U.S. Resolve Needed in Syria
In the heat of the ongoing debate about whether or not to react by force to the recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria, a look at the larger historical picture may shed some light on which course to follow.
To the casual observer a snapshot of our time reveals a perplexing degree of chaos and uncertainty. Ever-recurring violent conflict seems proof of the unchanging propensity of our species to commit evil deeds. The contrast between the immense potential for destruction that modern technology affords us, and the lagging ethical development to use it responsibly, has only exacerbated this notion.
However, the picture is not all bleak. Within the last few generations humankind has made enormous progress in defining what it considers to be beyond the scope of civilized behavior. It has, in other words, been successful in collectively defining “red lines” beyond which any person who is not a sociopath would agree actions should never be taken, not even in times of war. These include genocide, crimes against humanity, and a range of explicit war crimes. We have also reached consensus to outlaw certain weapons and killing methods. This includes poison gas whose use constitutes a war crime.
Consequently, the “red line” in the case of Syria was indeed not drawn when President Obama used that term last year. It was drawn by the international community when it agreed – as early as the 1920s – that the use of this class of weapons was abhorrent and therefore prohibited. In subsequent decades the drawing of many more “red lines” and their anchoring in international laws and norms were achieved. They were often demanded by civil society. Governments just as often resisted, our own on some occasions, sadly, included. These norms now cover a wide range of prohibitions (from torture and rape as a weapon of war to the recruitment of child soldiers and from anti-personnel mines to cluster munitions) as well as other protections of basic human rights for those most at risk such a women and children.
Unfortunately we have been far less successful in creating effective mechanisms that would allow us to prevent breaches of those prohibitions or hold their perpetrators accountable. The few instruments that we do have, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, continue to suffer from fundamental weaknesses.
And yet, we should never lose sight of the fact that these laws, norms and principles and even those institutions themselves are all seminal achievements. They are historically unique and set our era apart from any previous one, at least on paper.
Encouraging as it is that we have collectively defined what is morally wrong, the rules themselves remain fragile and tenuous. They have not yet sunk deeply enough into our global consciousness. If they had, the recent breach of the taboo against chemical weapons (and prior to that the mass killings of peaceful demonstrators) by the Syrian regime would have created a much stronger worldwide outcry.
The lack of universal condemnation of the particular crime of using chemical weapons, a crime that included the willful gassing of hundreds of children, is stunning. It is even more stunning, if not morally unconscionable, that the only tangible outrage some can muster is directed at those who possess sufficient compassion to be outraged by the actual crime and who have the courage to be pondering a meaningful punitive reaction.
It is a sign of the moral fiber of this country that, unlike so many others, it is reacting the way it is: Appalled and disgusted by the horror and blessed with a political leadership, starting with the president himself, that is not only speaking up forcefully but is genuinely struggling to find the right response to this “moral obscenity” as Secretary of State Kerry rightly put it.
It would have behooved the United Nations as the global repository, guardian and rare enforcer of those hard-fought norms to issue the first warnings. The UN Security Council should have stepped in when the Assad regime unleashed its campaign of terror against peaceful and unarmed civilians from the earliest stages of the revolt, let alone after the use of chemical weapons.
But it did not happen since two out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely Russia and China, are just not committed to those norms. Even though they are each party to a number of international agreements and understandings that put our common humanity over parochially defined state interests, they resist enforcement of those core principles. Both continue to cling to the outdated notion that state sovereignty should trump the human interest even in circumstances of the most egregious violations of international law and human decency.
We are therefore once more confronted with two key weaknesses of the United Nations: Firstly, a disproportionate allocation of power to veto-yielding countries within the Security Council whose governments do not share many of the universal values that underlie the very idea of the United Nations. Secondly, a legal framework that is still insufficient to deal more effectively with intra-state conflicts such as civil wars (because the UN’s origins lie in the prevention of inter-state war.) After over half a century of unprecedented codification in the fields of international humanitarian law and human rights in general, international law remains steeped in near total deference to the sovereignty of the state, no matter how thuggish and criminal its leadership.
However, unless humankind regresses, international law that favors the protection of the defenseless and provides for the punishment of those responsible for the most heinous crimes will be our common future. Until that future arrives we might be repeatedly faced with the unpleasant choice between saving lives, upholding basic principles of humanity and enforcing some international laws while breaking others by circumventing the UN Security Council. This is the tradeoff which led to the NATO intervention that succeeded in saving thousands of lives in Kosovo in 1999.
Taking no action at this point will not deter the Assad regime from gassing its citizens again nor employ other horrific banned weapons. It will also send the message that all those prohibitions are not really meant to be taken seriously and that they can be ignored with impunity. In the long run this is the real danger to the international system as we know it.
Acting without the consent of the UN Security Council is hence morally legitimate in this case, unlawful as it might otherwise also be. It is prompted solely by the dereliction of duty of said institution. It failed miserably in the face of the severity of the crime at hand. Against this backdrop and based on the assumption that the culpability of the Assad regime is beyond doubt, Congress should grant the president the authority to make the Assad regime pay dearly for its latest transgression.
If the UN were functioning properly, the UN Security Council would use the U.S. resolve and capabilities as leverage to force Syria to handover its chemical and biological weapons. But given the track record of the obstructing powers, that is unfortunately unlikely to happen.
W.A. Schmidt, a member of the board of the Foreign Policy Association, was chair of the Governor’s Commission on the United Nations, State of Wisconsin, from 2004 to 2010.
September 07, 2013
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