Flickr/Freedom House. Some rights reserved.
In each era new concepts emerge in the world of international politics and law in response to central issues of the times. A significant concept to materialize in recent years is that of the “responsibility to protect” (or R2P), which aims to address the failure of sovereign states to protect the human rights of its people, as in the case of Syria. It places a legal obligation on the international community to act in the face of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In a report on the subject of R2P, the UN Secretary General has observed that ‘the concept has been widely accepted’.
Given the enormous suffering of the Syrian people in the ongoing civil conflict, it would seem a textbook case for invoking the R2P doctrine. The estimated Syrian deaths have reached 100,000. There are nearly 2 million refugees who have fled the conflict and several millions displaced internally who are receiving little or no humanitarian assistance. There are also thousands languishing in the prisons of Syria. Finally, there is the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. But despite the tragic human rights situation, there is no consensus in the international community on the use of military action in Syria that is being contemplated by United States and some of its allies. Russia is actively opposing military action. Also opposed to military action are the rest of the BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China and South Africa). What is more, even the British Parliament has refused to endorse military action in Syria.
What explains the opposition of these countries to military action in the face of the unfolding human tragedy? It is important to understand the noteworthy legal and political reasons that are being advanced to oppose military action. On the legal plane, the proposed military action is difficult to reconcile with the international law principles of non-use of force and non-intervention into the internal and external affairs of States. The International Court of Justice in the Nicaragua case (1986) has held that ‘...no […] general right of intervention in support of an opposition within another State, exists in contemporary international law’. The oft-cited Kosovo precedent is not helpful, for one unlawful intervention cannot justify another. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention also does not offer a legal basis for military action because Syria is not a party to it. To be sure, Syria is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and there are several UN Security Council (UNSC) and UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions that call upon States to comply with it. But the protocol and the resolutions cannot form the basis for military action, as such action can only be undertaken (even limited and targeted action) under the circumstances defined in the UN Charter. In this case, it calls for a UNSC Chapter VII resolution. Such a resolution, however worded, is unlikely to be passed, firstly because the UN Weapons Inspection team that visited Syria has yet to submit its report. Secondly, China and Russia will veto it because they are opposed to military action, especially in the absence of decisive evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
Turning to political reasons, states have advanced manifold grounds for opposing military action. First, there are differences with respect to the understanding and implications of the concept of R2P. For example, in November 2011 Brazil circulated a note in the UN stressing the idea of ‘responsibility while protecting’. Therein Brazil argued that military intervention should only take place in the last resort, since “even when warranted on the grounds of justice, legality and legitimacy, military action results in high human and material costs”. There is therefore a need at first to “exhaust all diplomatic solutions to any given conflict”. The note also pointed out that “there is a growing perception that the concept of the responsibility to protect might be misused for purposes other than protecting civilians, such as regime change”. The concerns of Brazil are widely shared in the developing world, especially in the context of Syria.
Second, states have become wiser after the intervention in Libya. States that did not oppose the invocation of R2P in Libya are now unwilling to support it because the UNSC resolution 1973 was misinterpreted and used by NATO powers to bring about regime change.
Third, there is the valid concern that military action will lead to an escalation of violence in Syria and the region, leading to a greater humanitarian crisis. Millions more will be displaced outside and inside Syria. Thousands more will lose their lives. It is believed that even the departure of Assad will bring little relief to the people of Syria. This has been the experience of the Libyan people, who have in the post-Gaddafi era been subjected to unceasing violence by armed militias holding sway in large parts of the country.
Fourth, it is felt that military action will undermine the Geneva 2 process, which holds out the best possibility of bringing to an end the conflict in Syria. It could mean a long period of political uncertainty in which the Syrian people will be unable to take control of their political destiny. Fifth, it is pointed out that the support for ‘democratic forces’ in Syria comes from many Arab regimes that are anything but democratic. It strengthens the suspicion that what drives support for military action is a geopolitical agenda.
Sixth, there is the genuine fear that arms supplied to rebels may end up with extremist groups who are a part of the rebel forces. And seventh, it is believed that there are no innocent parties in this conflict. Both the government and the rebel forces are contributing to the escalating violence and violating international humanitarian laws.
Even in global civil society, there is resistance to the idea that the choice before the international community is between supporting military action or a brutal regime. This resistance emanates from a certain reading of history. It is believed that the false choice is a function of the geopolitics of imperialism with deep roots in colonialism. The roots of violence in post-colonial states goes back to the construction of the colonial state that saw the economy, bureaucracy, police and the army positioned to serve the state rather than the people. The structures of colonial state were never fully dismantled in the post-colonial era. However, where the post-colonial states are democracies, social and human rights movements are able to prevent gross violations of human rights (or, when it takes place, to use the legal system to bring the perpetrators to justice). But in cases where the post-colonial state transfigured into an authoritarian state, as in the case of Syria, this is not possible. These authoritarian states have often received support from hegemonic powers pursuing geopolitical ambitions. But when such regimes become a liability, the same states manipulate the politics of the post-colonial state by relying on the genuine grievances of the people to oppose the incumbent regime. The outcome often is increased violence by the state against its own people. It is against this backdrop that the lifting of the embargo by the EU to supply arms to rebels, and earlier to allow the use of oil revenues to fund the insurgency, together with the possibility of President Obama ordering military action, are to be viewed. It is felt that despite denials, forces of imperialism are using the acute distress of the Syrian people to pursue the agenda of regime change.
What we need today is not military intervention but prudent internationalism. It is an internationalism that refrains from undermining the normative consensus in the international community on when military action is permissible. Prudent internationalism also acknowledges that democracy and democratic practices cannot be exported to societies and that military action can undermine the future of democracy by sharpening sectarian and social divides. Prudent internationalism also takes cognizance of the past outcomes of military action, especially the continuing violence in societies that have been the subject of military action (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya). Prudent internationalism also does not accept the view that non-support of military action is support for the brutal Assad regime.
Prudent internationalism sees a third way, that of diplomatic and political action to resolve the conflict. It requires that states and civil society forces opposed to military action ensure that the Geneva 2 process gets under way. Indeed, there is a moral obligation on all those opposed to military action not to remain passive spectators to the unfolding tragedy in Syria. In this respect, it is particularly important that key developing countries such as Brazil, India, China and South Africa act immediately to garner support for the diplomatic process. The decision on convening the Geneva 2 process cannot be left to a few states, in particular the US. Egypt has shown how the same hegemonic power that speaks of the need to institute a democratic regime in Syria is a mute witness to its destruction in Egypt. Meanwhile, as efforts are being made to start the Geneva 2 process, the Syrian people must be offered increased humanitarian assistance to relieve their sufferings.