Ed Luck, Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General, discusses the current situations in Syria and Sudan and the role of the international community in addressing these crises.
NARRATOR: This is Voices on Genocide Prevention from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
CAMERON HUDSON: This is Cameron Hudson with the Committee on Conscience here at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I’m joined today by Dr. Ed Luck, the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Responsibility to Protect. Dr. Luck, thanks for joining us today.
EDWARD LUCK: Thank you, Cameron.
CAMERON HUDSON: We wanted to take advantage of you being here at the Museum to talk a little bit about the situation in Syria right now, since it is quite concerning to many of the people who come to the Museum and visit us on the web. Can you just talk briefly about what’s going on in Syria right now and why we should be concerned?
EDWARD LUCK: Well, we’re very concerned. It’s been now almost a year that the government in Syria seems to be at war with its own people and there are indications that there may be crimes against humanity that have been committed there and we see no end in sight. And we’ve made a lot of appeals, obviously, and the Secretary-General has been very articulate and consistent on this, asking them to cease the violence. You can’t start a political reform process or even have a proper constitutional referendum in the middle of an onslaught against your own people. And now the emergency relief coordinator from the U.N. has visited Homs and some of the other cities and she’s about to report back to the Security Council but what she saw was just horrendous, the amount of damage is extraordinary and, from a “responsibility to protect” perspective, we’re particularly worried about the sectarian differences within Syria and that the violence seems to be targeted against some communities more than others and there might, at some point, be a backlash in that regard. So it’s a very, very dangerous situation, I think one that whole international community has to be concerned about.
CAMERON HUDSON: What do you see as the potential for this situation to degenerate even further and what would we be seeing if this were moving beyond the scope of crimes against humanity, which we’ve seen now, along the road to something more grave like genocide?
EDWARD LUCK: Well, you have a demographic mix in Syria in which about three-quarters of the population are Sunni Muslims. The Alawite minority, which has most of the ruling positions and which President Assad comes from, is maybe 12 or 13% of the population, so a fairly small group. There’s a small Christian minority. There are Kurds, there are others in small groups, but it’s not a promising mix. We’ve seen, in the past, in Lebanon and Iraq, some of the bordering countries, terrible intergroup communal violence. We look back at what happened 30 years ago in Hama, where 10,000, maybe even 20,000 people were killed and, again, it was a question of the government repressing a Sunni group there. And so we’re very concerned that this could get out of hand and it’s very important that the international community speak with a single voice and we tried to reach out to elements of civil society within Syria to call for tolerance, call for trying to build bridges across religious and sectarian lines. And it’s difficult to do from the outside. We don’t have the kind of access that we would like, but I think now that Kofi Annan is going to represent both the U.N. and the League of Arab States in terms of being a special envoy. He understands the responsibility to protect. He was one of the original advocates in Kenya after the disputed elections there: in early 2008, he did very important mediation for 41 straight days and brought the responsibility to protect to that crisis because, again, the political problems were turning out to be problems, in that case, between tribes and groups within the country.
CAMERON HUDSON: Let me ask you a question about one of the criticisms that’s been levied since the invasion of Libya last year, which was essentially that we’ve heard from several members of the Security Council and others that what was authorized with Libya was a responsibility to protect a civilian protection operation and what resulted was regime change in Libya. And so the question, I think, for many people out there is when you have a state that has essentially declared war against its own population, at what point does the responsibility to protect, at what point does that necessarily, or does it necessitate, regime change? And how do you sort of grapple with this political tension that exists in these kinds of situations?
EDWARD LUCK: Well, it’s a tough question because we are seeing now these cases where it seems that leaders are determined to go at war with at least portions of the population. Under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, there’s nothing about regime change in terms of shifting governments. There is an effort, obviously, to get regimes to change their behavior so we consider that to be extremely important. But, in terms of shuffling who’s in charge, that’s not part of the doctrine. Now, the Security Council may make judgments, regional organizations may make judgments about that, but it certainly isn’t part of the doctrine per se. We understand that sometimes the leadership is the problem but our first recourse is to try to convince the leaders that there are other ways of handling political opposition and they don’t need to resort to force. And we hope that, in the case of Syria, through dialogue and mediation, that one can begin to build some bridges but so far we haven’t been very encouraged by the response of the Damascus government.
CAMERON HUDSON: Is there something more that the international community can or should be doing to really try to effect change on the ground in Syria right now?
