Human Rights and Syria: An Original Position for the Gulf?

Commentary by Riccardo Dugulin – 26 March 2012


On February 29, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted by an overwhelming majority a resolution condemning the flagrant violations of human rights in Syria. Regardless of the fact that the HRC cannot generate legally binding resolutions, the move of the council must be read as a major step forward in the international push to limit Bashar al-Assad’s ability to further wage war on his own population. Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been instrumental in drafting and garnering support for the resolution. The Syrian crisis represents the first event in Middle Eastern recent history in which local Arab powers, along with Turkey, openly take a position and lead the way in denouncing crimes committed by an Arab government against its own population through a UN resolution.

The resolution voted in Geneva had been watered down to assure large international support. Regardless of its limited scope, it uses strong language to articulate the international community’s denunciation of crimes committed against civilian populations in Homs, Idlib and Deraa. The resolution states that the HRC: “Strongly condemns the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities”. The last articles of the resolution provide the UN HRC and the General Assembly with a possibility to further work on the Syrian events as article 8 of the resolution closes the document with the following words: “Decides to remain seized of the matter and to take further action on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Critics assert that the Gulf monarchies are using the Syrian crisis to increase their regional power. With a possible fall of Assad, or at least a curtailing of his influence, Saudi Arabia would see its sphere of influence increased. Assad’s regime represents the link between Iran and Hezbollah in the ‘resistance’ axis, mainly acting as a conduit for funding and arms to reach the Shiite militia in Lebanon. Regime change in Syria would certainly provide the Sunni monarchies with a stronger foothold in the Near East. Saudi Arabia in particular has a history of tense relations with the Syrian Baath regime. A stronger Sunni middle class in Syria and a weakened Hezbollah would be seen as a strategic success for Riyadh. Reconstruction funds, investments and religious proselytism are the tools by which Qatar and Saudi Arabia could expand their presence and influence in Syria.

Regardless of these critiques, the February resolution marks a new era in regional affairs. By adopting the human rights norm, the council recognized that some situations require unequivocal international condemnation. It certainly can be argued that the GCC is paying lip service to human rights in order to promote its regional interests, but the results of such actions are unequivocal: in the case of Syria the international community in its great majority is ready to denounce with one voice blatant human rights violations. There certainly is a long history of proxy wars being fought in the Near East and the Gulf. From Yemen to Lebanon passing through Iraq, regional powers have used militias and armed groups to advance their agendas. Syria would present a fertile battleground for the lingering tensions between the Gulf Monarchies and Iran. By pushing for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, present themselves as uninterested in repeating an Iraqi scenario. As Qatar called for armed intervention and Saudi Arabia is allegedly providing rebels with smuggled weaponry, the diplomatic solution remains the preferable one to all parties as an implosion of the Syrian crisis would have long lasting effects on the peace and security of the Near East and the Gulf.

Calling for an immediate cessation of criminal actions against the civilian population and for the guarantee of minimal human rights is a novelty in inter-Arab affairs. Regional powers grasp the risk of an all-out Syrian civil war. Reports and scattered information indicate that Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be smuggling weapons toward Syria; it remains unquestionable that the first and preferable option for the two Gulf powerhouses remains diplomatic pressure against the Syrian regime. Active lobbying by Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia has lead to a second UN resolution in two months denouncing the daily massacres that are taking place in Syria – the first one having been adopted by the General Assembly on February 16th (Resolution 11207).

Detractors insist that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are in no position to call for the respect for human rights in Syria, as they themselves are persistent human rights violators. The GCC military intervention in Bahrain in support of the royal family against the local protest movement further tarnished the credibility of Gulf monarchies during the Arab uprisings that started in Tunisia. If it is clear that political and social reforms must be implemented by the GCC states, one cannot overstate the necessity for a strong Arab voice in the midst of regional turmoil. With Egypt undergoing profound political changes, Iraq struggling to maintain a semblance of stability and other countries simply trying to weather the storm, the role of the Gulf states and Turkey is becoming essential to the region.

