Human misery, whether in Syria or North Korea, stains our conscience

Kevin Rafferty sees little hope of an end to civil war in one, and systematic oppression in the other

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 11:40am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 2:06am

I am sorry. I apologise," he began. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi failed to get the two sides in the conflict in Syria to come together. So the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including children, goes on, aided and abetted by powerful governments.

Across the world, another tyrannical regime was accused this week in a United Nations report of widespread crimes against its citizens, including systematic executions, torture, rape and mass starvation, "wrongs that shock the conscience of humanity", according to Michael Kirby, the retired Australian judge who chaired the UN commission of inquiry into the misdeeds of the secretive regime of North Korea.

Shocking indeed, but not bad enough to shock China, which made it clear that it would block any attempt to bring North Korea to book.

Who will stand up for humanity? Put that way, it seems bloodless and even painless. Who will stand up for millions of people whose lives are being savaged by evil men and women?

Brahimi failed to create a transitional governing body. President Bashar al-Assad wants to talk first about defeating "terrorism" - meaning the rebels or anyone opposed to him. The rebels will not countenance Assad having any part in the transitional government, to which Assad will only agree over his dead body.

So a real deal will be done on the battlefield - which of course is not a place for combatants only, as happened in history. This battle is endured in towns and neighbourhoods and homes of the Syrian people, with innocent civilians sucked in whatever their views or wishes.

More than 140,000 people have been killed since 2011, and more than eight million have fled to miserable lives in refugee camps, at home and abroad. That is nearly 40 per cent of Syria's total population of 22.4 million.

Brahimi apologised to "the people of Syria". It is too bad that the guilty parties, those doing the killing or giving the orders or supplying the deadly weapons, have not shown similar sorrow. Step forward Assad, his government forces, rebel militia owing allegiance to Sunni and Shia extremist factions and to al-Qaeda, regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, fighting their proxy wars through the various militia.

Let us not forget the great powers, Russia, with Vladimir Putin keen to show off his muscles, and rediscovered friend China. US President Barack Obama and the West shout from the sidelines. Obama and America have turned their backs on the ringing promise of president John F. Kennedy that that the US would, "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty".

Assad is fighting back. Many analysts think that with his powerful friends and their arms supplies, he may survive, although bloodily.

Obama and the West are in a bind. Do they accept the devil they hate or do they let loose a host of demons who may do even worse damage?

The scientist Stephen Hawking sees what is happening in Syria as an affront to human civilisation. "The war in Syria may not represent the end of humanity, but every injustice committed is a chip in the façade of what holds us together," he wrote. "The universal principle of justice may not be rooted in physics but it is no less fundamental to our existence. For without it, before long, human beings will surely cease to exist."

China is a passive supporter of the atrocities highlighted and will surely shield North Korea from being referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as Kirby's panel advocated.

For the suffering people of Syria and North Korea, and too many other places visited by war and tyrants, US support would be a mixed blessing. Washington, like imperial powers before, is driven by bluster and bullying. What they need are supporters more considered and consistent who will build on a UN consensus and sweet-talk and shame other leaders to see the wisdom of protecting and lifting up the most vulnerable communities.

There are few potential candidates with knowledge and experience of the world, a global vision, an international presence without the distraction or the wasteful ambition to be a superpower.

We should weep not only for the cruelties inflicted on millions of people, but for our civilisation. As the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote of earlier cruel refugee movements, we should also weep for the 21st-century Mozart or Beethoven or Einstein or Turner or da Vinci or Ramanujan or Newton or Galileo or Steve Jobs being systematically murdered in Syria, in North Korea and in too many other places.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University