EDWARD LUCK: Well, clearly the economic sanctions that many countries have taken, the European Union, some of the neighbors of Syria, and certainly the United States and others seem to be having some effect on the economy and maybe that will begin to make some of the allies of the current government think twice and at least try to put more pressure on the government to change their ways. Right now, the government is making the argument that they’re the only ones who can bring stability to the country. Our view is that their actions are bringing instability and they’re deepening the divisions among communities and that is potentially a very dangerous thing, particularly if the government is dominated by a fairly small minority of the population. This is not the best way for them to secure a stable future for Syria. So we would certainly encourage all the backing possible Kofi Annan’s mission. You could not have a better envoy to be there, a former Secretary-General of the U.N., someone who knows President Assad and also understands the need to carry out the responsibility to protect and the human rights norms there. I think we have to push for more openness, to allow journalists and certainly allow, in the first place, humanitarian aid to get in so people can see what’s going on. Whenever a government really closes its borders this way and discourages any kind of sunshine getting in, that’s usually a sign that they have something to hide and we think we have to encourage them to move forward. I think it’s very important that the Arab League and the United Nations work together. I’m very pleased to see that Kofi Annan will be a joint envoy of the two. But I think we have to have a single, unified message throughout the international community that people have to practice tolerance, they have to understand ways of getting beyond this over time but, first and foremost, the government has to be convinced, one way or the other, that this is not the way to solve the problem. There’s a saying that, if you’re in a hole, stop digging. Well, they seem to be in a hole they keep digging and digging and, I think, making matters worse. I don’t think that there’s an easy military solution to this issue. I think it’s one that requires political understanding and that requires building bridges, even within communities within Syria because we’ve seen in other parts of the world, whether it be Rwanda or the Balkans, Kyrgyzstan, other places that have had terrible violence of this sort, there are some communities that have beforehand preparations, they have civic groups, they have religious leaders, ethnic leaders, who build ties within the community that they can deal with rumors, they can deal with threats, they can offer refuge for people. They can take the kind of messages of healing rather than the messages of hate. And that can make a big difference but it’s very hard with Syria because we don’t have much access to be able to encourage that but that would be something that at least would hopefully provide some islands of relative tranquility in what looks like a very dangerous and unstable place for some time to come.
CAMERON HUDSON: Let me just shift gears for a quick second and jump to Sudan because, in response to my last question, I heard a lot of parallels with the situation in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile with respect to access issues for the humanitarian community and the actions by the government of Sudan there. To what extent are there parallels between these two situations and what does this say to what is really the emerging norm of R2P that we are having such a difficult time now in two places in the world, protecting civilians in crisis situations?
EDWARD LUCK: Well, I think first we have to think about these things in a historical context. I mentioned before what they call the Hama Rules when President Assad’s father just ordered basically the destruction of the city and very little international outcry whatsoever and certainly no action by the U.N. or anyone else and certainly not by the neighbors of the Arab League so people just said, “Well, this is his sovereignty, he’s going to do what he wants to do.” The world has changed and now I’d say the government of Syria is paying an enormous political cost and an economic cost and losing its own legitimacy. I mean, it’s been condemned by the Human Rights Council, it’s been suspended from the Arab League, so real costs are being paid. Now, in Sudan, we have to treat each situation in terms of the tactics as an individual distinct situation but the principle has to be the same. And obviously we’ve been very concerned about the violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. It is tied up, in part, with the differences between the north and the south and, of course, the newly independent South Sudan. Just last July, people were celebrating its independence. It’s now the 193rd member of the U.N., but many of the deep differences between the north and the south are really not settled yet. And so I think that some of the problems that we’re seeing in these areas relate to that. Some relate to a longer term effort on a number of groups that don’t feel really represented in Khartoum. The government in Khartoum has a somewhat Islamist agenda in a country which is divided between a more African south and a more Arab north and, instead of trying to build a single country with real tolerance and unity, leaders in Khartoum picked a different direction. And some of the rebel groups exist still in Darfur and these other areas. Some of them are still trying to call for the overthrow of the government of Khartoum. Now, it’s not a very even military contest. The government uses warplanes and other things against civilian populations but we have the same problem there, that we don’t have very good access. There had been more U.N. and more humanitarian, more NGO access, before but the government has cracked down on that. They don’t want people to see how they’re conducting this war. So it’s a very real concern. A lot of refugees are pouring into the south, pouring into other neighboring countries and it’s certainly a very difficult situation. The U.N. does have a special representative in the north and a special representative in the south. They’ve had a lot of discussions with the government, a lot of conversation going back and forth. So, in that sense, it offers maybe some possibilities. We haven’t seen as much in Syria but, of course, the violence has been going on for a long time in the Sudan. But, you know, as much as we look at these situations, we try to find solutions and sometimes we don’t find very good ones, certainly in the short term. I think we have to recognize that the overall trends in terms of atrocity crimes in the world are going down quite considerably and we hope to find ways of sustaining that and we’d like to see, obviously, no atrocity crimes whatsoever. It’s not an easy go. We have to keep working to sort of “zero tolerance” for this kind of behavior. But we don’t have easy answers when a government is rather determined, in this case, where there is an armed opposition, in those areas. So we have to keep pursuing it on a diplomatic tactic, we have to push very hard on the humanitarian dimension, try to get in humanitarian assistance to these people and try to work with the Security Council, which has been very engaged in Sudan. There are differences within the Council but the Council united in terms of the referendum that led to the unity of South Sudan. We haven’t seen the kind of vetoes on Sudan in recent years that we have with Syria, so I think there’s a little more to play with politically and diplomatically there. On the other hand, for the people who are suffering in the moment, that may not be great reassurance. But I do think we have some possibilities there and we have to keep working it very hard and, if the north and south can work out some of their core disagreements, they have various negotiations but they haven’t moved very far. I think that would ease the tensions quite a bit because the loyalties on both sides of the border sometimes are a little hard to tell if some of the border isn’t even very well demarcated and there are huge disputes about oil, about the future of Abyei and other parts of the country. So it’s a difficult situation. It’s a situation in transition but I wouldn’t say it’s one that has no hope.
CAMERON HUDSON: Great. Well, that’s a good message to end on. Dr. Luck, thanks for joining us here. Thanks for your visit to the Museum today.
EDWARD LUCK: Thank you.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.