On a separate note, lobbying for resolutions aimed at an Arab state and using a strong human rights-oriented language creates a precedent. In the future, the Gulf monarchies will need to pay more attention to the way they react to internal issues as regional adversaries and the international community may have adopt the same strategy towards them.

The choice by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar to adopt diplomatic language oriented toward the defense of human rights represents a shift in their respective foreign policy discourses. Having a relative position of power gives major regional responsibilities to the Gulf monarchies. International success in Syria will be measured by the number of lives that can be saved, and for this, sooner rather than later, further action will need to be taken by Arab states and the international community.


1 Comment

Filed under English, Foreign Policy & IR, Gulf states, Lebanon & Syria

One response to “Human Rights and Syria: An Original Position for the Gulf?

  1. Nalliah Thayabharan

    The human rights issue is being used by a handful of countries as a pretext and tool to pursue selfish interests, demonize the image of other countries and intervene in their internal affairs.

    The US State Department published on April 8 an annual report on other countries’ human rights, lashing out at human rights conditions in more than 190 countries and regions. As expected, the unpopular report has once again evoked unanimous rebuttals and criticism from the targeted countries, including China.

    The United States not to behave as a self-proclaimed human rights judge and it should face up to its own human rights issues.

    The US has published annual reports on human rights practices in other countries since 1977 and has been accustomed to, and is intent on, behaving as a “judge”. However, Washington has received a cold shoulder from countries worldwide, because of its own human rights violations and its double standard on human rights issues.

    The US has never hesitated to point the finger at other countries’ human rights and to advocate that “human rights are superior to sovereignty” when it serves its own interests. But the US has refused to sign some of the major United Nations human rights covenants. On March 18, the UN Human Rights Council made 228 proposals for the US to improve its own human rights conditions, including urging Washington to ratify some key international human rights treaties, improving the rights for minorities and reducing racial discrimination. However, the US refused most of these proposals on the grounds that its human rights allow no intervention from the outside.

    The double standard embraced by the US testify to the fact that human rights are being used by some countries as a tool to interfere with others’ internal affairs and the idea that “human rights stand higher than sovereignty” has become a political slogan for some to justify their hegemonic activities.

    Until the outbreak of World War II, Western countries were still enmeshed in their history of colonialism, racial discrimination and outside aggression. The widespread national liberation and democratic movements across the world following the end of World War II quickly resulted in the collapse of the West’s long-held moral excuses that were used to justify their past crimes and “use of force” and it turned to concepts, such as “humanitarian intervention” and “human rights are superior to sovereignty”, as the main means to regain their lost moral dominance and maintain their dwindling domain of influence throughout the world.

    By using abstract terms and their own criteria to define the concept of human rights, Western countries have attempted to completely separate human rights from sovereignty and then cause conflicts in specific countries and regions from which they can benefit and achieve their own political purposes.

    Human rights in individual countries can only be realized and protected in a sovereign country, when there are still strong and weak countries and when hegemonic activities and power politics still prevail.

    A country belongs to all its people and the country’s sovereignty is the concentrated embodiment of its collective human rights. The existence of sovereign nations constitutes the foundation of the current international society and under this precondition human rights conditions worldwide have made continuous advancements.

    In the absence of sovereignty, a country will have no ability and means to protect the human rights of its people. From Kosovo to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, under the pretext of “human rights being superior to sovereignty”, Western countries have chosen to use guns and bombs against the governments of these countries to realize their own ulterior motives. But the use of force has failed to bring the people in these countries improved human rights, on the contrary it has plunged them deep into humanitarian disasters and cost many their lives.

    Protecting human rights is a universal pursuit of people of all countries across the world. But if this issue is rigged by a handful of countries as the excuse to interfere with other countries’ internal affairs, the human rights of these countries and their people are ignored.

    Military interventions under the guise of moral slogans are in essence a kind of neo-colonialism.

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