Syrian Military Linked to More than 300 Chemical Attacks

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via Louisa Loveluck:

The Syrian government and affiliated forces have launched more than 300 attacks using chemical weapons during the country’s nearly eight-year conflict, a report said Sunday.

The findings by the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute offer the most comprehensive record to date of presumed chemicals weapons use in Syria, where the long war appears to be winding down.

The tally by the policy group also could be cited as part of possible international war-crimes cases against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) said it had “credibly substantiated” 336 uses of chemical weapons, ranging from nerve agents to crude but dangerous chlorine bombs.

Assad Regime Using Mass Murder to Empty Prisons of Political Opponents

via the Washington Post:

As Syria’s government consolidates control after years of civil war, President Bashar al-Assad’s army is doubling down on executions of political prisoners, with military judges accelerating the pace they issue death sentences, according to survivors of the country’s most notorious prison.

In interviews, more than two dozen Syrians recently released from the Sednaya military prison in Damascus described a government campaign to clear the decks of political detainees. The former inmates said prisoners are being transferred from jails across Syria to join death-row detainees in Sednaya’s basement and then be executed in pre-dawn hangings.

Yet despite these transfers, the population of Sednaya’s once-packed cells — which at their peak held an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 inmates — has dwindled largely because of the unyielding executions, and at least one section of the prison is almost entirely empty, the former detainees said.

Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What about Syria and Genocide?

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A historic conference recently wrapped up at the Vatican that addressed the continued relevance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory.

Just war theory outlines the moral requirements surrounding the decision to use force and the ethical limits on using force justly. The decision to use force requires a just cause, right intention, a reasonable probability of success, and proportionality. It must be undertaken by a legitimate authority and only as a last resort.

The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct during the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm (it is always immoral to directly and intentionally target the innocent). It is never about the ends justifying the means; the means must be as pure as the end being sought. Despite the carnage inherent in war, the Church has taught that certain moral obligations must be maintained for a war to be just.

Instead of seeking to modify this traditional Catholic doctrine, the conference pushes for an encyclical advocating for nonviolence to replace just war theory entirely. The participants at the conference argue that there is no longer such a thing as just war and “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

Supporters of this theory claim that instead of limiting the conditions for war, just war theory has often been used to exacerbate conflict and provide a pretext for aggressive, interventionist actions. Of course, moral rules cannot be eliminated simply because they are ignored or abused at times; Church teaching explicitly rejects that type of consequentialism. Ultimately, they contend that war is not the solution to stopping conflicts of any type and that non-violent means have been used with great success throughout history to resolve conflicts and overturn oppression.

To this observer, the call to systematically dismantle just war theory when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has viciously butchered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Daesh is engaging in the ruthless slaughter of thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in territories they control sounds completely out of touch with reality.    Read More

Twenty Years Later: Honoring the Victims and Survivors of Srebrenica

US Ambassador to United Nations Samantha Power spoke at the UN commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica. You can watch the full video below. Her concluding remarks highlight the lessons that should be drawn from Srebrenica:

In closing, let me simply appeal to all gathered here that the resolve induced by the horror of Srebrenica be extended not only to commemorating the past, but to do far more to prevent genocide and mass atrocities in the present. When those indicted for genocide — today — are able to travel freely, when some would find greater fault with an international court than with those alleged to have perpetrated horrific mass atrocities, when Member States of the United Nations would provide money and weapons to regimes that would gas their own citizens, the sense of impunity that Ratko Mladić felt will reign elsewhere, and we will fail those who need us in the present.

We must never forget the genocide in Srebrenica. We must always honor its victims, its survivors.

But we must never forget also that our words will ring hollow if in the here and now we don’t believe the unbelievable, if we don’t end the culture of impunity that exists in so many places around the world, and if we don’t strengthen our resolve to protect those who count on us all.

Check out the full video:

Blessed are the Peacekeepers?

In a recent speech, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the vital interest and critical role the United States has in peacekeeping. Power described how intrastate conflicts can displace vulnerable populations, spill across borders, destabilize neighboring countries, undermine economic progress, reverse democratization and disrupt civil society, allow criminals and repressive regimes to thrive, and open up vacuums that are filled by extremists, including interstate terrorists.

But peacekeeping is not just about American or international security, but our values. Given American power and influence, there is a responsibility to do what we can to protect some of the most vulnerable people on the planet and build a more peaceful world. Power explained:

“We do not want to live in a world where more than 9000 kids are recruited in less than a year to become child soldiers, as has happened recently in South Sudan. We don’t want to live in a world where ethnic or religious communities who lived together for decades in harmony, such as the Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, learn to hate and fear and demonize one another.”

Of course, the risks and burdens associated with peacekeeping should be shared by the international community, as Power explained. And those who wish to foment conflict have trouble spreading accusations of imperialist designs when peacekeeping operations include representatives of many nations, including those from the global South. The need to revitalize peacekeeping and ensure that it meets the challenges of contemporary conflict is urgent and the shared responsibility of the international community.

Power explained some of the serious challenges that must be addressed: slow troop deployment, limited mobility, keeping units fed and hydrated in remote areas, and failure to confront aggressors and protect civilians. Two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are working in active conflict areas, the highest percentage ever. They are being asked to do more than they ever have been before in a world with suicide bombers and IEDs. And too often they are under-resourced.

