OSAKA – Former Algerian Foreign Minister and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is a patient and painstaking man of many complex international negotiations. But even he was forced to admit failure to get the two sides in the Syrian conflict to come together last month. So the misery and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians, including babies and children, goes on with no end in sight, aided and abetted by powerful governments.
At the same time across the world, another tyrannical regime was accused this week in a United Nations report of widespread crimes against its own citizens.
The crimes include systematic executions, torture, rape and mass starvation, “wrongs that shock the conscience of humanity,” according to Michael Kirby, the retired Australian judge who chaired the U.N. commission of inquiry into the misdeeds of the secretive regime of North Korea. Shocking indeed, but not bad enough to shock China, which made it clear that it would block any attempt to bring North Korea to book.
Who will stand up for humanity? Put that way, it seems bloodless and even painless. What I mean is, who will stand up for millions of people whose lives are being savaged by evil men and women?
Brahimi hopelessly tried to create “a transitional governing body, exercising full executive power.” But the government led by President Bashar Assad wants to talk first about defeating “terrorism” — meaning the rebels or anyone opposed to Assad. The rebel side will not countenance the idea that Assad should have any part in the transitional government, to which Assad will only agree over his dead body.
So a real deal will only be done on the battlefield — which of course is not a sanitized place set apart for combatants only. This battle is going on in the cities and towns and neighborhoods and homes of the Syrian people, with innocent civilians sucked in whatever their views or wishes.
More than 140,000 people have been killed since 2011, and 9.5 million have fled to miserable lives in refugee camps abroad. That is more than 40 percent of Syria’s total population of 22.4 million.
Brahimi apologized to “the people of Syria.” It is too bad that the guilty parties, those doing the killing or giving the orders to kill or supplying the deadly weapons, have not shown similar sorrow.
Step forward Assad, his government forces, rebel militia owing allegiance to Sunni and Shiite extremist religious factions and to al-Qaida, regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, fighting their proxy wars through the various militia.
And let us not forget the great powers, Russia, with President Vladimir Putin keen to show off his muscles, and newfound friend China. Nervously shouting from the sidelines there is U.S. President Barack Obama and the West. Obama and the U.S. have turned their backs on the ringing promise of President John F. Kennedy that the U.S. would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
When the rebellion against Assad started, it seemed simpler. Assad was clearly a tyrant whose regime would be short-lived because he was doing terrible things in defiance of international norms and U.N. conventions. Those were the days soon after the Arab Spring when there was optimism that democracy would continue to spread through the Middle East. When China joined Russia in vetoing an early United Nations resolution condemning Assad, an old diplomat friend in Asia was confident China “would pay for it for being on the side of the baddies.”
Now Assad is not only fighting back, but many analysts think that with his powerful friends and their arms supplies, which are flowing freely, he may survive, although bloodily.
Obama and the West are in a bind. Do they accept the devil they hate or do they let loose a host of demons who may do even worse damage and tear whatever last shreds of civilization are left in Syria?
The scientist Stephen Hawking sees what is happening in Syria as an affront to human civilization and an abomination. “As a father and a grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: no more,” he wrote in an article in The Guardian and The Washington Post.
“The war in Syria may not represent the end of humanity, but every injustice committed is a chip in the façade of what holds us together. The universal principle of justice may not be rooted in physics but it is no less fundamental to our existence. For without it, before long, human beings will surely cease to exist.”
China is likely to take the lead in shielding North Korea even from verbal sanction, let alone from being referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as Kirby’s panel advocated. Their report was damning, and told the young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he might be among those facing indictment.
The report found that, “Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by [North Korea], its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity.” Based on testimony from more than 300 witnesses, including former inmates of North Korea’s prison camps, it claimed that “deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and denial of reproductive rights through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide” had led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Altogether, the report estimated, between 80,000 and 120,000 people are being held in four large political prison camps.
Western media, especially the BBC, took up the plight of the tortured people of Syria and North Korea, and the BBC led most of its World News bulletins for a full day with the U.N. report on North Korea.
But the political mood from the U.S. to Europe, and certainly in Russia and China, is one of indifference.
Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian that the main response to reports of atrocities similar to those committed by the Nazis is “a global shrug … It makes today a good time to be a dictator, a butcher or the torturing head of a regime. The world will let you carry on killing — even when it knows exactly what is happening.”
For the suffering people of Syria and North Korea, and of too many other places visited by war and tyrants, U.S. support would be a mixed blessing, not least because Washington, like other imperial powers before it, is driven by bluster and bullying.
What they need is a supporter more considered and consistent who will build on a U.N. consensus and sweet-talk and shame other leaders and countries to see the wisdom of protecting and lifting up the most vulnerable communities.
There are not many potential candidates with knowledge and experience of the world, a global vision, an international presence without the distraction or the wasteful ambition to be a superpower. Ideally it might be a role for Japan or India or the two together and working with regional allies. But the vision of Japan’s government seems rooted in the past, and India’s leaders continue to squabble narrow-mindedly over the spoils of power. The rest of the world shrugs, and the dictators rule over misery
As Hawkings wrote, we should weep not only for the cruelties inflicted on millions of people, but for our civilization.
As the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote of earlier cruel refugee movements, we should also weep for the 21st-century Mozart or Beethoven or Einstein or Turner or Leonardo da Vinci or Ramanujan or Newton or Galileo or Steve Jobs who is being systematically murdered in Syria, in North Korea, and in too many other places.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University. He served on the World Bank staff in Washington from 1997 to 1999.