The Government of Guyana never loses its capacity to surprise. On August 3 it abstained from a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution condemning Syria for its indiscriminate use of heavy weapons in civilian areas and its widespread violations of human rights. As we reported in our Friday edition, the General Assembly demanded that all parties in the conflict “immediately and visibly” commit to ending the conflict, and implement the two Security Council resolutions adopted in April in order to achieve a cessation of the armed violence. While the August 3 resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of 133, there were, of course the expected 12 votes against, none of them from countries whose liberal credentials spring immediately to mind when contemplating the world’s democracies. Aside from the expected naysayers of China, Russia and Syria, such paragons of constitutional practice as Belarus, North Korea and Burma also withheld their assent, along with Iran and Zimbabwe. From our region came Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia – four of the five heavyweights of Alba, who have adopted a pro-Syrian government line from the time the demonstrations against President Bashir al-Assad’s government first started in the early part of last year.
Not everyone in our corner of the planet voted no or abstained; serious hemispheric players in the form of Brazil, Argentina and Chile voted in the affirmative, along with the Dominican Republic. The 31 countries which abstained were more varied geographically and in terms of their political systems than those which opposed the resolution, and included several African nations, some central Asian states, islands in the Pacific and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, among others. India had earlier objected to the call for President Assad to step down in the draft resolution as a “step too far,” but this was dropped in the final formulation. However, the Indian representative said that it was critical for the UN to be involved with the Syrian parties in their search for a way forward, and that unilateral actions of any kind would not help. It was in that light, the UN Department of Public Information reported him as saying, that India abstained.
Whatever that particular example of diplomatic-speak might have meant in practical terms, it is what the nations of this hemisphere did that is of greatest concern here. Those which joined Guyana in abstaining were Antigua and Barbuda, Ecuador, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname. Ecuador, of course, is the other cornerstone of Alba, so its position is easily explained. As for Suriname, President Desi Bouterse is in a delicate situation, and his reluctance to show any hand in international fora is perhaps explicable in the light of that, more particularly when he needs his Alba friends. St Lucia’s rationalization of its position has not been in the forefront of the world’s press reports, but the cases of Antigua and St Vincent are altogether better understood, since both are members of Alba. In fact, the St Vincent representative spoke before the vote and was reported by the UN as saying that his country was primarily concerned about the omissions from the text, which made it “unbalanced” and which as a consequence suggested consent for certain actions.
St Vincent was not the only one to either directly use the word ‘unbalanced,’ or convey the sense of that term. Nicaragua’s spokesman – and it will be recalled that Nicaragua voted against – also employed the description, while Venezuela deemed the text as lacking objectivity. Syria too chimed in with the criticism that the resolution was extremely biased and – yes – unbalanced, and for its part, Cuba wrote it off as an example of the prevailing view of Washington and other Nato capitals.
Well clearly, the minimum stance to be adopted by Alba members was that the resolution was “unbalanced,” although St Vincent’s representative at least, did not get anywhere near committing himself to the unexpurgated Venezuelan view, which included the assertion that the draft resolution “described a long list of trivial human rights violations attributed to the Syrian Government, but minimized or concealed the human rights crimes committed by terrorist groups and the armed opposition.“ The Venezuelan representative was reported by the UN as going on to say that “It [the resolution] ignored the political and constitutional reforms promoted by the Syrian government, aimed at reaching an inclusive, democratic and peaceful national agreement.” One can only marvel at how any rational government can go on record with such drivel, let alone believe it – if indeed it does believe it.
But how does Guyana fit into all this, and why did it not vote to approve the resolution in concert with several of its Caricom sister territories like Belize, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, St Kitts Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago?
As was stated in our story on Friday, the UN report recorded Guyana’s representative (presumably Mr George Talbot) as saying that a tragedy was unfolding in Syria that should have been avoided. “He condemned all violations of human rights by all,” the Department of Public Information continued, and “He was equally concerned by the humanitarian impact on the affected population. All perpetrators must be held to account. The Syrian Government must take responsibility to end the violence, protect civilians and fully comply with its obligations under international law.”
The UN went on to quote the representative as telling the General Assembly: “At the same time, the international community could not turn a blind eye to the harmful acts of opposition groups, but must look at harmful acts committed by all. The text fell short in that regard.” He was reported as then making bland remarks about the United Nations remaining “unceasing in its efforts to end the bloodshed on all sides,” the necessity of the Council fulfilling its “Charter responsibilities,” and the international community “urgently” uniting “to address the needs of the Syrian people.” Despite the fact that a comment about the Syrian government was inserted, there is an obvious inference to be drawn from the representative’s other statements that the Government of Guyana regarded the resolution as unbalanced.
Nobody is suggesting that the Syrian situation is an easy one; nobody in the democratic universe believes that what will come after President Assad – and he will have to go sooner or later – will necessarily be a democracy, although they will live in hope it will be. It may be a continuation of a civil war without the Alawites at the apex of government. In short, nobody knows what the evolution of events will be. What can be said is that the longer the Assad clan remains in control, the more difficult it will be to achieve the objective of any level of peace and a government broadly acceptable to a majority of Syrians. What can also be said is that, human rights issues aside, the Assad clan has absolutely no hope of retaining power by the use of military force against its own population. The longer the military action continues, the more al Qaeda will infiltrate the opposition forces, which it has done already, and there will be a longer term heritage of terrorism to confront. In addition, there is the inevitable danger that Syria will fragment into its constituent elements, and its civil war will spill over borders.
So, in the immediate term the overwhelming imperative on humanitarian and political grounds is to get the Syrian government to stop turning its heavy weaponry on the civilian population so that some kind of negotiated settlement can be sought – which is not to say that the opposition is not now responsible for answering violence with violence. However, it seems that those ensconced in the Office of the President and Takuba Lodge have simply forgotten that the Syrian situation began like most of the other Arab Spring countries, with massive peaceful demonstrations in the streets which were met in this instance with armed force, and it was months before peaceful resistance began to be transformed into armed resistance.
As it is, one can only wonder whether those who are concerned with our foreign policy actually watch the news, or read the international reports. Have they not seen on their TV screens Syrian government planes bombing cities like Aleppo, or the destruction in Homs and elsewhere wrought by heavy armour? The tanks, after all, are in the hands of the military, not the opposition. And are they really not aware of the UN report on the massacre at Houla which holds the Syrian army and the Shabiha militia responsible?
So what is the government’s problem? Are we falling over ourselves not to move too far out of line with Alba perceptions – after all, the previous President was seeking observer status for Guyana in the organization. Or are we in particular anxious to placate Venezuela, given our oil dependency on that state? If so, Jamaica, which is even more dependent, wasn’t swayed by that consideration when it voted in favour of the resolution. Or is it that the government is obsessed with pasting perceptions appropriate to local situations on to foreign ones, even although these have no applicability whatsoever? What exactly is the administration’s thinking? Perhaps the Office of the President or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to elucidate it for the benefit of the public.