FreePressers Staff

Prospect of political Renaissance no comfort for civilians caught in the crossfire

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Hundreds of Syrians cross the illegal Al-Boqayah border point from Tall Kalakh into northern Lebanon's Wadi Khaled area on May 14, fearing fresh violence. / AFP

By John J. Metzler 

UNITED NATIONS — Amid the maelstrom of violence and uprisings sweeping the Middle East like a  sandstorm, comes the cherished and oft-naive hope of a Pan Arab Spring, a kind of political Renaissance from which democracy, human rights, and the sweet nectar of freedom will flow into the long-parched political landscape. Equally in West Africa, the end of a brutal civil insurrection has led to high hopes but often only produced stark reality of wider bloodshed.

What remains a constant is the humanitarian horror faced by the civilian population which has been targeted by their own respective regimes as well as by the collateral damage of fighting among political factions as in Libya and Syria and the Ivory Coast.

Addressing the “deliberate targeting of civilians an or other flagrant disregard for their well being in violation of international humanitarian  law during hostilities,”  Valerie Amos, the UN’s Humanitarian Chief  stated before the Security Council, “we have witnessed an unprecedented series of crises in the Middle East, and parts of North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.”  She cited the situations in Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Syria as particularly distressing.

In Libya the Gadhafi regime is using high explosive weapons such as Russian-supplied Grad rockets and cluster munitions against densely populated areas. In Syria, she admonished, the “deployment of tanks and reports of shelling of residential areas.”

The ongoing violence against civilians in the West African state of Cote d’Ivoire continues. Valerie Amos stressed, “Direct attacks against civilians, indiscriminate shelling, sexual violence, attacks against humanitarian workers and peacekeepers have all been reported.”    She informed the Security Council that even in the wake of the political resolution of November disputed elections,   “there are still an estimated 150,000 internally displaced people in western Cote d’Ivoire and a further 177,000 Ivorians registered as refugees in several West African nations.”

While Amos stressed the compelling reminder of the UN Security Council’s “protection of civilians agenda,” she added that measures such as  “demanded compliance with the law” and arms embargos and “targeted sanctions” are among measures the world community can use against such transgressors as Gadhafi or Assad.

Interestingly India’s delegate Manjeev Singh Puri stated nonetheless, “There can be no substitute for national will and national efforts in creating an environment where civilians are secure.”

Yes, but that’s easier said than done in a civil conflict or for that matter protecting minorities such as the embattled Christian communities in the Middle East.

Germany’s Ambassador  Peter Wittig advised, “Regarding the  responsibility to protect, let me be clear: It is first and foremost the responsibility of each state to protect its civilian population from violence.  However the international community will not turn a blind eye when there is a blatant disregard of this obligation, this is a message that applies not only to Libya.” 

 “Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence in armed conflict,”  Ambassador Wittig stressed, adding, “We are deeply shocked by the violence and the brutality of the internal repression against unarmed and peaceful protesters orchestrated by the Syrian authorities.”   He warned, “We strongly urge the Syrian government to end its military repression against its own population and respect human rights.”

During the Cold War, Syria was a stalwart Soviet client state; in recent times the Assad regime has been an ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

The obvious question emerges; if tyrannical rulers such as Col. Gadhafi or Bashar Assad mistreat their population in peacetime, why would they respect their human rights during civil conflict when those people have risen up against the regimes?  Ruthless tyrants such as those in Libya and Syria are hardly expected to suddenly embrace humanitarian norms in the midst of conflict aimed at toppling them.

Naturally there is some price to be paid by dictators.  The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague is seeking the arrest of Colonel Gadhafi as well as his son Saif al-Islam and the intelligence chief  for  “widespread and systematic attacks on civilians.”   Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo  stated that the accused were suspected of committing crimes against humanity in two categories,  murder and persecution.

Should Gadhafi ever come to trial, will this heal and rebuild the shattered lives of Libyan civilians,  and moreover the American and European victims of his terror over the decades?  Will this help civilians caught in the crossfire?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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