The Syrian Abstention
A fierce debate has erupted in Guyana after our country abstained on the UN General Assembly vote demanding that the Syrian army stop its shelling and helicopter attacks and withdraw to its barracks.
Sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, the anti-Syria resolution easily passed in the 193-member General Assembly after its Arab sponsors defanged two key provisions in the original draft — a demand that the Syrian president resign, and a call for other nations to place sanctions on Syria over its civil war.
The following excerpts from an essay analysing the developing doctrine of UN intervention in intra-state violence provides a background against which the abstention vote might be considered. “If the impulse to intervene to protect innocents is not new, neither is the penchant to do so by invoking international law or moral arguments that appeal to the preservation of life or freedom. Just war theory is well-grounded in the law of nations.
So what’s different about the debate today over a possible intervention in Syria, or indeed about NATO’s actual intervention in Libya in 2011? To some critics, not much; it’s just old wine in new bottles. They believe powerful states have invested the old interventionism with a new respectability, under the guise of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This doctrine, grounded in universal human rights, holds that when states are unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocity within their borders, the UN has a duty to step in — including as a last resort by authorising the intervention of foreign troops. To its most strident critics, R2P undermines the independence of states and is a cover for NATO (or western) interventionism.
But is this fair? It is difficult to explain NATO or western interventions in Bosnia (1995), East Timor (1999), Kosovo (1999), or Sierra Leone (2000), all launched to protect civilian lives, as serving some hidden purpose of western hegemony. Moreover, all except Kosovo had the approval of the UN Security Council. Its five Permanent Members (P5) represent powerful states, but it is hardly a rubber stamp for NATO adventurism. Further, R2P was unanimously agreed to by all UN Member States when they endorsed the principle in a General Assembly resolution in 2005.
A second important difference is that contemporary humanitarian interventions cannot be partial as regards the civilians they seek to protect. R2P is triggered not by the suffering of ethnic or religious kin abroad, but by actual or apprehended mass atrocities. These are clearly defined in universal standards of human rights and humanitarian law; standards which bind all states, powerful or weak, democratic or despotic, and protect life and freedom without distinction.
In the wake of the genocidal killings in Rwanda and Bosnia in the early 1990s, precisely such distinctions led many who were wary of the old interventionism to believe that a growing respect for international law, and the increasing reach and impact of universal human rights standards, permitted a new interventionism, altruistic and internationally legitimate. This belief seemed vindicated by some of the first instances where it was invoked – in Sierra Leone, East Timor and (although more controversially) Kosovo.
Today, however, against the backdrop of an actual intervention in Libya and the debate over a threatened one in Syria, these distinctions are wearing thin. Partiality as regards which civilian suffering gains attention, and a loose regard for international legality are evident again. So much so in fact, that those who – for the best of motives – champion R2P as a triumph for human rights, need to seriously consider the risks that its continued misuse might do more harm than good.
History tells us that intervention is helped when expressed in moral terms, and it is filled with examples of the intervenor’s misuse of good ideas for nefarious purposes. Is the new interventionism – at least as practised and discussed in the Middle East over the past year – an indication that the principled R2P doctrine is now firmly in the grip of those whose acceptance of the principle has always been conditional?”