As Syria continues to burn under leader Bashar Assad’s Hama 2.0 operation, all hope seems fixed solely on the United Nations Security Council. However, far from New York, the world’s newest human rights organization is in a position to take the next pivotal move to defuse the crisis if it so chooses.
Receiving little attention in June, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), formerly known as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, set up its new human rights body, the OIC Commission on Human Rights (OICCHR). Having sorted out its ministerial minutiae as late as July, the fledgling 18-member commission faces an urgent and unmistakable legitimacy test: naming and shaming the ongoing violence Mr. Assad is perpetuating against his own people.
Casual observers of institutions like the OIC are correct to frown at the chances of this happening. The OIC resolution calling for the creation of the OICCHR contains a dizzying array of limitations, claw-back clauses and torturous language that appears to shield human rights violators rather than expose them. One clause, for instance, pointedly advocates “the non-use of the universality of human rights as a pretext in the state’s internal affairs and diminish their national sovereignty.” Another ostensibly backward clause calls upon OIC member states to work together to “increase Islamic solidarity to confront any initiative that may lead to use of human rights as a means of exercising pressure on any member state.” Add the fact that Iran and Sudan are charter members of the OICCHR, and it is easy to think the organization will be stuck in neutral – at best.
But an OICCHR move on Syria may not be as hopeless as it seems.
On the procedural level, the OICCHR statute permits the organ to call “extraordinary meetings” at the request of any member state outside of the body’s limited biannual schedule. Next, while the statute mandates that its decisions be consensus-based, a two-thirds majority can be used if the former “is not possible.” Luckily, Syria was not one of the first 18 OIC member states to land a representative on the OICCHR.
Next, all the talk of so-called Islamic unity against interference in members’ domestic affairs is more window-dressing than policy. There are many extremely timely examples of this.
For one, the Arab League gave the crucial thumbs-up for a no-fly zone over Libya, which the U.N. Security Council ultimately authorized. While it helped that Col. Moammar Gadhafi was already considered the black sheep of the Arab world, Mr. Assad’s reputation definitely is not trending these days. In fact, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) already have condemned the violence taking place in Syria. Every member of the Arab League and GCC is also a member of the OIC.
OIC member Saudi Arabia, which has every political incentive to pile on its geopolitical nemesis Syria but also has a number of skeletons in its own human rights closet, has publicly criticized Syria’s actions. Yes, it really was Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah who publicly declared, “Any sane Arab, Muslim or anyone else knows that this has nothing to do with religion, or ethics or morals; spilling the blood of the innocent for any reasons or pretext leads to no path to … hope.” Kuwait and Bahrain have joined Saudi Arabia in recalling their respective ambassadors from Damascus.
Finally, while imposing a no-fly zone in Syria or even booting Syria out of the OIC may be a bridge simply too far for the inchoate OICCHR, the commission is far from powerless.
If the OICCHR were merely to issue a statement condemning the ever-worsening macabre apparatus of death Mr. Assad is launching against the Syrian people, it would take a huge and indisputable step toward establishing its fundamental legitimacy and contributing to the growing international isolation of Mr. Assad. With an effective, regional, institutional hat trick – Arab League, GCC, and OICCHR – coming out against him, Mr. Assad may very well start looking for a way out.
Even if Mr. Assad ignores such a move by the OICCHR, he will have suffered a substantial international rebuke from an institution once considered a safe haven. Moreover, independent OICCHR action will place the U.N. Security Council in a much better political position to use additional diplomatic or other coercive tools to put an end to his reign of terror.
Expecting the OICCHR to take this kind of action, regardless of the fact that it is an infant in terms of its institutional development, is admittedly asking a lot. Nevertheless, as Mr. Assad continues to employ tanks and gunships against the Syrian people, it is do-or-die time for the new organization.
By Ryan Kaminski, research associate for the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.