The words ‘never again’ have lost all meaning. The holocaust survivor, author, political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Eliezer Weisel, was referred to as a “messenger to mankind”. In his words:
“Never again becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow. There will never again be hatred, people say. Never again jail and torture. Never again the suffering of innocent people, or the shooting of starving, frightened, terrified children. And never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence. It’s a prayer.”
The conflict in Syria has raged on for more than 5 years and half a million Syrians have died, many more millions have been forcibly displaced, tens if not hundreds of thousands have disappeared or arbitrarily detained and tortured in the Syrian Regimes numerous detention facilities. The battleground has become a proxy war with States supporting different sides to the ongoing conflict. Whether one supports the moderate opposition fighting desperately for the very ideals we take for granted that started as a peaceful revolt or whether one supports the position advocated by the axis of Syria-Russia-Iran as ‘combatting ‘terrorism’ one cannot deny the level of human suffering that should never again be tolerated. The entirety of the international community is at fault for inaction. The United Nations has failed the Syrian people and it has been exposed for its impotence and the UN Security Council has been shown to be a political machine that is hampered by the veto power of its permanent members. In much the same way as the world recognised the need for such a body to replace the ‘ineffective’ League of Nations in 1945 for its failures and to prevent further conflict on the scale of World War II, we must now recognise the need to reform the UN and give meaning to the ‘never again’ vow.
Is Aleppo the new Guernica? Is the fall of Aleppo the ‘Srebrenica’ moment in world history that will bring a brutal and entirely foreseeable conflict to an end?
On 26 April 1937 the aerial bombardment of Guernica, by German and Italian airplanes under Franco’s command, took the lives of hundreds of citizens. It is estimated that 31 tons of bombs fell on the city in just three hours. The use of incendiary bombs created a fire that lasted until the following day and destroyed the whole city. The event, immortalized in Picasso’s most famous painting, is considered the first example of total war. Sadly, the crimes committed by Franco’s troops during the Spanish civil war, and the 40-year long dictatorship that followed his victory, remain unpunished.
Shocked by the destruction of the city, numerous journalists reported about the bombardment of Guernica and the international community said “Never Again”. Against the background of destruction created during the Second World War, one decade after the bombardment of Guernica, the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and started establishing mechanisms to protect civilians during conflict.
Nevertheless, in 1995 history repeated itself. The fall of Srebrenica was defined by the then UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan, as the worst massacre on European soil since the Second World War. More than 8,000 boys and men were summarily executed in July 1995, while all women were forcibly displaced. Civilians were targeted and executed while attempting to flee the area.
The United Nations peacekeeping troops failed to protect the civilians they were legally obliged to defend according to UN Security Council Resolution 819, which already in 1993 declared Srebrenica a “safe area” and condemned the “deliberate actions of the Bosnian Serb party to force the evacuation of the civilian population from Srebrenica and its surrounding areas as well as from other parts of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of its overall abhorrent campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’”.
The Srebrenica Genocide was an event that marked a milestone in the Bosnian armed conflict and the international community said, once again, “Never Again”. The siege of Sarajevo, the capital, was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting 1,425 days and during the 4-year conflict more than a quarter of a million died. Srebrenica is July 1995 was the turning point.
The United Nations established an ad hoc tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), to investigate and prosecute those responsible for international crimes committed during the conflicts. In Krstić, the ICTY found that the events in Srebrenica amounted to genocide as the intention behind the acts was to destroy the group; and in March 2016 Radovan Karadžić was convicted for Genocide. However, the women of Srebrenica continue suffering the consequences of the disappearance of their loved ones.
Twenty-one years after the end of the conflict another event has been characterized as “a complete meltdown of humanity” by the United Nations: the last days of the battle for Aleppo. Pro Al-Assad forces have surrounded the last rebel-held area of this ancient city, and after five years of war and weeks of heavy fighting, the fall of Aleppo is imminent.
Activists and civilians are posting heart-breaking farewell messages on social media facing the impossibility of safely escaping from the area. Like in Guernica, the population of Aleppo is being subjected to “extremely heavy bombardment and shelling”, and similarly to what happened in Srebrenica, there are credible reports of massacres, extrajudicial executions, detentions and enforced disappearances of civilians trying to flee the area. The slaughter is being transmitted globally in real time, faced by international passivity.
Guernica, Srebrenica, Aleppo. Three cities that became a symbol of resistance, inhumanity and destruction. They represent human suffering and the empty hopes for the international community to prevent mass killings. It matters not that commentators argue over whether these acts constitute Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity or War Crimes – this should not be an intellectual debate on a sliding scale of gravity. These are crimes. The victims demand and should expect accountability. History shows that we have once again failed them. We failed all of them. We let the regime draw Aleppo with the same black and white colours of Picasso’s painting. As George Osborne declared in the emergency debate in the House of Commons, we all share responsibility: “we are deceiving ourselves in this Parliament if we believe that we have no responsibility for what has happened in Syria […] There were multiple opportunities to intervene”.
In this context it is necessary to separate political and legal opinions. We must recall that there is a difference between the concepts of jus ad bellum, which regulates the “right to war” or the degree of justice of an act of aggression, and ius in bello, which regulates warfare. There are differing opinions about the political responsibility for the fall of Aleppo and the victory of Assad forces; however, regardless of the political implications of the events, the legal responsibility and requirements are clear. International Criminal Law and International Humanitarian Law set a minimum corpus of rules that cannot be breached under any circumstances and whose violation entails international criminal responsibility and triggers universal jurisdiction: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
In the last few days, civilians in Aleppo are witnessing and suffering the worst acts of human cruelty, and the deal enabling the evacuation of thousands of civilians from the area was broke yesterday after few hours. In this vein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein has declared that “the resumption of extremely heavy bombardment by the Syrian Government forces and their allies on an area packed with civilians is almost certainly a violation of international law and most likely constitutes war crimes” and noted how the Government of Syria, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of its people and now has “effective control” over the area, failed to comply with the terms of the agreement.
Despite the existence of tools and legal mechanisms to oppose the barbarity experienced by the Syrian population, the Syrian dreams of liberty ended with the inaction of the international community. Independent reports have provided reliable evidence demonstrating that during the last five years the Syrian regime have breached all the red lines marked by International Law.
In March 2011, we witnessed the first protests in Dara’a, where thousands of demonstrators asked for freedom, democracy and the end of the 40-year-long military rule of the Assad dynasty. We saw soldiers fire indiscriminately against peaceful demonstrators, leading to massacres. More than 55,000 photographs of victims of the regime’s detention centres were smuggled out of Syria. 55,000 photographs of tortured and emaciated bodies that confirm the album of planned terror of Assad’s system of intelligence. Video footage demonstrates how civilians and civil infrastructure—particularly hospitals—have been systematically targeted by regime’s forces, which have also used barrel bombs and chemical weapons against its own people. We have seen how the regime has played with ethnic and religious narratives to paralyze international action and manipulate international opinion.
It is time to bring the Syrian regime to justice. We have heard countless testimonies of victims and survivors and listened to their common cry: safety and accountability. We can and we should provide both if the decades-long international system of protection of civilians and regulation of warfare is to have any meaning. It is urgent to ensure the safe passage of civilians in Eastern Aleppo according to International Law; and it is imperative to investigate the responsibility for the crimes that have already been committed.
We must say, for the last time, “Never Again”.
This article was originally published on 19th December 2016 at The Huffington Post.