U.S. Must Take Series of Concrete Steps to Address Syrian Atrocities

Washington, D.C. – As the United Nations Security Council considers its response to the now-confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria on August 21, Human Rights First condemns this clear violation of international law. The organization also calls on the U.S. government to implement policies that can be part of a broader strategy to bring an end to the conflict, such as stepping up its efforts to prevent those who are enabling mass atrocities in Syria from sending weapons to the perpetrators, taking steps to protect Syrian refugees, and signing a presidential executive order telling U.S. banks and other U.S.-domiciled financial institutions to require their customers to report on any dealings with Syrian entities.

“Hundreds of civilians appear to have been killed in a chemical weapons attack on villages outside Damascus, an act that is a war crime and a crime against humanity,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “The United States must now consider a wide range of measures designed to put an end to the suffering of the Syrian civilian population, including options beyond the use of force.”

Hicks notes that the deliberate targeting of civilians has been a feature of the Syria conflict, with the vast majority of such prohibited attacks attributable to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.  The attacks last week further underline the urgent need for an end to the devastating conflict in which over 100,000 civilians have already died and which has led to the displacement of nearly two million refugees.

The worsening situation in Syria demands a much greater level of engagement from the Obama Administration.  That engagement should take many forms, possibly including military options within the boundaries of international law, but should also include diplomatic, economic and humanitarian elements, such as:

DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS & ACCOUNTABILITY: Human Rights First believes that any end to the Syrian conflict will ultimately require a negotiated agreement between the parties to the conflict, involving the states that are currently providing military and other assistance to the warring parties, nations that include the United States and Russia.

The U.S. government should also work at the U.N. Security Council for the adoption of a resolution that would ensure protection for the civilian population, protect access for humanitarian agencies to all parts of Syria, and would refer the many mass atrocities and crimes against humanity already committed in the course of the conflict – including the recent gas attacks – for investigation by the International Criminal Court.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES: The ongoing violence in Syria continues to increase the flow of refugees out of the country, increasing the burden on Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The United States must continue and enhance its efforts to ensure that these governments are receiving the support they need to continue to provide a refuge for the vulnerable displaced civilian population. The United States must also ensure that any planned intervention does not prevent civilians from being able to cross borders in search of safety.

CUTTING OFF FINANCIAL MARKETS: The Obama Administration should cut off access to the U.S. financial system to those doing business with the Assad regime. By executive order, the administration should require U.S. banks and other U.S.-domiciled financial institutions to require their customers to report on any dealings with Syrian entities. Financial institutions that do not disclose their account holdings or are financing the Syrian government or corporations would not have access to U.S. markets – access that’s considered vital to almost every financial institution in the world.  To strengthen this approach, the E.U. should adopt nearly identical restrictions that would prevent rogue financiers in any country from evading  the sanctions.

END DEALINGS WITH ATROCITY ENABLERS:  The United States should cancel the Pentagon’s $1.1 billion no-bid contract to buy Russian helicopters for Afghanistan. The Pentagon is buying the choppers from Rosoboronexport, the Russian official weapons exporter that is supplying Assad. Worse, the 2011 contract stipulates that payment – American tax dollars – be sent to Rosoboronexport’s account at VTB Bank in Moscow – the very bank where Assad is reputed to have stashed his own funds.

“Military might alone will not end the atrocities in Syria,” concluded Hicks. “The administration has a responsibility to use every lever it has, in a much more concerted and deliberate way than it has to date, to stop Syrian atrocities and protect Syrian civilians.”


Published on August 28, 2013


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