“Stand Up”?

Image via The Telegraph

For awhile I’ve been thinking about humanitarian intervention and the case of Syria.

In early January, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner estimated that at least 60,000 people have died since March 2011 when demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad morphed into a civil war.  A few days ago, the Commissioner revised that figure to closer to 70,000.

Last week Maclean’s Michael Petrou asked if it was time to intervene in Syria.  NATO intervened in Libya, and an international force of some sort seems destined to engage with militants in Mali.

Is Syria this generation’s Rwanda?

In Rwanda, approximately 800,000 people were killed within 100 days in 1994, as Hutus sought retribution against Tutsis for the assassination of a Hutu President.  Former UN Commander Romeo Dallaire, now a Canadian Senator, warned the global community that genocide was imminent, but the world ignored him.  The result was mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

The world’s unwillingness to intervene in Rwanda, combined with its inability to stop the slaughter of thousands in Bosnia in the 1990s, led the Canadian government to create the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which formulated the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, also known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Humanitarian intervention is a controversial concept; the name of the concept itself is paradoxical.  ‘Humanitarian’ denotes positive communitarianism, while intervention implies force.  Some academics view humanitarian intervention as nothing less than a polite euphemism for war,”[1] as most see intervention as synonymous with violence.  In their eyes, human intervention isn’t help; it’s simply another form of colonialism.[2]

Or is it?  R2P asserts that state sovereignty “implies a dual responsibility: externally, to respect the sovereignty of other states, and internally, to respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.”[3]
R2P proponents argue that the language of humanitarian intervention is “overwhemingly, preventive”[4] and that military intervention is a last resort.  The ICISS report outlined six criteria which must be met before military intervention can occur:

1. The ‘Just Cause’ Threshold: There must be significant and infallible evidence that mass killing or ethnic cleansing is about to occur or is occurring.

2. Right intention: States must have altruistic intentions, with no economic or political motives other than to protect those who are in danger.

3. Last resort: All other avenues for preventing imminent atrocities must have been explored.

4. Proportional means: Only the military capabilities absolutely necessary to prevent mass killing from occurring should be used.  Military occupation is temporary, not permanent.

5. Reasonable prospects: There must be a reasonable chance that the military intervention planned will succeed and not cause more harm than good.

6. Right authority: Authority should come from the UN Security Council, but if it is unable to come to a consensus, the ICISS report outlines other means for gaining approval for military intervention.[5]

In this case, there is a just cause: the deaths of 70,000 people largely caused by a government desperately clinging to power.  But as in most cases of this nature, the other five criteria prove difficult.  What is proportional?  Can states be completely altruistic?  How can states prevent another Iraq or Afghanistan?  How can authority come from a UN Security Council vote when the veto of only one permanent member, whose intentions are probably political, destroys any chance of such authority?

Let’s be honest: humanitarian intervention is never completely altruistic in nature.  Never.  It is politics that reigns supreme in these types of situations.  However, there’s much reason to be wary of getting involved in Syria.

The biggest reason why no nation dares intervene in Syria is because of Iran.  No one wants to poke the bear, so to speak.  Syria is probably Iran’s most important ally in the region.  Intervening in Syria means coming face-to-face with Iran, a concerning prospect for most Western nations.

But the better reason is because of the Syria’s diverse ethnicity.  As Petrou points out, the Syrian opposition isn’t united, and some terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the chaos.  Minorities fear what might happen to them under another regime.  The end result may be something worse than what was there in the first place.

Yet don’t the deaths of 70,000 people cry out for us to do something?

Yes, they do.  Global citizenship and our common humanity requires us to. But I’m not sure that something is international humanitarian intervention.


[1] Ramesh Thakur, “Iraq and the Responsibility to Protect,” Behind the Headlines 62, no. 1 (October 2004): 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect,” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 102. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (11 August 2007).

[4] Gareth Evans, The Limits of State Sovereignty: The Responsibility to Protect in the 21st Century (Colombo: 29 July 2007), presented to the International Center for Ethnic Studies as the Eighth Neelam Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture. Available: <http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/speeches/2007/evans-the-limits-of-state-sovereignty-the-responsibility-to-protect-in-the-21st-century.aspx&gt;.

[5] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2001), xii.

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