Immunity or safe-conduct for al-Assad? Can Kofi Annan fail? Conference before cease-fire?—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #56 (June 23)

A lot of wasted time and diplomatic effort could be saved if the world’s leaders insisted on their top international lawyers sitting in on critical decisions affecting foreign policy and national security.

The latest example is provided by the floating of the idea of the United Kingdom giving Bashar al-Assad a grant of immunity from prosecution (“clemency”) for the crimes he has committed–and is committing today–against the Syrian people, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other grave violations of fundamental human rights.

See David Usborne and Alastair Beach (Mexico City), “Assad could be offered new clemency deal,” The Independent, June 21, 2012.

Patrick Wintour (political editor), “Assad may be offered clemency by Britain and US if he joins peace talks: Initiative comes after Cameron and Obama received encouragement from Putin during G20 talks in Mexico,” The Guardian, June 20, 2012.

According to The Guardian,

Britain and America are willing to offer the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, safe passage – and even clemency – as part of a diplomatic push to convene a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva on political transition in Syria.

The initiative comes after David Cameron and Barack Obama received encouragement from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in separate bilateral talks at the G20 in Mexico.

…Britain is willing to discuss giving clemency to Assad if it would allow a transitional conference to be launched. He could even be offered safe passage to attend the conference.

During talks at the G20, British and American officials were convinced Putin was not wedded to Assad remaining in power indefinitely, although even this limited concession is disputed in Moscow.

On the basis of these discussions, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will now seek to persuade the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, to change the format of his plans to construct a contact group on Syria, and instead host a conference using the transition on Yemen as the model.

Participants would include representatives of the Syrian government, leading figures in the opposition, the five permanent members of the UN security council and key figures in the region, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia has been pressing for Iran to be able to attend.

The meeting, under Annan’s chairmanship, would be held by the end of the month with an objective of establishing a broader-based government leading to elections in 18 months time.

A Small Problem: The U.N. Convention Against Torture

The United Kingdom, the U.S. and Switzerland are all parties to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“the Convention on Torture”).

The Convention defines “torture” as follows:

Article 1
(1) For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity….

Article 2 establishes:
(2) No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Article 4 provides:
(1) Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.
(2) Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.

Finally, and of particular relevance here, Article 5 establishes:
(1) Each State Party shall take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over the offences referred to in article 4 in the following cases:
(i) When the offences are committed in any territory under its jurisdiction or on board a ship or aircraft registered in that State;
(ii) When the alleged offender is a national of that State;
(iii) When the victim was a national of that State if that State considers it appropriate
(2) Each State Party shall likewise take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over such offences in cases where the alleged offender is present in any territory under its jurisdiction and it does not extradite him pursuant to article 8 to any of the States mentioned in Paragraph 1 of this article.

Al-Assad’s pervasive use of torture is well-documented.

While the United States is quite accustomed to not prosecuting individuals involved in violations of the Torture Convention, the same cannot be said for the United Kingdom and Switzerland (the site of the proposed conference), who do not share the Obama administration’s disdain for international law. In the case of the U.S., a number of officials directly involved in the Bush torture policy have not been prosecuted, in violation of Article 5(2) of the Convention. These include, notably, John Brennan, President Obama’s direct assistant in selecting targets (and advisor on “just war theory”) in decisions regarding targeted executions.

In a word, the idea of granting safe passage and even clemency to Bashar al-Assad, to enable him to attend a conference in Geneva being arranged by Kofi Annan, is a total non-starter.

It would be the height of folly to begin an attempt to resolve the Syria question by committing violations of the U.N. Convention on Torture.

Obama and Cameron would know this if they were listening to their top international lawyers. The fact that Obama isn’t is not very surprising. But the fact that the British Prime Minister is apparently similarly unadvised is, in the context of British politics, somewhat shocking.

These leaders should do their homework before they start leaking to the press about the latest bright idea they have had.

For that matter, they might also bear in mind, in seeking to emulate “the Yemen model”, that Yemen itself is a party to the Convention on Torture and that, further, Saleh’s amnesty in Yemen is not only highly dubious under international law, but also not likely to stand up over time, as precedents in other countries such as Argentina and Chile suggest. Russia is also a party to the Convention on Torture.

