A couple of months ago I was watching a BBC report from the city of Homs in Syria. At the end of the clip, a small group of young men dashed across rocky ground at night. They were burying a seven-year-old girl killed that day. They were doing it at night because it was too dangerous to bury the dead in daylight.
Since the uprising in Syria began in Mar 2011, the images and testimonies from victims and survivors have been graphic and disturbing. But somehow, this stood out. A young girl killed, but no time to mourn; instead a hurried burial under fire by young men who risked their lives for a dead child.
This little girl was just one of the victims of the fighting in Syria. Peaceful protests for reform in Feb 2011 were met by guns and thugs. Amnesty International identified numerous cases of attacks on civilians by the Syrian security forces and an epidemic of the most brutal torture against anyone suspected of opposition sympathies.
Hundreds, including children as young as 12, were tortured to death in detention centres and even hospitals. In response, many protesters took up arms, and the resulting conflict has left at least 6,000 people dead, though the real figure is likely to be far higher. Tens of thousands have fled to seek refuge in Turkey or Lebanon.
Throughout most of this, the UN has proved able to do little more than plead with both sides for the fighting to stop. They were ignored. The conflict worsened, becoming more intense, more brutal.
It is important to understand the UN did not fail to act in Syria because of indifference. It did not fail because of a lack of resources. It failed, and is in danger of failing completely, because powerful nations on the UN Security Council put their political interests ahead of human rights and, more particularly, ahead of the interests of the Syrian people.
Russia and China used their vetoes on the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian government, giving President Bashar al-Assad immunity at the international level.
Instead of a forum where the world’s most powerful countries come together to ensure peace, stability and the protection of fundamental human rights, the UN Security Council has become a battlefield for the major powers. Each protects their allies, regardless of the crimes they committed.
The UN’s record of failures presents us with a hard question — do we abandon a system that so many people believe is discredited and feeble, prevented from doing its job by the machinations of the major powers? If we do, what is there to replace it? UN peace-keepers have failed in many places, but they have also succeeded in others. Without the UN, there is no global organisation acceptable to almost all the countries of the world. Abandon it, and we are even more at the mercy of power politics.
The reality is we must continue to work within the UN system, not because it is perfect or even because it works most of the time, but because there is no alternative.
The UN can be reformed. What is broken can be fixed. But it will require courage to challenge those who want to maintain their veto power, to find ways of working around them if they refuse to enter the 21st century.
Ireland can play a role in this. We are a small nation, but one with a proud reputation within the UN for peacekeeping and for supporting human rights. UN reform might not be a domestic political priority for many governments, but it traditionally has been for Ireland. It may take decades to achieve change, but without it we will watch other countries collapse and wonder why so little is being done.
None of this, however, will help anyone in Syria today.
They cannot wait for UN reform. They are dying now. They are being tortured now. We need to do what we can with the tools available to us today, however imperfect they are.
The UN must move quickly to establish a larger presence on the ground to report on implementation of the Kofi Annan peace plan. They need a lot more than the bare 30 observers already deployed. The decision of the Government to send Irish soldiers to Syria as unarmed military observers should be welcomed, but more countries need to follow this example, and quickly.
Amnesty International believes that, since the UN mission began its work on Apr 16, more than 360 people have been killed. Reports have come in steadily of people who gave evidence to UN observers being arrested or even killed by Syrian security forces. Violence surges in towns and communities directly after UN observers leave.
Unless a fully resourced team is sent immediately, serious human rights violations will continue. The UN must also find a way to ensure that those who come to them are not targeted afterwards. Russia and China, who supported the sending of observers, must put pressure on Assad’s government to abide by the Annan plan and not retaliate against people who speak to the UN.
Right now, what is needed most in Syria is peace. But ultimately, the Syrian people need something else. They need, they deserve, justice.
Syrian security forces have shelled civilian areas, shattered communities and torn families apart. Reliable reports indicate armed opposition groups were involved in the execution of prisoners and in attacks that killed civilians. Those responsible for what has happened in Syria must be punished.
When the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria made its report in February, it gave the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights a sealed envelope containing the names of those responsible for crimes against humanity.
Last week saw former Liberian leader Charles Taylor convicted of war crimes. The month before, the International Criminal Court delivered its first conviction — Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord.
Many of those who committed war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Sierra Leone and who thought themselves safe from prosecution have been sent to prison. The same must happen, however long it takes, for the war criminals of Syria, regardless of whether they killed to protect, or to overthrow, the Assad government.
The international community has a habit of promising, in the aftermath of atrocity, “never again”. We heard the same empty promises after the massacre in Srebrenica and the systematic slaughter in Darfur. But it has happened again. Unless the people responsible are brought to justice and seen to be punished — unless the UN is reformed to put human rights and the protection of civilians first — it will happen again. And again. And again.
* Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.