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The Syrian Litmus Test

February 21, 2012

In a very real sense, injustice is a litmus test.

When we become witnesses to the injustice of others, we have a choice: become part of the solution, or part of the problem. There is no middle ground; choosing to do nothing is a very real action with very real consequences.

During a Feb. 5th meeting, the heads of state of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) issued a Special Communiqué on Syria. This Special Communiqué included three declarations, among them a rejection of “…the systematic intervention and destabilization policy in the sister nation of the Arab Republic of Syria aimed at forcefully imposing a change of regime to the Syrian people.”

Given this precedent, it should come as no surprise that when the UN General Assembly voted on the Syrian resolution on Feb. 16th, the ALBA stood with Assad.

In fact, of the UN member nations that opposed the resolution, all five from the Western Hemisphere–Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua–are also ALBA member states.

Digital boards inside the General Assembly display the votes cast by Member States on a draft resolution on Syria. (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

The Department of Public Information of the UN News and Media Division provided a public record of the proceedings, in which several member states publicly explain the reasoning behind their votes for or against the resolution. The public record also provides a summary of the main tenets of the resolution:

The Assembly called on Syria to abide by its obligations under international law, and demanded that the Government, in line with the 2 November 2011 Action Plan of the League of Arab States, and its decisions of 22 January and 12 February 2012, without delay, stop all violence and protect its people, release all those detained during the unrest, withdraw all armed forces from cities and towns, guarantee peaceful demonstrations and allow unhindered access for Arab League monitors and international media.

It’s important to note that the UN resolution, which was almost identical to the Security Council resolution vetoed by China and Russia on Feb. 4th, was really just a public statement by the UN in support of the Arab League plan. This resolution laid no groundwork for use of force as in the case of Libya.

Several member nations from the Western Hemisphere explained their votes. Each explanation provides insight into regional priorities when it comes to freedom and human rights (emphasis mine):

The representative of Venezuela, affirming the fundamental importance of sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, denounced the attempt by imperial powers and their allies to trigger regime change in Syria, even at the cost of further bloodshed, reproducing the dire consequences of the Libyan situation.  Those Powers sought to occupy Syria, to foment a coup against its legitimate authorities and to turn the country into a protectorate.  The draft resolution, with its mentoring and monitoring mechanisms, represented an intervention in the internal affairs of an independent State, he said.  The text also attacked the Government for human rights abuses while hiding the heinous crimes committed by terrorist groups against civilians, as well as attacks with varied weaponry against public officials and facilities.

He went on to note that the draft ignored the Government’s initiatives to promote inclusive political dialogue and its call for a referendum on a new Constitution, which were the best options for moving forward.  The draft denied the Syrian State’s right to protect its population and ensure internal peace and security, he said, adding that it did not call for opposition groups to dissociate themselves from groups engaged in violence.  Commending the Russian Federation’s efforts for a more balanced text, he supported that country’s peace initiatives in Damascus as well its efforts, with China, to prevent the Security Council from being used to violate Syria’s sovereignty.  “It is not desirable that the logic of war, which imperialists intend to impose on Syria and the world, prevails,” he said.  Instead, the Assembly should be concerned about recognition of a Palestinian State, the end of Israeli rights violations and ending the blockade on Cuba.


The representative of Grenada offered condolences to the families of all those who had lost loved ones in Syria and stressed that the United Nations must act — and be seen to act — in line with the tenets of its founding Charter.  Grenada was proceeding with the understanding that the draft resolution would “do only what the text says” — provide diplomatic support to Syria, the Arab League and the Secretary-General in order to help the Government and people of Syria to end all bloodshed, while finding an agreed solution.  It also understood that the Assembly was not voting on or for a text that could in any way be interpreted as a basis for the removal of the Government, military intervention or any act against the spirit and letter of the Charter, she said.  With that understanding, Grenada would vote in favour of the draft resolution, she added.


The representative of Bolivia, stating that he had voted against the resolution, asked the Assembly to consider exactly what was happening in Syria.  With the many possibilities and few answers, it was clear that no one really knew exactly what the real situation was.  All that was known was that there was a recognized opposition and a Government that was prepared to undertake meaningful reforms.  Indeed, Syria’s representative had twice informed the Assembly that such reforms, including constitutional changes, had been agreed and were under way.  Saying he understood that such reforms were a work in progress, he added that Bolivia knew the dangers of a political vacuum, which could lead to destabilization of the entire region.

He said there were two possible ways in which the Syrian situation could end, the first being “the way of Libya”, in which the United Nations had facilitated a “recipe for intervention” to justify regime change through a Security Council resolution.  That text had actually promoted further destabilization and civil unrest, he pointed out, warning: “I fear we have not learned our lessons from that situation.”  He added: “Last year, it was the Security Council and this year it appears to be the General Assembly.”  Bolivia seriously hoped that that was not the case, but had voted against the resolution just the same.  The other possible ending was through a peaceful resolution, as had occurred in Egypt and Tunisia, he said.  In those cases, efforts had been channelled towards democracy and changes of Government borne by the will of the people, not foreign intervention.  Hopefully, the winds of the “Arab Spring” would blow in Syria’s direction and stir peaceful change, he said, adding that, had the amendments put forward by the Russian Federation been integrated into the resolution, it would have been adopted by consensus.


The representative of Argentina said he had voted in favour of the resolution and emphasized the utmost importance of ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights in Syria.  It was necessary to preserve the fundamental rights of free association and expression, he said, adding that the crisis in Syria should be resolved through dialogue and democratic negotiations involving all sectors of society.


The representative of Chile said he had voted in favour of the text, adding that the Assembly had raised its voice to “energetically” condemn the “grave and massive” violations of human rights under way in Syria.  Serious acts, such as torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detention, including those highlighted by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her briefing earlier in the week, must be denounced and those responsible brought to justice, he emphasized.  All parties in Syria must open a true dialogue, and the authorities must allow access to those in need, he added.

By the time the General Assembly vote rolled around, everyone already knew the official position of the United States. A more in-depth look at the impressively bold statement of Costa Rica is available here.

The litmus test of Syria has drawn a clear dividing line between the priorities–or, perhaps, the loyalties–of some of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Everyone regrets the situation in Syria; it’s really only a matter of which part they regret.

Here’s the defining question: Who are the victims in Syria?

Is it the Syrian people, massacred and tortured by the very government officials who should be serving them?

Or is it the Syrian government, doing its best to quell internal conflict, with nearly the entire international community ganging up against it?

To the leaders of the ALBA, the answer is clear.

Many of them have faced sharp criticism for actions they themselves have taken against the freedom within their own countries, especially in regards to the opposition. Fierce supporters of the principle of non-interventionism for their own sake, they can identify with the plight of President Al-Assad.

It’s important to note that not all ALBA member states voted against the resolution outright. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (full member) and Suriname (recently added as a special guest member) both chose to abstain.

While abstaining still gives implicit support to the Al-Assad regime, it seems to indicate that the loyalties of these smaller ALBA nations are torn. They couldn’t contradict what the ALBA had already agreed to, but they also weren’t ready to stand in the minority voting against the resolution–even for the sake of ALBA solidarity.

Whether for loyalty to President Assad, insecurity that they could be next, or simply supporting an ALBA guest country no matter what, the ALBA has clearly drawn a line in supporting Assad’s cause in Syria.

The results of the litmus test of Syria indicate that the ALBA member nations stands together resolutely against freedom and human rights.

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