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September 10, 2013

President’s Oval Office Remarks Should Detail Broader Strategy

Washington, D.C. – As President Obama prepares to deliver his Oval Office address, remarks that will reportedly detail the reasons behind his request for authority to launch military strikes against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Human Rights First urges the president and his administration to develop and implement a broad, sustained strategy to protect civilians and advance a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis. The organization welcomes President Obama’s engagement to secure passage of a new U.N. Security Council resolution.

“Tonight’s address should make clear that President Obama is focused on the ends the United States wants to achieve in Syria – upholding the international prohibition on chemical weapons and confronting the Assad regime’s atrocities – and not solely on the means of a military strike,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “The president’s plan should include strong multilateral action to reinforce the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, further steps to alleviate the suffering of the millions of Syrians displaced from their homes by the escalating conflict, and a comprehensive approach to engage all parties to the conflict in negotiations that will bring it to an end. Without these steps, any possible military strike will have a limited an uncertain impact on the situation in Syria that has left more than 100,000 people dead, including the 1,400 men, women and children killed in the August 21 chemical weapons attack.”

The intense diplomacy carried out by the administration since the August 21 gas attacks, backed up by the credible threat of military force by the United States, has created new opportunities for achieving policy outcomes that will best serve U.S. interests and could have some chance of ending the widespread violations of human rights in Syria that have proliferated over the last two years.

“We urge the president to seize this moment of opportunity and maintain his current high level of engagement on the full set of policy options in the Syria crisis, until the objectives set out above are attained,” Hicks observed.

Among the four key steps Human Rights First recommends are the following:

Pursue United Nations Security Council Action

Human Rights First welcomes the president’s engagement with Russia and other members of the U.N. Security Council to prepare a new resolution on the Syria crisis. The administration should support a resolution in the Security Council that would:

  • Condemn the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.
  • Refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court so that the war crimes, mass atrocities, and crimes against humanity, including the August 21 gas attacks, can be investigated and those responsible held accountable.
  • Require that the Syrian government turns over its stockpiles of chemical weapons to international control for their eventual destruction within a short period of time, and submit to rigorous international inspection to ensure compliance.
  • Authorize the use of all necessary measures, including the use of force, should the Syrian government fail to comply.

“U.N. Security Council passage of a resolution including all of these elements would be a diplomatic victory,” Hicks observed. “It would represent strong multilateral action to reaffirm the international norm on the prohibition of chemical weapons and to hold accountable those responsible for their use on August 21.”

Tighten U.S. Financial Sanctions

The United States and the European Union already have in place stiff financial sanctions against Syria. However, these restrictions on lending to or conducting financial transfers on behalf of the Syrian Central Bank and other Syrian entities are being circumvented by banks based in Russia and other countries, banks that in turn have corresponding bank accounts in the United States and European countries and borrow in Western capital markets. To close these loopholes and increase pressure on the Assad regime, the U.S. Treasury Department should announce that any international banks that are still doing business with the regime will no longer be eligible for corresponding bank privileges in the United States.

President Obama should also designate such offenders based on Executive Order 13608 “Prohibiting Certain Transactions with and Suspending Entry into the United States of Foreign Sanctions Evaders with Respect to Iran and Syria.”

Enhanced financial sanctions are a tool both for encouraging the Assad regime to comply with international demands that it surrender its chemical weapons, and also for persuading the Assad regime that it must end its widespread involvement in crimes against humanity and mass atrocities and participate in negotiations with the opposition and all parties to the conflict to find an end to it.

Address the Growing Refugee Crisis

One Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds, and reports continue to emerge of thousands of Syrians are being denied access to neighboring countries as some governments increasingly seek to restrict they entry of refugees. While these states should be commended for their generosity in already hosting large numbers of refugees, they should not deny access to others seeking safety.

The United States should investigate reports of refugees being prevented from crossing to safety and consistently raise these concerns with Syria’s neighbors. Recognizing the cost of hosting large refugee populations, the United States should also continue to provide humanitarian and development aid, and step up its efforts to encourage other donors to do the same in order to support countries in the region.

As the United States begins to increase the number of Syrians being considered for resettlement as a means of sharing the burden of countries in the region, it should ensure that it does not deny its protection to refugees who have stood up to, or been persecuted by, Syria’s repressive regime yet face potential bars to protection under U.S. immigration law even though they do not support terrorist activity and present no risk.

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 about Human Rights First’s recommendations or to speak with Hicks, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder atbowsersoderb@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3323.