An interesting CNN article shone a new light on the Syrian conflict, which might not have been apparent to most readers. Using terms such as “convention” and “international humanitarian law,” certainly not part of common discourse, it sought to explain why the International Committee of the Red Cross’ move to call the Syrian conflict a civil war (or, rather, a “non-international armed conflict”) was significant.
I, for one, was happy to see the Geneva Conventions being distilled for the common reader to comprehend in the context of what’s happening in Syria.
Tim Hume, writing for CNN, got it right. The move is significant, because once all of this is over, Assad can be charged with war crimes for the killing of civilians and other similar atrocities, including torture and the mass destruction of property.
What I don’t know is whether it can act as a deterrent at this stage in the game. It seems like it’s too late; Assad can count the days before he loses power as the battles come into Damascus. If anything, he’ll use whatever means he finds necessary to stop the rebels.
Putting deterrence aside, can it pressure China and Russia, who just vetoed another UN Security Council resolution, to agree to stronger sanctions and/or action? I’m also skeptical in this regard. We are not yet at the point where international humanitarian law incurs international action that precedes the sovereignty of states. If the United States is hesitant to interfere in a state’s ‘sovereignty’ (questionable at a time when human rights violations and mass murders are taking place), China and Russia even more so. A civil war classification runs the risk of letting the Syrian government get away with more in the eyes of powers like Russia and China, who are wary of their own internal conflicts.
So where do we draw the line and say “enough is enough?” When should the international community (and by this I mean the Security Council acting as one) simply refuse to allow crimes of such a scale to continue? Thought the Geneva Conventions made it into the mainstream news, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has yet to do so.
And for those wondering whether R2P is a euphemism for military intervention – it isn’t. R2P calls for less intrusive measures first, resorting to more intrusive measures, such as military interventions, if others fail (as per usual with diplomatic tradition). R2P contains three categories of responsibility: to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. It is rather detailed and extensive, emphasizing rebuilding as much as prevention.
I particularly like R2P because it makes the following clear: if a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from avoidable major harm, such as mass murder, then the responsibility to do so (the state holds this responsibility first) falls on the international community. It is no longer, then, a question of sovereignty. Under R2P, a state loses this aspect of its sovereignty to the international community if it is unable to protect its citizens.
And in the case of Syria, this responsibility has certainly passed onto the international community. Not only are the lives of more Syrians at stake if we fail to apply R2P as we did in Libya, but the lives of other civilians in future conflicts. Russia and China will be just as hesitant to support this developing norm in fear that it will one day be used against them, but it is imperative that the norm continues to strengthen and solidify its place in international law if we are to really live by our many “never agains.”
We are currently under the responsibility to react category, and it falls on us to do so.
For a good background on what’s been happening in Syria, the UN, and responses from civil society, read this.