Latin America’s response to the massacre of more than 100 civilians, including 49 children and 34 women, in the Syrian town of Houla has been, with a few exceptions, shockingly tame for a region that has suffered gross human rights violations in the past.
Last week, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Spain and at least five other major nations expelled their Syrian ambassadors following the slaughter in Houla, which United Nations observers say was carried out to a large extent by pro-government militias who entered homes and executed entire families at close range.
The paramilitary forces have been behind many of the estimated 12,000 deaths in Syria since the beginning of the uprising against dictator Bashar Assad thirteen months ago. United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights officials have said that nearly 20 of the dead in Houla were killed by government artillery.
But in Latin America, at the time of this writing, no country has physically expelled a Syrian diplomat to send a strong message of outrage against the Syrian regime.
Only one country, Panama, has announced that it has “temporarily suspended” diplomatic relations with Syria, although the measure is largely symbolic, because Syria has no embassy in Panama. Among the other official reactions:
• Cuba and Venezuela are openly supporting the Syrian dictatorship. On Friday, when the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which rarely condemns human rights abusers, passed a resolution condemning the “outrageous use of force against the civilian population” by mostly “pro-regime elements” in Houla and called for an independent investigation, Cuba was one of the few council members that voted against it, and Ecuador abstained.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who in 2010 decorated Assad with Venezuela’s “Order of the Liberator” and proclaimed him “one of the liberators of the new world,” has sent more than 600,000 barrels of diesel oil to Syria over the past year, according to Venezuelan government reports.
• Colombia and Guatemala, which currently hold seats on the U.N. Security Council, have condemned the Houla massacre and supported a May 27 Security Council resolution that condemns the events, but doesn’t directly blame the Assad regime. U.N. diplomats tell me Colombia was much more outspoken than Guatemala in condemning the Assad forces during the debate.
• Mexico, Chile and other countries issued strong statements condemning the slaughter in Houla and supporting the U.N. Security Council resolution, but have not taken any diplomatic actions regarding Syrian diplomats, or their own diplomats in Syria.
• Brazil has supported the U.N. Security Council resolution but stressed that it will not expel Syrian diplomats because that would shut down dialogue avenues with the Syrian regime. Argentina has remained silent.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, says that “Brazil and other Latin American countries that have suffered dictatorships, like Argentina, should be in the forefront of international demands for concrete measures to take those responsible for this atrocity to the International Criminal Court. But they are not doing it.”
Sanjeev Bery, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs with Amnesty International, says that “Latin American countries have been increasingly flexing their geopolitical muscle, and with that comes a responsibility to advance human rights. Now is the time for them to explicitly demand action from those who are standing in the way on human rights in Syria.”
Latin American diplomats argue that an escalation of sanctions against Syria would lead to a possible foreign military intervention in Syria, similar to what happened in Libya. Some also say that the U.S. and European countries are hypocritical, because they do not expel the ambassadors of China, Saudi Arabia or other major human rights violators with whom they have strong business ties.
My opinion: Not sending a strong signal to Syria and allowing the Syrian dictatorship to kill even more civilians will only help further spread Syria’s sectarian conflict into neighboring countries, and increase the chances of an international military intervention.
And the argument about the alleged U.S. and European hypocrisy is a copout. If Latin American countries are as serious about human rights as some of them claim, they should act against all human rights abusers, including those condoned by the United States and Europe.
Acting against human rights abuses globally should be Latin America’s best line of defense against possible rights abuses in their own countries. But most governments seem to have forgotten the lessons of their own past.
• Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.