Will Bashar Al-Assad Join COP28?

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – According to an announcement by the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Damascus, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, invited he President of Syria, Bashar Al Assad to attend the COP28 meeting between 30 November and 12 December 2023.

    Should the Syrian president attend, it will be the first time that Assad has been present at a global conference since the outbreak of the Syrian civil-war in 2011. It seems implausible that Western leaders who so vehemently criticised Assad over the last 11 years would comfortably sit across the table from him in six months’ time to discuss climate change.

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    Syrian Civil War Crimes

    According to a 2014 UN report, based on the harrowing experiences recounted through 480 interviews of fathers, mothers and siblings the Syrian government has committed several war crimes, including the massacre, murder and torture of civilians and armed combatants.

    “Government forces perpetrated unlawful killings as part of a widespread attack directed against the civilian population. The attacks included widespread shelling and bombardment of civilian-inhabited localities and the targeting of civilians for arrest, detention and disappearance on the basis of their association or perceived opposition to the Government. The coordination and active participation of Government institutions indicated that the attacks were conducted as a matter of institutional policy. The unlawful killings formed part of those attacks and constitute crimes against humanity,” the UN Report states.

    UN Investigations have also shown that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian government and the Islamic State.  As recently as two months ago, the UN warned Syria that its chemical weapon’s declaration was incomplete and urged it to close issues, resolve gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies. Human Rights watch also notes that humanitarian aid continues to be weaponized by the government and diverted away from populations that oppose Assad’s rule, while Syrian government forces dropped banned cluster munitions on camps for the internally displaced in northwest Syria as recently as November 2022.

    Re-Normalizing Syria?

    Meanwhile, in a manner not dissimilar from what was done for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, following the gruesome assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the UAE has led Arab countries in their efforts to normalize ties with Assad’s government. Syria was readmitted to the Arab League on May 7, 2023, after suspending it in 2011.

    Amnesty International described the invitation as a “sick joke”, according to reports by Euronews. “It is outrageous that a conference meant to spur ambitious climate action is being exploited to bring the Assad government back into the international fold, without any attempt to ensure accountability for its widespread abuses. Governments attending COP28 should ensure that serious crimes committed under Assad’s rule are investigated and prosecuted,” says Joey Shea, Researcher for Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates at Human Rights Watch.

    Only the Latest COP28 Controversy

    This is the latest controversy facing COP28, which will be hosted by the UAE, one of the world’s largest oil producers. The event will be presided by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The country appears to be planning to expand its oil and gas production over the coming years. “Even before the appointment of Al Jaber, the UAE’s track record demonstrates it is not serious about phasing out fossil fuel use and keeping global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Rather, its track record demonstrates it is central to causing the climate crisis, not solving it,” an open letter to UN Secretary General from the Climate Action Team (CAT) Working Group of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) read.

    Concerns have also emerged regarding reporters’ freedom of expression during the event. “In addition to the pressing need to address the climate issue, there are other critical matters pertaining to the environment of freedoms that must always be upheld. One such issue is the right of journalists to practice their profession in peace and without fear of intimidation, detention, or persecution. (…) According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists continue to be imprisoned in the UAE, while government authorities continue to try to silence dissent by suppressing the independent press, whether local or international. In some cases, they are even abducted or demanded to be extradited to their country’s authorities,” NGO Skyline International for Human Rights warns.

    “The conference takes place just a few days after the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, which takes place on November 2 to remind the international community of the need to end policies of abuse and gross violations against journalists and hold them accountable. Skyline also recalls that organizers of the ‘World Summit on Forecasting Healthy Futures 2023,’ held recently in Abu Dhabi, advised conference attendees not to criticize or protest Islam, the government, businesses or people while in the United Arab Emirates, according to a Financial Times investigation. This, it states, sends a message of intimidation as the country prepares for the climate change conference, which thousands are attending and hundreds of journalists are travelling from around the world to cover,” Skyline International for Human Rights adds.

    Given widespread accusations of human rights violations and war crimes, it would be surprising if Western leaders did not face domestic pressure to boycott the meeting.

    Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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