One might have thought that the Syrian civil war, which over seven years has cost 400,000 killed, caused over five million refugees and involved countless atrocities, has by now exhausted the capacity of the world to be shocked or outraged. No one can live in a state of constant of horror and revulsion; life goes on, even as brutal death and destruction in Syria go on.
Yet, Syria surprised the world on Tuesday as it succeeded in inspiring fresh global indignation, this time without lifting a finger against rebel soldiers or civilians.
The occasion was its appointment to the presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD).
Syria was awarded the honor just weeks after the latest report of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities against civilians. The Assad regime is widely believed to have perpetrated chemical attacks in at least 14 cases already. Those cases are under investigation by none other than the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was itself created by the Conference on Disarmament, and its most notable achievement to date.
The United States led the response of civilized nations:
“We are outraged at the Syrian regime’s blatant disregard for human life, its serial violations of and contempt for its international obligations and its audaciousness in assuming the presidency of an international body committed to advancing disarmament and nonproliferation,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing. “Syria lacks the credibility to assume the presidency.”
Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference, walked out of the plenary in protest, denouncing Syria’s assumption of the presidency as a “travesty.” Israel, Britain, Germany and France also protested.
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Hussam Alaa was undaunted. He accused those countries of “double standards” with a chemical weapons policy that does not “take into account the real dangers threatening the world,” and condemning them for bombing regime targets in Syria.
Russia earned a footnote in the annals of cynicism by speaking up for its friends in Damascus.
But what of U.N. officials, who have no stake in propping up Bashar Hafez al-Assad and are presumably also eager to put a stop to the atrocities in his country?
They will argue that the rotating presidency was established in the first place to prevent more powerful countries from competing for the position and dominating the conference.
Syria follows Switzerland in the presidential chair simply because it follows Switzerland in the alphabetical list of member states that determines the rotation.
And thanks to another bylaw, Syria cannot be ousted from its place in the rotation unless all 65 member states — including Syria — vote in favor of doing so. That is why, when Alaa took up his new position, none of the other envoys snatched away his placecard and told him to get lost. Because they can’t, according to the rules they themselves made.
Thus, Syria joins a “proud tradition” of the worst malefactors in the world honored with presiding seats of ethics and humanity. Like Saudi Arabia, whose air force has been carrying out indiscriminate bombings in Yemen and is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Like Iran, which sat on the U.N. Economic and Social Council’s Commission on the Status of Women. The CD includes (in alphabetical order) such exemplars of human rights as China, Cuba, Iraq, Myanmar, Russia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, all of whom have an unassailable place in the presidential rotation.
It would not have been so hard to downplay the whole matter. The same requirement for total consensus regarding a change in the rotation is also required to pass resolutions. Any one of the 65 members can veto a proposal not to its liking, especially when it comes to exposing and calling for action against its own country. Not surprisingly, the CD is in a state of permanent gridlock, unable to do much of anything to advance the cause of disarmament.
As such, Syria’s turn as president will change nothing. It could have been brushed aside as but one of the many absurdities of international diplomacy, causing no harm to anyone. As the man from Damascus argued, there are more urgent matters to discuss than who sits where at the Conference room in Geneva.
But that would have been wrong. The world cannot afford to become apathetic about Syria. No country in the world where such crimes are committed every day can be treated like a member in good standing of the family of nations. No self-respecting international body can allow it.
The United States and its allies were not able to prevent this travesty. But they were right to protest it.
It would have been a crime not to.