For Immediate Release: September 3, 2013
Washington, D.C. – As Members of Congress consider the administration’s proposal to launch military strikes against Syria, Human Rights First today urged lawmakers to ensure that any such action complies with international law, is designed to protect civilians from further harm, and is part of a broader strategy to end the conflict that has resulted in terrible atrocities inflicted on the Syrian people. Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey, testified before Congress today on the president’s plan to launch strikes in retaliation for the August 21 chemical attack against civilians in the outskirts of Damascus.
“The president’s decision to seek authorization from Congress for military strikes against Syria provides an important opportunity to discuss the strategy for how to bring an end to the human rights crisis in Syria,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “President Obama should present a coherent, comprehensive strategy to protect the civilian population from widespread, continuing mass atrocities, and secure U.S. interests.”
The civil war in Syria has already resulted in over 100,000 deaths and has created more than 2 million refugees. More than 6 million people have been displaced from their homes, over 25% of the total population. The conflict has intensified the sectarian divide between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, and between Muslims and Christians, in many parts of the region. Violent extremists operate freely in the war zone. All of these developments contribute to regional instability, threaten the security of U.S. allies in the region, and are harmful to the national interests of the United States.
This morning President Obama said that military action “also fits into a broader strategy we have” to weaken Assad and “strengthen the opposition,” in an effort to create conditions for “peace and stability in the region.” Human Rights First urges the administration to spell out what this “broader strategy” entails.
The draft resolution presented to Congress by the administration on the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would give the president authority to attack any entity with “connections” to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) without restrictions on what type of force could be used or where it could be deployed. There is no indication in the draft resolution that the use of force would be limited to Syria.
“The administration should explain how its strategy will contribute to what Secretary Kerry described as top priority for U.S. policy: finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria,” said Hicks.
Human Rights First welcomed the focus by Senators Udall, Murphy, and Kaine on Russia’s destructive role in enabling the ongoing attacks in Syria. This is an area that should get more attention, and the focus by these senators reflects a sense of pragmatism and strategic thinking about how to end the atrocities against civilians.
Whether or not the U.S. government ultimately decides to take military action, it should step up its activities in the following areas:
DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS & ACCOUNTABILITY: Any end to the conflict will ultimately require a negotiated agreement between the parties, 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 use the credible threat of force that is now confronting the Syrian regime to press for the convening of peace talks under the auspices of the U.N. and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.
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, Iraq and Lebanon. The United States must continue and enhance its efforts to ensure that these governments are receiving the support they need 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 also 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.
For more information or to speak with Hicks, contact Brenda Bowser Soder at BowserSoderB@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3323.