I wanted to write a blog similar to this one about a year ago. I did not because I reasoned that when the situation became really bad enough, of course the international community would intervene. It won’t be the last time that I did not get it right.
Add to America, Armenia, Germany, India, Chile, Argentina, Syria 1982 (Hama), Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Chechnya, and scores of other tragedies, Syria 2011-12. Give or take it has been about 15 months since Assad Junior’s regime has been involved in a reign of violence, with the massacre at Houla earlier this week becoming par for the course. Call it genocide, call it quelling terrorists, call it a civil war, call it sectarian violence, call it what you will, the violence that the Syrian government and forces have unleashed should be unacceptable. But we’ve accepted it for long enough. ‘Unacceptable’ is just a badly misused word. And announcing something as unacceptable, while accepting it, seems to make us feel that angels are on our side. They are not.
Besides the Syrian regime, many individuals and institutions bear responsibility for this tragic state of affairs. Three of them stand out for special mention – the U.S., Russia, and the U.N. The U.S. is responsible for encouraging the start of the crisis, and then backing away when the proverbial ‘poop’ hit the ceiling. The manifestation of the Syrian version of the Arab Spring has transformed itself into some season quite unrecognizable and different from that which helps liberal democracy bloom. The Russians have played a not so covert role of encouraging the regime in its brutality – when you arm and feed a killing machine, you are complicit. And the U.N. has once again shown itself to be impotent when the compassionate use of power could make a difference.
Let me focus on U.N. impotence, for its actions or inaction are the best proxy for what is euphemistically called the will of the international community. The last decade has seen a reasonable consensus develop amongst the members of the U.N. to move away from non-interference as a policy pillar to the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). The policy and attitudinal shift permit the international community to confront governments who indulge in mass killings of their subjects. They legitimize the show and use of force in the service of stopping death machines, even if such an act does not resolve the underlying causes. In principle, the concept of RtoP has been embraced by most governments across the world, and it has also been endorsed by a number of well meaning NGOs. In fact, recently, it was under the aegis of RtoP that the international community stepped into Libya and displaced Gaddafi.
So what has happened in Syria? The players who matter have violated both the framework of non-interference and RtoP. The Americans and Russians have been fueling the fighting by funding and arming the anti-Assad and government forces respectively – so much for non-interference. And in spite of the U.N. sending in an observer team into Syria, which just today ‘warned of a civil war’ after the most recent ‘tragic and brutal’ massacre, the U.N. refuses to step in to stop the killing – so much for the Responsibility to Protect.
One can explain the action of nation states by appealing to narrow parochial interests, and spinning logic with the yarn provided by realpolitik and national self-interest. It is harder to understand how an institution which was decent enough to codify RtoP, can stand by and watch as thousands are brutally killed, without any end in sight. In a speech at the U.N. on January 31, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague asked, “How many people need to die before the consciences of world capitals are stirred?” If the British Foreign Secretary can ask the question in such stark terms and nothing meaningful happens for four more months, then the answer to the Foreign Secretary must be, “We do not act out of the stirrings of our consciences, even if they do get stirred.” The critics of RtoP are right when they contend that it is nothing more than a cynical framework that can be used to justify interference when the interests of the powerful dictate that they should interfere.
Rather than pretend that humanity has evolved over the last century to a place where collectively we will accept the responsibility to protect those who will otherwise become helpless victims of tyrants and butchers, let us accept the constraints that interfere with us rising to levels of decency that the best within us suggests we should scale. Let us be a lot more humble and pray that we may be in a position to protect, rather than claim that we will protect.
Let us stop lying not just to others, but to ourselves. ENOUGH – Never Again Should We Say, “NEVER AGAIN.”
In all humility let us say, “HOPEFULLY NOT NEXT TIME.” And when we fail, let us be ashamed of, rather than explain our failure. For the explanation is clear – we refuse to pay the price that decency demands.