A Q&A on Syria and the “Responsibility to Protect”

SyriaWhat is “Responsibility to Protect”?

“Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, is a doctrine that grew out of a 2001 report by the Canadian-established International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Unanimously endorsed as a general principle by the UN General Assembly four years later, R2P carries a hefty moral (though not legal) weight. The doctrine holds that it is the responsibility of nation states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and that if they prove unwilling or unable to do so, responsibility falls on the international community. As a last resort, this responsibility may take the form of military intervention.

What’s the difference between that and humanitarian intervention?

The concept of humanitarian intervention is older and less well-defined. While some R2P advocates prefer not to use the language of humanitarian intervention, we may think of R2P as the latest attempt to spell out and operationalize this older concept, specifically by switching the focus from the rights of self-appointed “global policemen” to the responsibilities of the international community as a whole.

Is R2P simply a dressed-up form of imperialism?

There are many hawks and warmongers around the world who seek to apply the doctrine in this way. But if they did not have R2P, surely that wouldn’t stop them from finding some other pretext for endless war. I am inclined to think of the motives behind R2P as being mostly noble, at least in the abstract. After all, it is hard to imagine that there is simply no such thing as a crime so heinous as to justify military intervention. Truly just wars may be the exception rather than the rule, but a stance of total pacifism is a bit absolutist for my taste.

So then R2P is a good thing?

Again, not quite. While considerably more fleshed out than past notions of humanitarian intervention, R2P still contains far too many abstractions and ambiguities to prevent abuse by militarists with ulterior motives.

Where does Syria fit in all this?

With a civil war raging that is estimated already to have killed 100,000 and displaced millions, and with allegations that large amounts of chemical weapons were used in an assault outside of Damascus last month, many Western politicians and journalists have advocated an attack on Syria on R2P grounds. As former Canadian Justice minister Irwin Cotler put it, “if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.”

Well, is he right? Is the world required by R2P to intervene militarily in Syria?

No. For all its flaws, the R2P doctrine embraces the norm of non-intervention as a starting point and places the burden of proof on those who seek to break it. The following six criteria (borrowed from traditional Just War theory) must be met to allow military action: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects.

Surely putting a halt to the unspeakable violence destroying the people of Syria must be a just cause, right?

Perhaps so. But what of the other criteria? While it is not always obvious how to interpret R2P’s vague language; and while R2P’s standards for permitting intervention are, if anything, not stringent enough; it would be a stretch to believe that the case for war with Syria clears all six of the above thresholds.

Take “reasonable prospects.” This criterion requires a military action to have a good chance of bringing about a desirable outcome. With the notoriously unsavoury elements who make up large parts of the divided Syrian rebel forces, this may not be a realistic goal. What if the rebels continue, or even intensify, sectarian violence once they form government? What if, as some accounts allege, rebel factions were actually the ones responsible for last month’s suspected chemical attack, instead of the regime? What if the expected American bombardment of Syria drags other countries of the region into the war as well?

Then there is “right authority.” The original ICISS report on R2P requires any military intervention to be carried out under the auspices of the UN Security Council or, failing that, the UN General Assembly or, failing that, a regional organization (such as the Arab League) “acting within its defined boundaries.” The subsequent General Assembly endorsement of the principle restricted authorizing capability to just the Security Council, in line with established international law. In the atmosphere of pre-war sabre-rattling presently underway, the United States has not indicated that it will seek permission to attack Syria from any international body.

Okay, so no war. What should we do about Syria, then?

There are no easy answers to this question. A best-case scenario would be that the current threat of military intervention, unjustified though it is, might prompt a greater openness to diplomacy and compromise on the part of the Syrian regime. Far more likely, however, is that the civil war will just drag on. It brings no pleasure to admit this, but readily available solutions to the crisis in Syria do not present themselves through either intervention or non-intervention. In scenarios like this, the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm,” cited with approval in the original R2P report, must guide the actions of the international community. Right now, we need to focus our efforts on diplomacy and humanitarian aid instead of war, and hope for a breakthrough.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorA letter of mine in the Vancouver Sun today, this one about the “Disappearing Palestine” ads on public transit here in the city. I try to defend the ads against the absurd charge that they target Jews. Click here to read it (second entry from the top).

An Open Letter to TransLink Regarding the “Disappearing Palestine” Ads

Disappearing PalestineDear TransLink:

I am writing to express my wholehearted support for your decision to display the pro-Palestinian transit ads recently unveiled at the Vancouver City Centre Skytrain station and on several buses. The ads offer an important perspective that needs to be heard as part of any informed debate on the Middle East conflict.

My praise may sound a bit strange, since, as you yourselves have noted, “within defined limits TransLink has no legal authority to decline advertising content.” A 2009 Supreme Court decision established that TransLink, as a public body, is bound by the free speech provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nevertheless, I insist on applauding you during the minor melee currently underway in the city’s media. Please do not feel deterred or bullied by the individuals and organizations that have criticized the ads in recent days — shamelessly conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, even going so far as to threaten legal action. I myself am Jewish and do not feel unsafe or offended in the least. Many members of the Palestine Awareness Coalition, the group responsible for the ads, happen to be Jewish as well. And while neither they nor I make any claim to be representative of all Vancouver Jews, to characterize the Jewish community as monolithically mortified by the ads, as strongly implied by some media coverage, is clearly ridiculous.

Ethno-religious affiliations are one thing; politics are another. Most people are perfectly capable of looking beyond the former in coming to opinions on the latter.

Thank you for standing up for the principle of freedom of expression and for facilitating a public discussion that needs to be had.

Sincerely,

David Taub Bancroft

Vancouver, BC

Thoughts on the Coup in Egypt

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square in 2011

In the early hours of 12 April 2002, with massive anti-government protests filling the streets, members of the Venezuelan military abducted President Hugo Chávez and, promising new elections, installed an interim leader of their own choosing in his place. Large swaths of respectable international opinion praised the action — which was not called a coup — with The New York Times crowing in a now-infamous editorial that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”

When Chávez, with the assistance of military loyalists and massive street protests of his own, returned triumphantly to office less than 48 hours after he was ousted, the Times was forced to issue a half-hearted admission of error. The abortive coup became widely acknowledged as a huge mistake, and its numerous defenders around the globe walked away with egg on their faces.

Respectable international opinion will likely take longer to come around after this week’s events in Egypt. President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by his country’s military on Wednesday — “not a coup,” it is once again claimed — but unlike Chávez, Morsi probably won’t be coming back. The military has always been closer to the levers of power in Egypt than in Venezuela, and Morsi’s public support is not nearly as widespread as his late Venezuelan counterpart’s. But the one thing both events have in common — and let’s not fool ourselves here — is that they are both military coups carried out against democratically elected leaders.

None of this is meant to defend Morsi; he has autocratic tendencies and issued a decree last year concentrating excessive power in his own hands. Nor is this meant to dismiss the movement of millions out in the streets protesting against Morsi’s rule; the economic difficulties they face are immense, and they are right to expect accountability from their leaders. But once the immediacy of this week’s events has receded, once the history books are written, Morsi’s ouster will be remembered as a coup d’état not unlike other coups d’état. A tinge of inspiring “people power” perhaps, but more than the recommended dose of old-fashioned authoritarianism.

To spurn the 52 per cent of the Egyptian electorate that voted for Morsi in last year’s run-off presidential election is no solution to the heavy polarization the country faces, just like many other democracies, young and old. Before being overthrown, Morsi suggested the formation of a consensus coalition government in the lead-up to parliamentary elections. Was his offer sincere? Maybe, maybe not. But as his country’s elected leader, Morsi at least had a more legitimate claim to spearhead efforts at national reconciliation than the generals who have given Egyptians nothing but tyranny for decades.

Even if the military does facilitate new elections as promised, it almost certainly won’t allow Morsi, now in detention, to run, and the crackdown currently underway against his Muslim Brotherhood is sure to have a chilling effect. This is not a step forward for Egyptian democracy. Despite Morsi’s many faults, despite the unprecedented size of the protests, despite the celebrations and fireworks among the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, this week’s coup d’état in Egypt is an unequivocal step back.

This post appears in rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

A letter of mine found its way into the Vancouver Sun today. This one comes in response to a piece last week by Senator Mobina Jaffer about the role of Canada’s Senate in protecting minority rights. In my letter, I argue in favour of abolishing the Senate and ensuring fair representation for minorities in the House of Commons by means of some kind of proportional representation. Please click here to read it.

Of the Greens and the Gutless

Green PartyThose who know me know that I want nothing more than for the Green Party to succeed, but this objective is imperilled if the voting public does not think of the Greens as real contenders.

Today, BC Premier Christy Clark announced July 10 as the date for the Westside-Kelowna byelection in which she will attempt to win her way back into the legislature under the Liberal Party banner. Both the NDP and the Conservatives have named candidates to take her on; conspicuous by their absence, however, are the Greens. In a press release last week, leader Jane Sterk said, “The BC Liberals won the May 14th election decisively and the riding of Westside-Kelowna by a wide margin …. It is clear that the premier deserves to be in the legislature and we are following the tradition of respecting the wishes of the voters in this regard.”

With all due respect to Jane Sterk and the aura of civility she seeks to instill, voters can speak for themselves, thank you very much. It is not Clark who won last month’s provincial election, but her party — or more specifically, most of her party’s nominees. There is no inherent sense in which the decidedly un-green Premier “deserves” a seat. Just like any other candidate, she must convince the people of a local community that she is the best politician to represent them. That is how Canadian parliamentary democracy works.

If Sterk believes that we should switch to some kind of presidential or semi-presidential model in which we elect our leader directly in a province-wide vote (not entirely a bad idea), then she is welcome to put the suggestion up for public debate. But otherwise, it just looks like the Green Party, despite its historic and well-deserved breakthrough in May’s election, is falling back into old habits and virtually dropping off the political map outside the writ period.

When the Greens do not bother to run in byelections, they are not taken seriously and neither are their ideas. It is one thing to refrain from fielding a candidate as part of a principled campaign for electoral cooperation, as the federal Greens recently did (although I had some qualms about that being a unilateral act without any other parties on board), but it is something else entirely to stand aside on the grounds that a Premier has a right to a seat simply by virtue of being Premier, regardless of her ability to win a fair fight at the riding level.

The only real way to go about “respecting the wishes of the voters” is to give them a broad range of electoral options and allow them to choose freely amongst them. To do otherwise does not put the Green Party above the fray. Frankly, it just makes them pushovers.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Three Solutions to Mark Canadian Environment Week

EarthIn honour of Canadian Environment Week — currently underway amidst accelerating tar sands development, hot on the heels of withdrawals from the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification — let us reflect upon what the federal government, if it were so inclined, could be doing differently. In other words, broadly speaking, how might Canada move beyond the symbolic in pursuit of true environmental sustainability?

1. Get serious about climate change.

By and large, there are three basic policy tools available to the government here: standards, carbon taxes, and cap-and-trade. To the extent that they have acted at all, the Harper Conservatives, in line with the Americans, have primarily gone the route of standards (such as fuel efficiency requirements and sector-by-sector regulations). This is a somewhat surprising move since standards are known for being “command and control,” while carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, regularly decried by the Conservatives (although they did briefly favour the latter), are considered more market-oriented.

Unfortunately, the standards that have been implemented so far by the Canadian government do not go far enough. The three major types of policy tools may have different implications with respect to simplicity, predictability, cost-effectiveness, and comprehensiveness, but in the end, the most important question is how stringent they are. We are getting rather late in the game of dealing with climate change, and it is high time we exploit every mechanism we have at our disposal.

2. Take advantage of our federal system of government.

In a federation like Canada, where responsibility for protecting nature is shared between the federal and provincial governments, environmental policy can get messy. But if this overlapping jurisdiction is accepted and handled wisely, then sometimes environmental progress can emerge out of competition between the two levels. Political scientist Kathryn Harrison dubs this kind of arrangement “unilateralism,” in which the feds and the provinces pursue their environmental goals independently. That way, they effectively check one another’s work. If one level of government abandons its responsibilities, there is still the second to fall back upon.

Sadly, this approach is not one that is embraced by the current federal government. The Harper Conservatives have pursued equivalency agreements with their provincial counterparts, in which provinces forfeit their rights to implement independent environmental assessments on certain key projects, allowing the feds alone to call the shots. This may avoid duplication of efforts, but the savings come at the expense of the natural world. The environment would be far better off if we embraced all the advantages Canadian federalism has to offer.

3. Enshrine environmental rights in the Constitution.

Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd came out with two books on environmental rights last year. He finds that 147 countries from virtually every region of the world have explicitly inserted environmental rights or responsibilities into their national constitutions. His work shows that the impact of these measures extends far beyond mere symbolism, with countries that boast green-tinged constitutions demonstrating stronger environmental performance. In many cases, governments rewrite legislation to comply with the environmental provisions of their constitutions and courts even force their governments to change course.

Anyone who recalls the last few decades of Canadian history knows that amending the Constitution is no easy task, but the fact that we are part of a dwindling minority of nation states that do not prioritize environmental protection in this manner should serve as a wake-up call. The natural environment is not some trivial matter to be tossed back and forth by the government of the day. It is the life support system we all depend upon, and it deserves at least as much pride of place in the supreme law of the land as freedom of speech and the right to vote.

This post appears on rabble.ca.