U.S. Response to Chemical Weapons Attacks Should Be Part of Broader Strategy to Protect Civilians and Uphold International Law

Washington, D.C. – As the Obama Administration continues to weigh its options for responding to the chemical weapons attack that killed 1400 Syrian civilians on August 21, Human Rights First urges President Obama to embed that response in a broader strategy designed to bring an end to the conflict and hold those responsible for these gross violations of international law to account. The organization expressed concern that the “limited and tailored response” outlined by Secretary of State Kerry will,  by itself, be insufficient to bring about an end to the ongoing atrocities in Syria.

“In his remarks today, Secretary Kerry said the U.S. government now knows ‘with high confidence’ that the  regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack that  killed 1400 civilians, including more than 400 children,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “Human Rights First condemns this heinous crime and urges the United States to respond in a manner that is consistent with  American ideals and universal values. Any use of force must be carried out consistent with international and domestic law and should be part of a broader strategy designed to bring these atrocities to an end. The administration should be considering a wide range of options, including freezing Syrian access to U.S. financial markets and discontinuing arms contracts with those supplying weapons to Assad.”

Secretary Kerry said the “primary objective” of U.S. policy is to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict.   Human Rights First welcomes this statement and urges the administration to explain how the military action it now appears committed to will help to achieve it.

“Diplomatic efforts backed by military force or the threat of military force may be necessary to change the calculus of the Assad regime and its backers in Russia and Iran, and to bring an end to the fighting,” Hicks noted. “But neither Secretary Kerry nor the President has articulated a strategy for the type of sustained engagement that will be necessary to end the cycle of violence in Syria. ”

Human Rights First notes that, beyond the possible use of force, the administration should consider the following steps:

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.

“More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria,” Hicks concluded. “These latest chemical weapons attacks crossed a clear red line established by President Obama many months ago. The administration must demonstrate that it is committed to a multi-pronged approach to respond to these heinous crimes and explain how its targeted strikes fit into a broader plan for protecting civilian lives and bringing about a resolution to this conflict.”


Published on August 30, 2013


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