I’m writing this column on April 7 just as the April 19 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is about to go to press.
April 7 is a significant date. In 2008, a unanimous vote in the House of Commons approved a motion put forward by then-MP Irwin Cotler, a former minister of justice and legendary human rights activist, making April 7 Canada’s National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide.
The date was not random. Cotler specifically chose it because it was the anniversary of April 7, 1994, the start of 100 days of genocide in Rwanda that saw more than 800,000 Tutsi people murdered by the Hutu-dominated government – a genocide that the world community was aware of, but did not act to prevent or stop. As Cotler wrote in an op-ed published in the National Post last year on April 7, “Indeed, what makes the Rwandan Genocide so unspeakable was not only the horror of the genocide itself, but the fact that it was preventable. No one can say that we did not know – we knew, but we did not act.”
In an op-ed for the Huffington Post that was also published last year on April 7, Cotler wrote about the principles of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P) adopted by the United Nations in 2005.
The R2P doctrine, Cotler wrote, “mandates international action to ‘protect a state’s population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.’ In a word, if such mass atrocity crimes are being committed, and the state where these crimes are occurring is unwilling or unable to act – or worse, is the author of such international crimes – the Responsibility to Protect arises.”
Cotler goes on to discuss the devastating humanitarian crisis arising from the civil war in Syria and the crimes against humanity committed by the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “Indeed, if mass atrocities in Syria – with 500,000 killed, 12.5 million displaced, five million refugees – are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.”
This week, on April 4, a year after Cotler wrote that article, the Assad regime launched a chemical weapons attack against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province. At least 100 people, including infants and small children were massacred as the world looked on in horror.
It seemed like a repeat of a 2013 chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Assad regime. A year before, then-U.S. president Barack Obama had warned Assad that using chemical weapons was the “red line” he must not cross, or the U.S. would act. Many commentators pointed to Obama’s failure to take military action in response to that crime against humanity as his greatest foreign policy failure. Others pointed to his diplomatic efforts to have Assad give up his chemical weapons stockpile as a great success in preventing both further chemical weapons attacks and American involvement in another Middle Eastern war.
Among those who vehemently opposed a U.S. response to the 2013 chemical weapons massacre was future U.S. president Donald Trump.
And, in the 2016 U.S. election campaign, Trump routinely ridiculed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, when she called for action in Syria.
It seems, however, that Assad held on to at least some of his chemical arsenal and may well have been emboldened by the Trump administration’s recent statements that regime change in Syria was no longer an American goal.
Then, last night [April 6], on Trump’s orders, 59 cruise missiles were launched at the Shayrat air base from which Assad’s forces launched this latest chemical weapons attack against civilians.
As I write, it is much too early to know if this missile response will make a difference in the Syrian civil war. Will it make a difference in helping to protect the Syrian people from Assad?
Trump said he was affected by the sight of the “beautiful babies” killed in the massacre. But it’s hard to forget that Trump’s policy has been to refuse to help any Syrian refugees. And, with all the controversy about Russia in recent months, Trump has had (at least, so far) nothing to say about Russian complicity with Assad in the Syrian civil war.