Sometimes force is needed to stop or punish immoral acts, and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government – if shown to be true – is such an act, if not the 100,000 civilians who have needlessly died as a result of President Assad’s refusal to step down and allow free elections.
The problem with the US proposal for military intervention in Syria, however, is that it does not appear to have a clear cut objective to punish the wrong-doers. If Assad is still in power by the end of the intervention, then one wonders what will be achieved other than a slap on the wrist? The US government may well have a secondary objective to degrade the Syrian military’s capability for fighting the rebels, or Assad’s standing amongst his people, or perhaps even to get a lucky strike on Assad and take him out of the picture. But given the sustained effort that was required to achieve such objectives in Libya, one wonders what might be achieved in just a few weeks of targeted bombings in Syria, which has more military assets in place than Gaddafi’s forces did, and Assad more popular support than Gaddafi enjoyed. Perhaps it will make the situation in Syria worse?
Hence there are question marks over the fruitfulness of military intervention in Syria that does not have as its principal objective the removal of Assad. Of course, assassinating political leaders is not technically legal under international law, and here lies the problem. Why not? Why can a tyrant dictator get away with killing thousands of their civilians under international law? The answer is because international law is not primarily aimed at justice, but at keeping the peace between sovereign states. The prime objective of bodies like the United Nations is international stability, not human rights, the latter being the poor second cousin when it comes to concerns of the Security Council, several key members of which have an appalling record on human rights abuses.
This is not how it should be in an ideal world. In an ideal world, those who authorise or commit violent acts should be punished, and political office should hold no immunity to such punishment. Actually, in an ideal world we wouldn’t have people committing such heinous acts, but that is going one step further.
In a recent CBC article, Farida Hussain looks at the prospects of referring Assad to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was set up in 1998 to deal with crimes against humanity committed by political leaders, but it was opposed by several countries: China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, Yemen and, most surprising of all, the United States. The United States is reluctant to be bound by any international judicial system that encroaches on its sovereignty and Constitutional Rights.
But as the United States becomes more isolated in its quest to operate as the world policeman without an international mandate to support its actions, one wonders how long it can continue to operate outside an international judicial framework?
The problem is that a concept of universal justice is still a somewhat alien idea to much of the world. Further, the US fears that political factors weigh heavily on judgements about the legality of international action. The United States has watched with dismay as international opinion has condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine as unlawful, and the questions that circulate about the legality of the United States’ own interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have raised even more concerns.
So there is a fundamental problem of trust. Until such trust is established, the notion of an international justice system, and an international police force to enforce its rulings, will remain something of a pipe dream, and the ICC will continue to be a blunt instrument with limited jurisdiction in the face of deadly massacres.
As such, it will be left to the self-elected world police, the United States, to act as part of coalitions or – as might increasingly become the case – alone, when it is politically expedient to do so (normally defined as being in its ‘national interests’, whatever that might be). But increasingly, the financial, political and humanitarian costs are making such interventions difficult. As in the case of Syria, to do nothing is wrong, but to act rashly can make things worse.
Increasingly, the ‘do nothing’ approach is likely to prevail as the US President discovers – much as the UK Prime Minister did – that the interest of US citizens to support intervention in other countries that have no tangible benefit to themselves is rather lacking. Leaders might speak of matters such as international standing, deterrence against weapons of mass destruction, red lines and the like. They might dare even mention humanitarian responsibilities. But amongst a war-weary public that has difficulty understanding such intangible concepts and, besides, wonders why the heck it is America’s responsibility to get involved in fixing problems in other countries, these sorts of points fall on deaf ears.
This is one case where the United States is caught between a rock and a hard place. The US Congress, which will vote next week to decide whether to authorise military action, is probably feeling just this way.