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Ten years ago, every country in the United Nations adopted “the Responsibility to Protect”, a euphemism for humanitarian intervention. R2P as it is known in the UN, was steered through by Kofi Annan, who was then the Secretary General. Rather than rewrite the UN Charter with its overly punctilious respect for national sovereignty above all other considerations, the resolution reinterpreted the Charter’s Chapter Seven so that the threats to international peace and security now included mayhem being inflicted with national borders.
The international commission that came up with R2P found that there were deep worries about how the concept could be abused. Hitler had, after all, invoked humanitarian reasons for seizing Sudetenland. There was also a common caution that the UN Security Council should be very careful about how it was implemented. The Commission cited Hippocrates’ advice to doctors: “First, do no harm”.
R2P has been adopted varying degrees of enthusiasm, with the Russians and Chinese dragging their feet most often. But oddly the strongest defenders of the sovereign rights of tyrants to massacre their citizenry at will are often so-called socialists who have forgotten the proletarian internationalism thing in their rush to canonise sundry dictators as anti-imperialist saints.
The first line of defence against abuse of R2P is the role of the Security Council as gatekeeper since there could be no intervention without its permission. That is why, ironically, the Russian annexation of Crimea and creeping occupation of Ukraine is illegal even though Vladimir Putin evoked the alleged threat to ethnic Russians posed by the Ukrainian nationalists .The problem with the Security Council is the refusal of the veto holders to turn the key when the gate does need opening. It is easy to point the finger at Russia, but many UN members look at Moscow’s cover for Bashar al-Assad’s assault on his own citizenry as no better or worse than Washington’s cover for waves of destruction on Gaza.
Similarly, there is a repeated pattern in which the West, having secured doubting Russian co-operation over Libya, or Iraq,then disregards Moscow’s views and stretches the resolutions farther than was implied. Iraq, touted as humanitarian intervention by Tony Blair, proved all of the warnings about the dangers of R2P that its supporters had identified. The invasion had no legal or moral authority and its conduct was cretinously colonial even by American standards, while inept by every standard of winning hearts and minds. It was wrong in every sense, from conception to execution and the Syrian tragedy is a continuing aftershock.
Syria is clearly a total humanitarian disaster, and if ever there were a need for intervention and international action this is it. But there is now a real dilemma. It is very difficult to conceive of any course of action that would not make things worse. We prefer the binary simplicity of absolute good and evil, even though sordid reality usually presents us with comparative worse and better. Syria’s complexities also defy attempts to rally world opinion behind any course of action. Indeed Syria has already had more than enough intervention with outside powers pursuing their sanguinary sectional interests across the heartland of civilisation. The United States has been unable or unwilling to restrain the Saudis and Gulf States from arming and bankrolling their own brand of fundamentalists. Russian and Iranian support of Assad means that he has seen no need to negotiate.
Even what would have been a straightforward response some time ago, enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent Assad’s aircraft bombing civilians now leads us to some literally awesome possibilities – do we want to risk a third world war by challenging Putin’s aggressive attacks on Assad’s non-ISIL opponents?
The pleas from UN representatives, Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and others for diplomacy can sound like wimpish abdication. But only concerted action by the major players, which might involve the US talking softly to Russia and China while waving a big stick at the Wahabi dynasties in the Gulf can produce a solution that might rescue Syrians from the horrors of previous partisan interventions. Putin and the ayatollahs are certainly a big part of the problem – but they also have to be part of the solution.