Moral arguments may be invoked by a nation in order to legitimise controversial actions, for better or for worse. Russia, for instance, has argued that its annexation of Crimea was part of a historic battle against fascism and for the rights of ethnic minorities. In 2015, Germany was the only country in the EU to announce an “open door” policy for Syrian refugees, yet as public opinion began to shift, Chancellor Merkel eventually called for a “national push” to banish those denied the right to remain.
Reflecting on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day (IHD) this 27 January, the European response to the refugee crisis, and the Syrian Civil War, seems bewildering. Constituted by the UN in 2007, IHD was meant to ensure that the lessons of the past not be forgotten and that atrocities against civilian populations not be allowed to take place. Yet that is exactly what is happening in Syria.
The term “civil war”, commonly applied to Syria, is dangerous as it masks the magnitude of the horrors committed by the Assad regime. An army is starving its own population, a madman is throwing barrel bombs from the sky and children are used as human shields. Hospitals and aid convoys are deliberately targeted so as to inflict punishment on the civilian population while those trying to escape besieged cities are killed.
If these alone do not constitute crimes against humanity, in August of last year the Assad regime again used chemical weapons in its battle over control of Aleppo. It is the use of chemical weapons so close to IHD that must cause us to pause and re-evaluate Europe’s response to the carnage in Syria. For thus far, Europe has done little.
The UK has settled for berating Russia in the UN Security Council and raising funds for Syrian refugees. Germany has been busy placating President Erdogan thereby ensuring that Turkey continues to host millions of Syrian refugees while France has shifted its regional focus from Syria to Palestine and is dedicating its efforts to convening a peace summit in Paris.
Europe’s silence and lack of action is deafening. For surely there is now a moral imperative to bring an end to the atrocities in Syria. Surely the nations of the world, especially those that fought the abhorrence of the Nazi regime, cannot allow any leader or government to commit the sins of the past.
On the second observance of IHD, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, “We must also go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know this history. We must apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world. And we must do our utmost so that all peoples may enjoy the protection and rights for which the United Nations stands.”
Alas, the battle over Syria will not be won within the confines of the UN. Russia will not allow the Security Council to threaten the control of Bashar Assad over Syria. Therefore, European nations must operate outside the UN. First, the EU should impose crippling financial sanctions that will restrict all trade with Russia. Second, European countries must seek a warrant in The Hague charging Presidents Putin and Assad with crimes against humanity. The Russian president should not be allowed to travel the world with impunity after supporting atrocities in Syria. Finally, these countries may use military strikes to limit the actions of the Syrian army.
Advancing these measures will require domestic public support—no easy task considering that in many countries the discourse over refugees no longer focuses on the humanitarian aspect. In the UK, refugees are seen as a financial liability while in France and Germany they are also seen as a national security threat. Yet moral arguments grounded in the lesson and values of IHD are powerful ones. And governments can be most persuasive when they choose to be. Anything less would be a betrayal of the lessons of the Holocaust and of the memory of those who perished in it.
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