Remarks by Harold Hongju Koh

Article excerpt

It is my honor to speak here again at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. A year ago, I spoke before this audience about the international legal basis for the United States' military operations in Libya. In that same spirit of openness and dialogue, I am grateful for the opportunity to engage so many distinguished international lawyers in this room about the very serious challenges we face in Syria today. Let me divide my comments this morning into three: First, what, precisely, is happening in Syria? Second, what are the U.S. government and the international lawyers within it doing to address the crisis? And third, by what legal principles should this crisis be assessed and lawfully and effectively addressed?

Starting with the facts on the ground, everyone here knows the situation in Syria is extremely grave. As President Obama noted earlier this month, "what's happening in Syria is heartbreaking and outrageous.... [President Bashar al-Assad] has lost the legitimacy of his people. And the actions that he's now taking against his people [are] inexcusable...." The Assad regime's brutality is well-documented and not subject to dispute. As Secretary Clinton has detailed,

   the regime is creating an appalling humanitarian disaster. Tanks,
   mortars, and heavy artillery continue to target civilians in
   residential areas, including women and children. Security forces
   have cut off electricity and communications, sabotaged water
   supplies, invaded hospitals, and forced thousands of Syrians to
   flee their homes. The UN has found crimes against humanity. And now
   there are reports of troops massing for even more deadly assaults.
   (1)

The Assad regime's massacre of hundreds of citizens in the city of Homs is only the most flagrant example of its lawlessness and ruthlessness. The regime seems determined to suppress democratic dissent through bloodshed. Our best estimates are that the crisis has already claimed over 9,000 lives and uprooted tens of thousands of Syrians.

Given this alarming snapshot, what should we be doing about it? How can the United States best respond to the situation in Syria, consistent with domestic and international law as well as our values and interests? There are no easy answers, and there is no single tool capable of solving all the problems. The country sits at the hub of a geopolitically sensitive area, bounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. Its rulers have had powerful protectors in Russia and China, as evidenced by their vetoes of not one but two Security Council resolutions. Syria is home to a complex mix of ethnic and religious communities. The opposition is still coalescing and faces enormous challenges. People are uncertain about what comes after Assad. There is no denying that this is an enormously challenging moment for all of us who are committed to international human rights and to the rule of law.

Many in our government, and in the State Department, have been working around the clock to evaluate options and facilitate a resolution. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have devoted themselves to an all-out diplomatic effort to help bring increasing pressure to bear on the Assad regime. Secretary Clinton led our efforts at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunis in February, and has spoken out about the crisis and been engaged behind the scenes on a daily basis. Ambassador Susan Rice has led our efforts at the United Nations, tirelessly working to build a unified position. And from the beginning of the crisis, my colleague Ambassador Robert Ford has displayed extraordinary heroism by risking his own personal safety to engage directly with the Syrian people, including through his travels to Jassim and Hama. He has also used social media to establish channels of communication with the Syrian people, encouraging them to embrace nonviolent protest and calling the world's attention to the urgency of the human rights and humanitarian situation. …

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