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What if and what if not

by Henning Melber


Fire in Homs, Syria

Fire in Homs, Syria

The international community has accepted, in principle, the ­responsibility to protect people from suffering at the hands of their own governments. The decision to intervene in a conflict, however, cannot be taken by simply assessing facts. Counter-­factual considerations matter very much. By Henning Melber

In past weeks, the world watched the Syrian regime murdering its own people. Shortly before she was killed in Homs in late February, the Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, stated: “No one here can understand how the interna­tional community can let this happen.”

Today, foreign governments have, at least in principle, a mandate to intervene in cases like this. In 2001, the Interna­tional Commission on Intervention and State ­Sovereignty (ICISS) introduced the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The UN World Summit accepted it in 2005, and the General Assembly endorsed it in 2009.

R2P was a response to the traumas of Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and other places. It was probably the most important UN innovation in recent years, shifting the emphasis from non-interference to non-indifference. Sovereignty is no longer a license to kill. Gareth Evans, who co-chaired the ICISS, stresses that R2P is based on “the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings”.

The challenge, however, is to determine what kind of interference is justified – and when. Doubts often concern the intentions of those who wish to intervene. The worry expressed most by UN members in the General Assembly in 2009 was the risk of selectivity and double standards. It would be wrong, however, to decide that the international community must not act anywhere because it cannot act everywhere.

China and Russia accuse NATO of having abused Security Council Resolution 1973, which was meant to protect civilians, for imposing regime change on Libya. Oil interests are obvious, and the ongoing violence in Libya is disturbing. It is equally obvious, however, that R2P would have become a meaningless principle, had the international community simply stood by as Muammar Gaddafi’s troops fulfilled his pledges of murdering opponents in Benghazi. In retrospect, we must study in detail how some of the bloodshed that followed could have been prevented.

The case of Libya exposes a fundamental moral dilemma. It is impossible to determine in terms of plain facts the legitimacy of either military engagement or staying aloof. One must consider counter-factual “what if” and “what if not” scenarios. We must prevent harm, but also pay attention not to cause more harm than we prevent. Military action may be called for to save human lives, but one might also argue for the highest degree of restraint and negotiation. Both can fail; both can succeed.

China and Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria in February. Did their reading of what happened in Libya make it acceptable to watch the Assad regime kill its own people? Does it still? There are reasons why the international community is reluctant to get involved in Syria, including doubts whether a stable and peaceful order will emerge any time soon, and worries that violence may spread beyond the country. As the Libyan experience shows, moreover, taking sides in a civil war is problematic. The results of revolutionary transitions tend to be not only unpredictable, but often undesired by the revolutionaries themselves.

Shortly before D+C/E+Z went to press, the Security Council unanimously passed a declaration. Its language is not very strong, calling on all parties to stop the violence, and only vaguely announcing “further steps” should Syria not start a political process. This is not enough, but it is a step in the right direction. Military intervention is only the last option. Other meaningful respon­ses to violence include sanctions and selective boy­cotts, naming and shaming and even incentives for better behaviour – if necessary at the expense of justice. In any case, collective action is required of the international community.

R2P must be handled in a responsible, collective manner. Military intervention is only the ultimate step. A nation’s sovereignty, however, is no longer an excuse to stay idle when its government violates fundamental rights.