Syrian Genocide, The World Silently Watching


* Author: Juan Ospino, International Relations and Political Sciences student, Florida International University Honors College, and US Navy Personnel Specialist

From 1963 to 2011, the Syrian Government applied the “Emergency Law” effectively suspending most constitutional protections for its citizens. Hafiz al-Assad took power in 1970, and after 30 years of ruling, in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad took office. In total, the al-Assad’s rulings have been the second longest governments in the Arab world. The tyranny guided the country into decades of tensions, and in March 2011 Syria finally entered into a civil war.

Assad’s government is considered to have one of three largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, and US intelligence reports have proven these had been used against civilians. The actions taken by the Syrian government constitute genocide (acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole in part, a national, political, ethnical, racial or religious group). To exacerbate matters, usual gimmicks played by politicians are delaying intervention (which is legally required to the signatory nations of the Genocide Convention). Today, the people of Syria are in desperate need for help, and the world watches silently while another genocide unfolds.

The New York Times reported on April 13, 2013 that British military scientists examined soil samples from several conflict areas in Syria. The group of experts found forensic evidence that chemical weapons had been used in these areas. Additionally, photographs of the devastation are circulating all over the world, showing civilian corpses laying aside with dead animals. The Times has also reported that the British and French governments had sent cables to the UN Secretary General documenting the evidence from Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. In addition, Israel has followed up with similar reports. Last year President Obama promised to intervene militarily in the face of chemical weapon evidence, but the administration has not acknowledged any of the French, British or Israeli claims.[i]


UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

On December 9, 1948 The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly as GA Resolution 260. After its entry into force as a binding treaty through the ratification procedure all participating countries had compromised to prevent and punish genocide by any standards.

Today, the Syrian government is using chemical weapons to exterminate Syrian nationals alongside with other ethnic and political groups to demonstrate that opposition is not tolerated. In June 2013, the death toll surpassed 100,000 according to the United Nations, between 80,350 and 106,425 people have been killed, up to 28,000 people had been reported missing, including civilians forcibly abducted by government troops or security forces, about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and 1.8 million have fled to other countries. In addition, more than 100,000 protesters have been tortured in clandestine prisons.[ii]

These actions taken by the Syrian government against its national civilian population constitute genocide because they meet the definitions of sections (a), (b) and (c) of the criteria outlined during the UN Genocide Convention of 1948.

Definitions of the Genocide Convention:

 A. Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;


B. Article 3 defines the crimes that can be punished under the convention:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide

The situation in Syria is genocide because the government is using chemical weapons to exterminate rebels, Sunni Muslim civilians and other Syrian national, ethnic and political groups to maintain its power. The political nature for the targeting of these groups is irrelevant at the moment of defining whether or not this is case of genocide, because intent is different from motive, and the law punishes intent. Whatever may be the motive for the crime, if the perpetrators commit acts intended to destroy a group, even part of a group, then it is genocide.

Why is the United States legally required to act?

The US has been legally required to act in the face of genocide since the adoption of the Proxmire Act, which is the official ratification of the UN Convention that requires all and every single one of the signatory nations to intervene and prevent genocide.

On January 12, 1951 The UN Genocide Convention entered into force and provided the legal definition of genocide in international law. It was possible due to the campaigning by lawyer Raphael Lemkin who appealed to the domestic political interests of the delegates. However, even after the UN adoption of The Convention, the United States proved reluctant to ratify it internally. Fears that other nations would use it against the US were the reason why the Resolution took more than 35 years to be adopted. However, in 1987, the US adopted the text of the Convention through the Proxmire Act.

The Proxmire Act of 1987:

 On February 11, 1986 the Senate went up for a full vote on the US version of the Genocide Convention. One week later, the Senate adopted the ratification resolution. The Senate passed the Genocide Convention Implementation Act (Proxmire Act) and President Reagan signed into law. The law implemented the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and genocide officially became a crime under US law.

United States Treaty Law

 Treaty Law requires the US to enforce the Proxmire Act to prevent genocide. The treaty power is an effort between the Senate and the Executive branch, the Senate approves treaties and the President ratifies them. The ratification of the Genocide Convention requires action during any instance of genocide. Treaty law states that once a treaty is ratified, it becomes binding US law on all the states under the Supremacy Clause.

Definition of Genocide in the Proxmire Act of 1987:

A. Whoever, whether in time of peace or in time of war, in a circumstance described in subsection (d) and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such:

1) Kills members of that group;

2) Causes serious bodily injury to members of that group;

3) Causes the permanent impairment of the mental faculties of members of the group through drugs, torture, or similar techniques;

4) Subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part;

5) Imposes measures intended to prevent births within the group; or

6) Transfers by force children of the group to another group; or attempts to do so, shall be punished as provided in subsection b.

Does president Obama really need senate approval before taking action?

War Powers Resolution of 1973:

 On July 20, 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Resolution by two-thirds of the vote, overriding a presidential veto. It intends to check the President’s power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbid armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.

Nevertheless, the questions of whether and to what extent President Obama lacks the authority to activate the military, absent a Congressional declaration of war are quite controversial. Many academics argue that the Commander in Chief Clause of the United States Constitution confers these powers on the President. In fact, President Reagan disregarded the War Powers Resolution to aid the Contras in Nicaragua, President Clinton acted similarly in 1999 during the genocide in Kosovo, and even President Obama himself disregarded it in 2011 during the US combat mission in Libya. Additionally, All presidents since 1973 have declared their belief that the act is unconstitutional, using this as an argument not to seek Senate approval when activating troops.

Commander in Chief clause of the US Constitution:

 Article II Section 2 of the US Constitution, the Commander in Chief clause, states that the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States. As Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States, president Obama may also call into federal service the state units of the National Guard.

Why hasn’t anyone done anything about it? Because inaction is free.

The Syrian government unsurprisingly refuses any investigation teams from the UN to enter the country.[iii] At the same time, US intelligence assessments have concluded that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons, but the White House has announced that “much more” work has to be done to verify the accuracy of the assessments. Government officials are playing political gimmicks to avoid intervention simply because the situation in Syria does not represent a matter of national interest that incurs any domestic political costs at this point. It’s history repeating, this same strategy was used during every single case of genocide since 1912. The US is holding the same position it had during the Rwandan, Cambodian, Kurdish, Jewish and Armenian genocides.

The purpose of the Genocide Convention after World War II was to implement international measures to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust. This international instrument was ratified by the US and legally requires the signatory nations to intervene. Every day in Syria the crises increases dramatically.

And the world keeps watching…


* The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent positions  of any institution.

[i]  “Israel Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons”. New York Times. 24 April 2013.

[ii] “Friends of Syria must use their influence to stop cycle of repression and violence”. Amnesty International. 5 July 2012. Retrieved 19 January 2013.

[iii] “Syria crisis: UN to study soil samples for proof of sarin gas”. Guardian. 24 April 2013.


  1. Quite interesting article. And quite interesting to know how the US refused to adopt the UN Genocide Convention for a long time because of its pretended responsibility in some historical events. However, it doesn’t appear clear to me how the horrible massacre in Syria is genocide. I cannot see if there is an extermination (or an attempt of) a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Regardless of its motivation, the facts “only” show an illegal and brutal attack against a rebel (political) group, those who don’t accept al-Assad’s Government. But the UN Convention does not provide the political-genocide category. In contrast to what happens in Colombia, where the political genocide exists as a crime, neither de Convention on Genocide nor the Proxmire Act provide a definition of the political genocide. So, what kind of genocide is taking place in Syria?

  2. Thank you for the comment Julian, I very much appreciate your thoughts. Genocide has always been a very controversial term, and I understand how my thesis can prove a little tricky.

    There are several different definitions to genocide (some include political targeting, and some unfortunately don’t). You have correctly pointed out that the UN definition of genocide does not specify political targeting. Nevertheless, political targeting is not the only genocidal criteria applicable to the Syrian massacres of today.

    The evidence is conclusive that ethnic and religious targeting is also being committed by the government with the purpose of eliminating members of certain groups.

    The Syrian government is deliberately targeting particular religious groups such as the Sunni Muslims. Their villages have been selected and repetitively gassed with chemical weapons. The last reported massacre was today, August 21, 2013 outside of Damascus.

    Unsurprisingly, the curtain of a civil war is being used to hide away some of these acts. Genocidal perpetrators have always used war as an excuse to cover-up their genocidal actions (the Germans used WWII, the Turkish used WWI, the Rwandan Hutu used civil war). However, religious, ethnic and political targeting is happening now in Syria, and regardless of which of these we want to focus on, all of them are present.
    Action is needed and required now.

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