onboard.  The general manager of the Syrian Civil Aviation Agency called Turkey’s actions “contrary to regulations and aviation norms.”  Russia has also been outspoken about its concern for the seventeen Russian passengers onboard. Reportedly, they were not allowed off the plane and denied medical treatment and food for eight hours, and Russia is demanding a reason for Turkey’s treatment of them.  The Moscow airport also denied that there was any prohibited cargo on the Syrian plane.  Vnukovo Airport spokeswoman Yelena Krylova stated that “[n]o objects whose transportation would have been forbidden under aviation regulations were on board.”  All documentation concerning that cargo was also in order and completed as necessary.

Turkey’s action plays a role in the much larger foreign relations with the Middle East and Russia.  Currently, Russia is one of Syria’s closest remaining allies and, along with China, has repeatedly blocked U.N. resolutions against the Syrian capital.  The Syrian civil war continues to grow as battles have spilled over into the neighboring counties of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.  NATO has said that it would also get involved if Syria strikes because Turkey is a member of the organization.  NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that there are plans in place to defend Turkey militarily if such a situation arises.

As more countries begin to take actions against the Syrian government, it will be forced to acquiesce to global pressure and end its violence against the rebels.  The death toll in the Syrian civil war has reached upwards of 20,000 even as global sanctions continue to pour on Syria and President Bashar al-Assad.  Turkey is only the latest country to take action against Syria and, certainly, will not be the last.  If Syria continues to ignore global pressure to end its violence, then military action from outside its borders may be the only resolution to end the internal violence within Syria.

 Dan Warhola is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Executive Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Critical Analysis: The World’s Continuing Disinterest in Syria

I can’t hear you!

It’s true – China, Russia, and Assad have quite the love affair. It’s no secret that Russia and China blocked the Arab League’s request to the United Nations Security Council for intervention in Syria because of their own national interests. Russia loves selling AK-47s to Bashar al-Assad. China enjoys a monopoly over Syria’s imports. But it looks like their “official” reason for vetoing the resolution turned out to be a good one: what makes anyone think that the Syrian rebels are any less guilty of war crimes than Assad? Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Francois Hollande want the rebels to take over Syria. Other states are not so convinced, and for good reason. To-date, all UN and Arab League attempts to monitor the gruesome conflict in Syria have failed. Without proper monitoring, it’s near impossible to figure out who’s behind every reported massacre, bombing, or other attack.

The current situation makes it extremely difficult to determine which belligerent is worse – especially now that reports claim that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is engaging in the same sort of widespread acts of torture, murder, and sexual violence as Assad’s regime. Why the sudden evening-out between warring factions? The United Nations speculates that the increase in Islamic radicalist membership in the FSA is pushing the group to extremist measures (i.e. the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IGRC) recently admitted that it was also operating in Syria).

So now what? Simply put, the world will collectively continue to do nothing. States with selfish national interests will fuel whichever warring belligerent satisfies their agendas. Or perhaps they won’t get involved at all. A regional organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could, in theory, make a case in favor of intervention by arguing that there is a threat to the peace of its member state Turkey, or that a humanitarian threat exists. But unlike Libya, Syria poses no economic or political threat to NATO and its allies. No oil, and no immediate threat to democracy, means Turkey, and civilian Syrians, will have to fend for themselves. And states, who for international humanitarian reasons, want to get involved, can’t, because it’s impossible to figure out which side is worse.

It’s also going to be difficult for “the sake of humanity” states to prosecute in the aftermath of this bloody tragedy. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), an arm of the United Nations, can’t get involved because it only accepts grievances between Member States of the United Nations. Non-state actors like the Free Syrian Army technically don’t count as a Member State. If anything, the ICJ could entertain Turkey’s complaints against Syria to make up for NATO’s lack of interest. The International Criminal Court (ICC), a product of the Rome Statute, is in the same boat as the ICJ: Syria is not a signatory to the Statute and the conflict is entirely internal. The Security Council remains tied by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, meaning that ad hoc tribunals like those setup for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia won’t be an option for Syria as long as the Permanent Members can’t agree to invoke their Chapter VII powers. And there is absolutely no chance that anyone could rely on Syria’s broken judiciary to take care of war criminals domestically.

It’s also possible that no international tribunal or international criminal case will come of this uprising at all. The world doesn’t seem to take interest in Syria the way that it did in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and East Timor. The current Syrian uprising is not the first of its kind in the country. An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people perished in February 1982 when then president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president Bashar al-Assad, launched a fierce twenty-seven-day assault on the central town to crush an Islamist revolt. Despite a bloody massacre that took over 10,000 lives within the span of a month (worse than the current uprising has in a year and a half), the international community failed to intervene on humanitarian grounds. Along with the ongoing uprising today, there now exist two counts of international nonintervention in Syria despite documented humanitarian crises.

Like father, like son? Either way, it looks to be that international law, at least in practice, just simply can’t help Syria.

Maha Kamal is a staff editor with the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy. She received her BA in International Affairs (specialization in European politics) from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2007. Maha has previously worked with numerous internationally-focused organizations, including World Denver and the Institute of International Education. She is currently enrolled in a practicum at DU Law which is working to create and finalize an evidentiary database for the Charles Taylor case at the International Criminal Court. 

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