Hiding Behind the Kofi Annan Smokescreen

As for the idea of organizing a conference under Kofi Annan’s leadership, the effort is just a continuation of the 6-point peace plan and the smokescreen the U.S., the U.K. and others have thrown up to give the impression they are doing something to stop the killing in Syria, when they are not–at least not publicly.

Kofi Annan and the Security Council’s adoption of his six-point peace plan, and the subsequent establishment of the UNSMIS monitoring mission in Syria, have been a total disaster. Nothing has been achieved, while thousands more have died and the country hurtles toward an all-out sectarian civil war as a direct result of the time that has been lost.

It is interesting to try to identify the indicators that would constitute a failure of the Kofi Annan plan, of his failure as a mediator, or of the failure of his latest effort to keep control of the action (acting on Russia’s behalf, many would say) by creating a “contact group” or organizing a political transition conference.

If these indicators or parameters of failure cannot be identified, we must necessarily conclude that the Kofi Annan plan is a plan that cannot fail, that Kofi Annan is a mediator who cannot fail, and that his next act, whether a “contact group” or a conference in Geneva, cannot fail either.

Who could oppose a peace plan that cannot fail, and a mediator who cannot fail? How, indeed, could anyone oppose a conference in Geneva that cannot fail?

Of course, one’s perspective could influence one’s answer. Unfortunately, those who have died and who will die in Syria as a result of the peace plan that cannot fail, the mediator who cannot fail, and the peace conference in Geneva that cannot fail, cannot speak. So, we cannot really know what they would have to say.

But we can use our imaginations.

It is as if one were living in and directly experiencing the war crimes and crimes against humanity of Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich, in 1943, and at the same time calling for a peace conference in Switzerland with representatives of all the participants in Germany and the leading outside powers to reach an agreement on the future of Germany.

It will not work, and much time will be lost.  The proposal plays directly into the hands of al-Assad, who can drag out the negotiations forever as he continues his atrocities. Similarly, it plays directly into the hands of the Russians, who seem to be able to keep the Americans and the British on the hook by continually dangling in front of their eyes the illusion that someday, somehow, Russia might go along with a Security Council resolution with some teeth in it.

If the U.S., NATO, the Arab countries and the other civilized countries of the world have not yet learned that any agreement signed by al-Assad would not be worth the paper it was written on, they have taken historical stupidity to a new height.

As the head of the editorial page of  the Daily Star, Michael Young, wrote on February 23, 2012, some months and many thousands of lives ago, the policy of the U.S. in Syria is “pathetic”.

It consists of cynically pretending there is a community of interests with respect to Syria among Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the United States, NATO, the Arab countries and rest of the civilized world, on the other, while unbridled barbarism continues to unfold before our eyes.

To be sure, in the shadows (but leaked to the press), the United States is now actively assisting and coordinating the provision of arms to the rebels in Syria, together with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries including Turkey.

This covert policy is being pursued without any public legal justification, which as we have suggested in previous articles is readily available. Whatever relative weaknesses such a legal justification might have, they would pale in comparison with the defects in the U.S. legal justification for the use of drones in Somalia and Yemen, in general, and for their use in “signature strikes” against unknown individuals, in particular.

Will the U.S. strategy of overtly supporting Kofi Annan and his hopeless plans while at the same time coordinating the supply of weapons to the insurgents in Syria help President Obama get past the finish line of the November elections? Or will it lead to Syria blowing up, a powerful Republican challenge to Obama on foreign policy, and his losing the election? Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been relying on kind of a Team B for foreign policy advice up until now. Once the party’s foreign policy heavyweights, from Henry Kissinger to Condi Rice, enter into the fray, joining John McCain, a formidable challenge to Obama could arise. Stay tuned.

You don’t negotiate a cease-fire or an armistice at a peace conference. The idea of trying to do so is absolutely wrong-headed, as wrong-headed as trying to use 300 unarmed peace monitors to force al-Assad to stop the killing.

The assumption that you can negotiate with al-Assad, and that if he agreed to any settlement it would mean anything, is contradicted by every piece of evidence that we have.

The whole idea of Kofi Annan and a conference in Geneva, or a “contact group”, is just one more installment in the U.S. foreign policy fiasco in Syria brought to you by President Obama, “the covert commander-in-chief”, and his foreign policy juggernaut, “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”.

Somehow, the word “pathetic” seems too weak.

The Trenchant Observer

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