While my pal Bud and I sat on the Black’s deck for an extended breakfast last Sunday, Bud made an interesting observation. I paraphrase and embellish a bit, but basically what he said was: “Women are the same the world over, but men are every kind of dickhead” or something to that effect. That got me thinking about the mess in Syria. Having spent time in Saudi Arabia I can attest to the fact that women and children in the Middle East are pretty much the same as they are here. It’s the men who are causing the mess, while the women and children bear the brunt of it.
Should powerful countries like the United States, Britain, Canada and France intervene to protect the civilian population in Syria from chemical weapons attacks by their own government?
A lot of international law is not based on rules passed by parliamentarians voting in a room at the UN. Much of international law consists of principles which develop and evolve over the years, often under the leadership of the UN, NATO, or a group of countries acting in concert. The principle of “Responsibility to Protect” springs from a United Nations initiative focused on preventing mass atrocities and is, more or less, a Canadian invention.
The Responsibility to Protect holds that a state has a responsibility to protect its citizens from mass atrocities. The international community has a responsibility to assist a state in fulfilling that responsibility. If a state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to intervene, with military force as a last resort. Only the United Nations Security Council can authorize military intervention.
There are six criteria to determine whether military intervention is justified. In the case of Syria, it is pretty clear that serious, irreparable harm is occurring to the Syrian population. Arguably, the main intention of a military intervention in Syria would be to prevent human suffering. Many accuse Obama of dithering while others accuse him of war-mongering, yet he has been reluctant to initiate military intervention and remains open to a diplomatic solution. Both Obama and Harper have spoken of a limited or proportional intervention.
Where things start to get a little sticky is on the question of whether it is likely military action against the Syrian government will succeed in protecting the population. Al-Asaad’s negotiating position appears to be that if the rebels and the international community leave him alone he will not kill as many of his own people. That’s a pretty morbid calculus for western countries to attempt to weigh.
Where things really get difficult is with Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council. Obama will not have Security Council support for military intervention but believes the protection of Syria’s population from slaughter is a higher ideal than the protection of the UN’s credibility, which explains Kerry’s trips abroad to gather moral support from the international community.
As Bud and I watched several Middle Eastern families walk by in the full hijab and abaya, followed by a group of traditional Sikhs complete with turban and kirpan, it occurred to us that we live in a heck of a town in a heck of a country. Many say Syria’s mass killings are not our problem. Others say the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians is our problem. It comes down to what we believe to be our responsibility to a world that by and large is not nearly as well off as we are.
If not us, who?