Earlier this month, a health center in Aleppo, Syria, run by Qatar Red Crescent was struck by bombs dropped from a helicopter. Two patients were killed, eight others were wounded and half the facility was destroyed. Qatar was forced to close the center. Dr. Hashem Darwish, the head of the health program at the Qatar Red Crescent’s mission in Turkey, called the attack a war crime.
This was the very phrase the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, used a few days earlier to describe the escalating violence deployed by the Syrian government and its allies. “Those using ever more destructive weapons know exactly what they are doing,” said Mr. Ban. “They know they are committing war crimes.”
Five years after Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, responded with shocking brutality to the peaceful protests of his people, the tally of war crimes is mounting. About half a million people have died, and millions more have fled their homes and their country to escape the barrel bombs and chlorine gas that Mr. Assad has unleashed on his own citizens. The regime’s ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have only intensified in their viciousness and cruelty as the war has dragged on.
Mr. Assad has not acted alone. He has had support from outside forces that share responsibility for the death and destruction. But he has also had enablers, those who have stood aside and done nothing as the slaughter has continued. Red lines have been drawn, and Mr. Assad has crossed them without consequence. Cease-fires have been declared, and regime forces have violated them with impunity.
The United Nations Security Council has also failed, despite multiple resolutions, to use all means at its disposal to stop the atrocities being committed against the Syrian people. The principle of the Responsibility to Protect, endorsed by all member states of the United Nations in 2005 to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity, should have formed the basis for a United Nations-led intervention in Syria.
During the past five years, however, enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect has been blocked repeatedly by certain members of the Security Council for political reasons. The deadlock, in turn, has allowed the Syrian regime to continue to massacre its citizens with impunity. The humanitarian disaster now being inflicted on Aleppo illustrates the consequences of the United Nations’ failure.
Syria is not the only place where the Security Council has selectively ducked its responsibility to protect innocent civilians and prevent war crimes in the Middle East. In Gaza in 2014, it failed to restrain Israeli aggression against the civilian population: Of 2,251 Palestinians killed, 1,462 were civilians, including 551 children and 299 women.
The lack of impartiality and accountability in the work of the Security Council has disillusioned many in the Middle East who seek peace and justice. In the absence of international leadership, some governments in the region have turned to foreign powers for support, perpetuating the bloodshed.
There are alternatives. After the United Nations failed to intervene to prevent genocides in the 1990s in Rwanda and at Srebrenica (during the Bosnian war), NATO took action to stop an imminent massacre in Kosovo. Justifying the NATO action, President Bill Clinton said, “If the world community has the power to stop it, we ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
When innocent civilians are being mercilessly massacred — whether they are Christians, Tutsis, Serbs or Muslims — it is the responsibility of the international community to take collective action. Six years after Kosovo, the United Nations endorsed this resolve with the Responsibility to Protect. Now it’s time to protect the innocent in Syria.
There are those who will argue that it would be a mistake to intervene in another conflict in the Middle East, citing the American-led occupation of Iraq from 2003. But the invasion of Iraq was a war of choice. There is no choice in Syria: Saving civilians from being slaughtered by the Assad regime is a moral responsibility.
The world has the power to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Under the auspices of the Responsibility to Protect and Chapter VII of its charter, the United Nations has the authority to take action. Qatar calls on the members of the Security Council to set aside their geopolitical calculations and honor their commitment to protect the lives of the defenseless in Syria.
We strongly urge the Security Council to protect the civilian population of Syria by immediately creating safe havens in northern and southern Syria, and by enforcing a no-fly zone. In the event that the Security Council is unable to agree on these very basic actions, we call on the United Nations General Assembly to demand implementation of Resolution 377A. This measure, also known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution and the “Acheson Plan,” which dates from 1950, provides a means of circumventing a deadlocked Security Council and enabling the United Nations to enact collective resistance to aggression.
Time is not on our side. While world leaders hesitate, thousands more could die in Aleppo. The international community, bearing the failures in Rwanda and Bosnia on its conscience, cannot afford to fail again.
Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani is the foreign minister of Qatar.