I recently had the privilege of talking to Holocaust survivors about their hopes for the new National Holocaust Memorial. The words of Martin Stern, a Theresienstadt camp survivor, will stay with me for years to come. With great clarity and conviction, he offered a reminder of the cost of international inaction in the face of mass atrocities. “Nobody can bring back the six million who were killed,” he said. “All we can do is work upon the future.”
Yet the current situation in Syria demonstrates how far we are from ensuring “never again” is a reality. In the past 72 hours, more than 250 people have been reported as killed in Eastern Ghouta. On Monday, Syria’s daily death toll reached its highest point in three years. Whatever anyone says about the “de-escalation” of this conflict, the news indicates that the past weeks have been some of the deadliest days for Syrian civilians. Chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombing and attacks on medical facilities have returned with a vengeance in 2018.
Right now, the Syrian government and its backers are playing a game with the UN. The stakes are the highest possible: the lives of young children. At the beginning of the month an attack on Al-Ma’ara National Hospital in Idlib was reported, which left new-born babies temporarily suffocating as their incubators lost power. So far this week 52 children have been reported killed in Eastern Ghouta.
To prevent further massacres in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, the UK must support the UN Security Council in demanding an immediate 30 days cessation of hostilities, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the evacuation of the critically ill and wounded, and the lifting of the siege.
Last year, countries with the power to make a difference failed the people of Aleppo. As the opposition-held east of the city fell, news bulletins and social media blasted the images of terrified men, women and children in Aleppo onto our screens. We watched in horror as civilians were killed in their homes, bombs blasted hospitals and schools out of service and thousands of people fled in search of safety. More than 200 MPs from across the House came together to demand the government do all it could to get aid to Syrians to break the siege of Aleppo.
We told the government then: if we fail Aleppo, another area will be next. And it has been devastatingly so. But now it is much, much worse. Syrians are still suffering, but the world has stopped watching.
Take this example. As a member of the local council of Ma’rat al-Noman in Idlib, Rawan and three of her colleagues were busy at work when the sudden strafing of a plane was followed by a massive boom. Dust and pieces of concrete blinded them and all they could do was follow the shouting of colleagues calling them to safety. As they tried to find shelter, another explosion hit just outside the building they had evacuated, blowing out the doors and the windows of the local council building.
Rawan survived but her suffering should never have happened. Syrians were promised they could live safely in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, their security supposedly guaranteed by the Russian brokered de-escalation zones during the Astana negotiations last May. As a key political and military backer of the Syrian regime, Russia had a responsibility to make sure that Rawan and her loved ones are protected. The people of Syria have been failed utterly, and the peaceful future they had been promised by the Russians has lost every shred of credibility.
Far away from the immense suffering in Eastern Ghouta, the Russians are still attempting to play peacemaker on the international stage. The UK government did not take part in last month’s Sochi Conference, as the UN-led processes are the peace talks we ought to back.
Yet, we must do more to influence Russia and get them back to the UN-led political engagement, with all the accountably that entails. At the Brussels Conference, our government needs to guarantee no UK money is spent on reconstruction until these conditions are met and there are improvements on the ground for the people of Syria.
To ensure the aspirations of both Martin, the Holocaust survivor, and Rawan, the local councillor in Idlib, our government cannot sit back and allow another Aleppo to happen. All member states of the UN – including Russia and led by the UK – signed up to the Responsibility to Protect in 2005. The principle makes clear that states bear the primary responsibility to protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes. If a state fails to uphold this responsibility – as the Syrian government has repeatedly done – then the states have a moral and legal obligation to act.
Right now, this means demanding a cessation of hostilities, breaking the sieges and getting aid in. Starvation and the withholding of medical treatment are barbaric acts. This is not just another conflict. This is the re-writing of the rules of conflict before our eyes.
Our responsibilities and our interests in sustaining the rules-based order do not start or end with Syria. That is why our government should heed the words of Martin and make changes to ensure we are better placed to predict atrocities and then acting to prevent them. This includes supporting the establishment of an Atrocity Prevention Centre, similar to the United States’ Holocaust Memorial Museum and its Centre for the Prevention of Genocide. Such an independent institution would identify early warning signs and policy options for preventing violence before it escalates into mass atrocities.
These initiatives would be a bulwark against the understandable tendency – as we have seen on the journey from Aleppo to Eastern Ghouta – to want to look the other way. They would be a first steps to ensure that Britain never again just watches and waits when the next Rwanda, the next Srebrenica, the next Aleppo comes.