Word has it the US and whomever else joins the fray will justify a shift to kinetic, punitive action at least in part on the grounds that Assad’s regime is violating the Geneva and Chemical Weapons conventions.
Prudence suggests we should take a moment to recall things like the horrible treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, as well as this country’s use of militarized drones, both (1, 2) of which have been cited as running afoul of portions of the Geneva Conventions, among a litany of other international norms. Who – and on what basis – can rightfully police those actions?
We speak of the “fog of war” often, and our attendant difficulty in avoiding subjective determinations of fact. Just yesterday the Syrian government brought to the attention of the United Nations possible cases of recent, insurgent use of the chemical weapons that they contend warrant investigation. Invariably some will view this as the Assad regime stalling potential efforts by other states to intervene–if the inspectors take longer to do their assessment, the logic goes, it will keep collateral-wary states from firing those Tomahawks until the inspectors have vacated the area.
True or not, it remains that either side will continue to accuse the other of lying about its complicity and responsibility in the deployment of these heinous agents; it’s no surprise polities often find today’s rhetorical appeals to idealistic, moral high grounds laughable at best, disturbing at worst.
Perhaps the most realistic characterization of the mess we as humans, state and other identities aside, find ourselves in, comes by way of this article:
“In cases like Syria (or, for example, Congo or the sites of other horrors), the absence of international will and clarity is as responsible for festering crimes, like the ones in Syria, as the actions of bad actors. Any society without the will to create laws and a police force to protect against crimes they know are coming must be seen as an enabler of those crimes.” … “Any system of law that protects state actors — or those who cloak themselves in the protections of acting on behalf of a nation state, to the degree ours still does — is fundamentally and profoundly flawed.” (emphasis added)
Too Little, Too Late
I hope lives of all stripe are saved in Syria and wherever else tomorrow, next week’s, and next year’s news cycles happen to focus on. But as the “global community” lurches from inaction to action in various contexts, let’s be extremely careful to not paper over the hypocrisies our state-centric world furthers, and our own complicity in that; let’s not forget to think about those flaws, even if something of a solution isn’t a be-all-end-all, either.
In that vein, I’ve lately been interested in the notion of the “Responsibility to Protect“, a norm with increased currency in our today’s world, even if only halfheartedly. In a way it’s what drives Gareth Evans in his recent piece, “The Moral Case on Syria When the Law Is Lacking“, excerpted below, especially vis-a-vis the “moral imperative” he speaks of:
“To invent a legal justification, when there isn’t one, as the UK in particular tried to in Iraq in 2003, is to put at risk the credibility of the whole humanitarian, civilian protection enterprise. “
“A similar dilemma arose in 1999 when Russia made clear it would veto Security Council endorsement of NATO’s proposed intervention to stop Milosevic’s genocidal attacks in Kosovo. The weight of world opinion supported the view that military action might not be legal, but here it was morally legitimate.”
“The most credible way of overcoming the lack of formal legal authority would be to offer the equivalent of a domestic court plea in mitigation: “We may have breached the letter of the law, but don’t challenge its applicability and won’t make a habit of it– it’s just that in the very particular circumstances there was an overwhelming moral imperative to act as we did, and any censure should reflect that.”
“But for that moral case to stand up, without undermining either the principle of a rule-based international order or the evolving responsibility to protect norm, four conditions will have to be satisfied…”
So Evans champions tried-and-tested way of breaking a system: you have to be deliberate, careful, and, ultimately play by some sort of rules others can understand if you hope to maintain the bedrock legitimacy of said system in the majority of other contexts.
All well and good. But I think, in much the way there will be those questioning the “overwhelming moral imperative” of external action in Syria, it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to wonder why the same critical questions can’t apply to other, ongoing contexts, as with Guantanamo, drones, etc.