Peacekeeping missions are often funded by developed countries, but the troops are typically from developing countries. Power called this unsustainable and unfair. The UN and US are asking Latin American, European, and East Asian countries to contribute more troops in response to this.

Power highlighted the successes and failures of various missions. In Democratic Republic of the Congo there has been some progress, but she noted that there is still a failure to protect local people from atrocities. In hundreds of attacks, peacekeepers almost never used force to protect civilians. Peacekeeping missions must embrace the responsibility to protect these vulnerable populations.

For more than 20 years peacekeeping has been evolving, and the realities of modern conflict support that evolution. As Power explained, consent and impartiality make sense when dealing with legitimate governments and even rebel groups, but less so with extremists and brutal organizations that perpetrate crimes against humanity. Restricting peacekeepers’ use of force to pure self-defense is something that cannot be justified when genocide or other mass atrocities are occurring. As Power stated, the gap between the mandates peacekeepers are given and their ability to carry these out must be closed.

Finally, past scandals involving peacekeepers, including sexual abuse and violence, highlight the importance of enforcing the UN’s zero tolerance policy on these crimes. A strict enforcement will deny peacekeepers any sense of impunity and show vulnerable populations that peacekeepers are working for their best interests. Such a policy, combined with the reforms outlined by Samantha Power, can strengthen the ability of peacekeeping missions to protect the vulnerable and serve the common good.

Participant in Vatican Workshop on Syria Favors Assad Retaining Power

The Vatican’s failure to speak with moral and intellectual clarity on the conflict in Syria has largely flown under the radar this year. Despite the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs targeting civilian populations, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, mass execution of prisoners, and countless other crimes against humanity since he began this civil war by murdering peaceful protesters in order to retain his authoritarian control, Bashar al-Assad has not been unequivocally denounced by the Vatican. There has been no clear statement that this mass murderer must go, that he must not be permitted to retain control through the brutal use of force.

Instead, there have been signs that some in the Vatican prefer his continued rule. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences released a deeply flawed primer on the conflict in Syria that does not reflect the known facts, includes false equivalencies, makes unsubstantiated claims, and has embarrassing omissions. It refuses to even admit that the Syrian government definitively used chemical weapons, clearly reflecting the influence of some “new truthers.” It is a fundamentally unserious statement on a conflict that has killed over 140,000 people and displaced over 9 million people. The workshop’s final statement admits that “new political forms in Syria are needed,” but offers a completely unrealistic plan for achieving this change (either naively or cynically).

Vatican expert John Allen has said the Vatican is clearly more leery about the prospects of regime change than the Western democracies. He notes, “Many analysts suggested the pope’s position on Syria was actually closer to Russia and China than to the Western powers.” Why does the Vatican seem closer to Russia, which is allied with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah (and has provided crucial arms for Assad’s continued crimes against humanity)?

Part of the motivation is clearly that some in the Vatican are motivated by a sectarian preference for securing the lives and well-being of Christians over saving the lives of Sunni Muslims, who are Assad’s primary victims. They have abandoned Catholic universalism for a Christianist agenda. Allen notes that the Vatican’s viewpoint is shaped by the views of the local Christian community in Syria, “which tends to see Assad as the lesser of two evils vis-à-vis rising Islamic fundamentalism.” One can understand terrified Syrian Christians clinging to Assad out of fear that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the only other alternative. But can’t we expect the Vatican to focus on the rights of all rather than to fall prey to sectarianism?

Now with Jeffrey Sachs, a participant in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ workshop on Syria, coming out in support of Assad retaining power, it is quite clear that suspicions surrounding pro-Assad elements in the Vatican were justified. How do those who understand the conflict in Syria describe Sachs’ plan? Emile Hokayem, the Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, called it “ridiculous.” David Kenner, the Middle East Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, called it “naïve and embarrassing.” Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch, said Sachs was “stunningly ill-informed.” Michael Doran, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said his argument was “facile and ill-informed, to say nothing of morally repugnant.”

I asked Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, why Sachs’ plan was not the best way forward. She replied:

Assad has gassed his own people, and fired SCUDS and barrel bombs on populated areas. For as long as he retains power — and puts his own love of power above the welfare of his people — the war will continue, along with all the horrific costs associated with it — more than 130,000 people killed (including some 10,000 children); 250,000 trapped and being starved in besieged areas; and 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The Geneva Communique is the basis on which this war needs to end, and a Transitional Governing Body by mutual consent needs to be created urgently. The vast majority of Syria’s people have rejected Assad, and made clear there is no place for him in a future Syrian government.

Samantha Power understands the nature of the conflict. And she understands the moral issues that are involved.

To allow or support Assad’s continued rule after committing so many crimes against humanity would send a clear message to every dictator on the planet: when faced with popular protests, kill as many people as possible with maximum brutality, so that your continued rule will be accepted in exchange for a cessation of the conflict. It is a revolting precedent to consider.

The Responsibility to Protect is designed to send the opposite message. It is a shame that Pope Francis and the Vatican have not called on the international community to protect the Syrian people from Assad’s atrocities, while seeking a solution to the conflict that will establish a legitimate government, promote reconciliation, and protect the human rights of all.

In a 2008 speech at the United Nations, Pope Benedict said, “Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.” He warned, ““It is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage.”

Instead of listening to people like Jeffrey Sachs, the Vatican would be wise to embrace the moral clarity that Pope Benedict expressed in that speech. There is no peace without justice. There will be no peace in Syria with the Butcher Assad in power.