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In Response to Houla Massacre Australia Expels Syrian Diplomats

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr has expelled the Syrian Charge d’Affairs Jawdat Ali Syrian in the wake of the Houla massacre that has reportedly seen 32 children massacred in Syria in recent days. He has said that Australians are “appalled at a regime that could connive in or organize the execution, the killing of men women and children.” Jawdat Ali has 72 hours to leave Australia. The decision follows Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague who has summoned the Syrian diplomat. Pressure is also mounting on the Obama administration to do more than sanctions in response to the more than year-long genocide occurring in Syria.

Australia has expected the Syrian Government to cease military operations and abide by the ceasefire brokered by Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, the massacre of 92 people in the village of Houla has put to rest the ceasefire. “This massacre of civilians in Haoula is a hideous and brutal crime,” Foreign Minister Carr has said. “In doing this we are more or less moving with our friends around the world. I expect other countries will be doing this overnight Australian time.”

The measure is one that on the surface confirms that previous Australian condemnations and sanctions have failed to have any impact on the Al-Assad regime. Statements from the Australian Government in April 2011 condemned in the strongest possible terms human rights abuses at the hands of security forces in Syria.

Interviewed at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in London, the former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd announced Australia was imposing sanctions against Syria regardless of any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) actions or interventions.

Australia had previously co-sponsored a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council that condemned the use of lethal force against Syrian citizens by its own government. In May 2011 Kevin Rudd had announced: “The Government is ramping up targeted financial sanctions against key regime figures responsible for human rights abuses and lethal suppression of peaceful protests in Syria, and is also imposing an embargo on arms and other equipment used for internal repression.” In August 2011, Craig Emerson, Acting Minister for Foreign Affair announced additional sanctions, including ‘smart’ sanctions against Syria, with further financial and travel restrictions. Emerson reiterated Australia’s call for the UNSC to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation of alleged atrocities against Syrian citizens. Australia has in place travel and financial restrictions on 106 individuals and 28 entities and imposed an arms embargo on Syria.

The UNSC can impose sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Many in the international community consider sanctions an important tool in seeking to maintain or restore international peace or security. Sanctions are used as a tool to repel aggression, restore democracy and human rights, and pressure regimes supporting terrorist activities and others charged with international crimes. Sanctions can be used against State and non-State actors. Recently there have been concerns regarding the negative effects of sanctions on already vulnerable civilian populations.

The concept of ‘smart’ sanctions has emerged in response to these concerns. Smart sanctions include targeted financial sanctions, arms embargoes, travel bans and diplomatic sanctions, designed to minimize unintended negative consequences. Sanctions, in the case of Syria, have proven to be a failure. The international community, including Australia, have failed to stop the genocide occurring in Syria.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defines genocide as acts that kill, harm or cause mental harm to members on national, ethnic, racial or religious groups. It is also considered acts that inflict conditions calculated to physically destroy the targeted group. The “intent to destroy” groups is unique to genocide. In international law, this is considered as “crimes against humanity” and is defined as widespread, systematic attacks against a civilian population. Foreign Minister Carr in expelling the diplomats has said: “The Syrian Government can expect no further official engagement with Australia until it abides by the UN ceasefire and takes active steps to implement the peace plan agreed with Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan.” The UN estimates over 9,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011.

Of the Houla massacre, Annan and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described it as an “appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and violence in all its forms.” With China and Russia keeping Syria from further international action, including armed intervention, sanctions and expelling of diplomats are the last resort of an international community outraged by ongoing genocide and war crimes. As with most crimes against humanity, generations will wonder why more wasn’t done for Syria’s citizens.