By Hilary Stauffer
August 28, 2013
When is intervention into another country’s ‘internal’ problems justified? This is the question on the minds of many NATO and Arab League-affiliated governments in the wake of the chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, last week. The final tally of victims is unknown (at least 1,300 deaths, possibly as many as 3,600), as is the provenance of the attack (although consensus seems to be building that it is the work of the Syrian government-aligned forces). While the United Nations inspectors were able to visit the site in a limited capacity earlier this week, the evidence may have degraded to a point where a definitive determination of which chemical agent was used will be inconclusive.
Russia and China, which hold veto power on the UN Security Council, argue vociferously that intervention is almost certainly never warranted. This is, of course, convenient — their treatment of their own citizens routinely comes under scrutiny from the outside world. In the case of Syria, the Russian and Chinese vetoes are significant: Chapter VII of the UN Charter sanctions the use of armed force by UN member states to address threats to international peace and security. But Chapter VII actions need a majority vote from the Security Council, with no vetoes (although abstentions are permitted). Russia and China have routinely blocked any action against Syria over the course of the conflict.
As videos and pictures from the attack trickled out last week, the French foreign minister called for a “forceful” response, while ruling out the use of ground troops. Curiously, France has recently been more willing than most to intervene in other countries’ ‘internal’ struggles. To wit: the Ivory Coast and Libya (2011) and Mali (2013).
All eyes are on the United States, where at the time of writing, the Obama Administration had done nothing much so far regarding Syria, although Secretary of State John Kerry called for “accountability” for the “heinous” attack. The American people do not appear to support armed intervention, with one recent poll citing 60 per cent opposed to action. Memories of Iraq and Afghanistan are still relatively raw for service members and their families, and the citizenry at large seems to be tired of international adventures. These figures are echoed in the United Kingdom and in the opinions of tens of thousands of commentators across the internet, many of whom believe that the Syrians should be left to deal with their own problems.
I respectfully disagree.
The international community, led by the US, cannot and does not respond to every international crisis. Rwanda and Darfur are obvious instances of catastrophic inaction, but other examples abound: why not the Democratic Republic of the Congo (death toll: five million in 15 years) or Egypt (800 deaths in post-coup clashes between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood)? Observers rightly raise questions about motivations, political calculations and the value of a human life in one part of the world versus another.
However, governments’ self-interested failure to act in certain circumstances should not be used as a justification to turn a blind eye to atrocities unfolding on computer monitors around the world. On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s ‘March on Washington’, one of his most famous quotes springs to mind: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Intervention fatigue is understandable, but policymakers should not let it be decisive.
We know what is happening in Syria and we have the power to influence events and save thousands of lives. Lawyers, diplomats and military strategists can and should debate the best way of doing so and we must prepare for the eventuality that any intervention carried out will be imperfect and complicated. Many sceptics rush to point out that there is no imperative to act under international law; they are silent regarding the countervailing notion that within the proper framework, there is also no prohibition on doing the right thing.
Hilary Stauffer is an international lawyer who has worked on human rights and humanitarian law projects in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa