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.

Two-State Twilight

PeaceFor many years, I have felt that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were an exaggeration. Yes, Israel has been unyielding in its expansion of settlements in the West Bank in clear violation of international law, effectively dividing the already-slight territory into several isolated segments and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state nearly impossible. But Israel has withdrawn settlers from occupied territory before, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Unlikely as it may now appear, it could always happen again.

The above represents the optimistic perspective I have traditionally held. With every passing year, it becomes harder to maintain this optimism. Israeli settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) currently number around half a million — far more than anything Israel has ever removed before. I do not know exactly how close the settlements are to a point of no return — or indeed if they have passed that point already — but what seems obvious to me is that if the two-state solution is not yet dead, it is clearly dying, and every decision to authorize or excuse settlement expansion in the West Bank diminishes its chance of full recovery.

This is the only lens through which to understand last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote granting Palestinians “non-member observer state” status. While Israel occasionally claims to be in favour of some form of two-state solution, as soon as the moment came to put its money where its mouth was, the country led a small number of other rejectionists (shamefully including my own Canadian government) in voting against Palestinian statehood. Then, in retaliation against Palestine for its victory at the UN, Israel announced plans for new settlement construction in a move that will further carve up the West Bank.

The occurrence of these events mere days after Israel concluded its brutal assault on Gaza and agreed to a truce with Hamas is especially disturbing. According to Palestinian parliamentarian and peace activist Mustafa Barghouti:

What worries me most today is that Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians that if you do non-violence, we will oppress you. If you do the most peaceful, non-violent act of turning to the United Nations, we will punish you. But if you use violence and guns, we will respect you. That’s the message that Palestinians are getting, and that’s a wrong message.

Furthermore, in addition to hurting Palestinians, Israel is hurting itself. If the two-state solution becomes impractical, Palestinians and their international supporters will not simply roll over and accept the eternal occupation of Palestine as a fait accompli. Rather, they will demand (and who can blame them?) voting rights in Israeli elections for all living under Israeli sovereignty. The two-state solution will die and be reborn as the one-state solution, featuring equal democratic rights for all people — Jewish and Palestinian — between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

For most Israelis, this is a nightmare scenario. I am not quite so pessimistic.

Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip together make up a natural social and economic unit, and if one accepts the right of return for Palestinian refugees (as anyone who believes in the universality of human rights must), then the pre-1967 borders are a rather arbitrary place to draw the partition line. The only good reason to defend the two-state solution is that it remains the path of least resistance. Majorities or pluralities among Israelis and Palestinians support two states, as does virtually the entire international community. Furthermore, after decades of violence and hatred, there may be some utility in at least temporarily giving each population its own state.

For these reasons, I have always supported an interim two-state period to allow tempers to cool, but have remained hopeful that eventually, after years of reconciliation, a single binational state might emerge.

Naive? Who’s to say? What is obvious, however, is that Israeli intransigence on settlements is eclipsing any possibility of an intermediate stage. A time will soon come — if it hasn’t already — when one state is the only choice left.

A Formula for Nuclear Disarmament

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Naga...

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there’s a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword.

Jacques Chirac

Today marks the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On 6 August 1945, the United States dropped a single bomb on the city that instantly killed 80,000 people. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that instantly killed another 40,000. Many tens of thousands more eventually died in both cities from the effects of radiation, resulting in total deaths of over 200,000.

The use of nuclear weapons in war has thankfully never been repeated, but there are still an estimated 19,000 such weapons in the world — a mere five percent of which could render the planet virtually uninhabitable. These stockpiles are split between the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. And while some leaders occasionally pay lip service to the ideal of a nuclear-free world, it is not often that countries undergo unilateral disarmament.

Why? Because of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), according to which a country will be deterred from attacking another country provided that doing so risks self-annihilation. But even if it is true that a nuclear arsenal causes the national security of its possessor to improve by discouraging attack, the world as a whole becomes a much more dangerous place. Accidents can happen, nuclear materials can be stolen or sold to non-state actors, and there is no guarantee that military and political leaders will invariably respect the logic of abstract game theoretical models. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the probability of their use increases with time. In fact, there have been numerous close calls already. The prospect of destruction is made no more tolerable by virtue of its mutual assurance.

So how do we convince the nine countries currently in the nuclear club to give up their weapons? Relentless pressure on their governments by regular people all over the world is an obvious part of the answer, but it is almost certainly not enough. What else?

States must be assured that not only they but also their geopolitical rivals will be expected to disarm. And they must be confident that their rivals will not be permitted to renege on their agreements. So perhaps a stepping stone is needed — one in which full global disarmament does not take place right away. Instead, nuclear weapons could be taken out of the hands of nation states and given to the United Nations. Such an arsenal — belonging to the international community as a whole — would be meant to deter individual states from rearming themselves. However, the bar for its use would have to be set very high via the requirement of a large supermajority — say, 12 out of 15 members of the Security Council, or perhaps a similar percentage in the General Assembly. Only something along these lines would be high enough to prevent the weapons’ frivolous use, but not so high as to eliminate the deterrent effect.

Once again, this would only be a temporary measure, with complete nuclear disarmament remaining the long-term goal. The important thing is that nuclear weapons be taken out of the hands of unaccountable and potentially trigger-happy nation states. The loss of military power and prestige would be a small price to pay for the increase in overall global security. And on Hiroshima Day of all days, we owe it to the countless victims of the two nuclear massacres 67 years ago to prevent their tragedies from recurring.