Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: RIP R2P, International Humanitarian Law

 

Original article:

Warplanes level a hospital in the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria, killing one of the city’s last pediatricians. A Saudi-led military coalition bombs a hospital in Yemen. In Afghanistan, American aircraft pummel a hospital mistaken for a Taliban redoubt.

The rules of war, enshrined for decades, require hospitals to be treated as sanctuaries from war — and for health workers to be left alone to do their jobs.

But on today’s battlefields, attacks on hospitals and ambulances, surgeons, nurses and midwives have become common, punctuating what aid workers and United Nations officials describe as a new low in the savagery of war.

On Tuesday [5/3], the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to remind warring parties everywhere of the rules, demanding protection for those who provide health care and accountability for violators. The measure urged member states to conduct independent investigations and prosecute those found responsible for violations “in accordance with domestic and international law.”

But the resolution also raised an awkward question: Can the world’s most powerful countries be expected to enforce the rules when they and their allies are accused of flouting them?

The failure to uphold decades-old international humanitarian law stems from the failure to uphold a more recently established principle–the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)–which states:

Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people.

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

To be fair, the rise of non-state actors (terrorists) in conflict has made it harder to uphold humanitarian law–these parties do not play by the rules. But typically poor governance is a cause of terrorism, not a result of it. Regardless, the R2P is focused on the role of the state; if the R2P should be invoked when a state fails to protect its population from war crimes, how then can it not be invoked when the state is the primary perpetrator of such crimes?

Failure to uphold the R2P has enabled the current hurting stalemate in Syria, so rife with violations of international humanitarian law that we no longer bat an eye when a story comes across our news feed. You may be asking what exactly is International Humanitarian Law? What is human rights law? There is a lot of overlap, so a quick crash course:

International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.

It is important to differentiate between international humanitarian law and human rights law. While some of their rules are similar, these two bodies of law have developed separately and are contained in different treaties. In particular, human rights law – unlike international humanitarian law – applies in peacetime, and many of its provisions may be suspended during an armed conflict.

International humanitarian law protects those who do not take part in the fighting, such as civilians and medical and religious military personnel.

Essentially, international humanitarian law exists to protect certain human rights of non-aggressors in conflict zones. Human rights are broader (economic / social, political / civil, cultural), and are also applicable during times of peace. Upholding human rights obligations is the key to preventing conflict (positive peace), upholding humanitarian law is meant to protect people’s rights when prevention fails.

It is not my contention that, absent the R2P, we would not see such blatant violations of international humanitarian law. The R2P was crafted in response to the realities of modern warfare, which is dominated by protracted social conflicts (as opposed to the interstate wars of old). The R2P is a positive, an innovation in international governance, but it has proven itself toothless. When the international community fails to adequately respond to the greatest violations of the R2P (when states themselves are the perpetrators of war crimes and violate international humanitarian law), it enables new conflicts to emerge and existing ones to fester by signaling that at the end of the day, when there are no other options but the use force, state sovereignty still trumps human rights. The R2P was just the naming of the beast–you still have to slay it.    

Early detection of human rights violations through the U.N.’s Human Rights Upfront (HRuF) initiative and a greater focus on preventative peacebuiding are important advancements in international governance.  But when a ruler is willing to plunge his country into civil war to hang onto his rule, the R2P must be there to counter him. The R2P should be the mechanism through which we alter the war calculus of such tyrants. Without this deterrent, the effectiveness of HRuF and preventative peacebuilding initiatives are severely curtailed.

The playbook for tyrannical rulers to resist democratic movements has been laid out by Assad–plunge your country into civil war, wait for terrorists to fill the power void of your failed state, and position yourself as the only actor who can fight the terrorists. 

Then, when the international community calls for a political transition to end the fighting, the very parties that went to war to resist the will of the people (In this case Russia, Iran, and Assad himself)–parties with zero democratic credentials themselves–have the gall to invoke the idea of self-determination / respecting the will of the people.

This perversion of the concept of self-determination is particularly infuriating, given the incredible damage caused by an initial unwillingness to even engage the peoples democratic aspirations with dialogue instead of violence. Even if such calls did represent a legitimate pivot towards democratic values (which they most certainly do not), of course no meaningful election could ever take place in a war-zone. 

Combined with current external realities–budget strained and war weary democracies are (for various reasons) not as committed in the fight for democracy as authoritarian regimes are against it–a tyrant will more often than not be able stay in power, at a huge cost to the people, the country, and the region.

This message–that the purported global champions of democracy and human rights cannot be counted on to support you (while the governments you oppose, which have the military advantage to begin with, will get significant external help)–is the only thing that can stem the tide of global democratizationThis cannot be the message (that through our actions) the U.S and E.U. sends to people with democratic aspirations. Democratization is the only path towards modernization and sustainable development–it is truly “the worst form of government, except for all the others” as Winston Churchill famously stated.

Which is why I call for more military spending by wealthier democracies (and more evenly distributed, America should cut back) and U.N.Security Council reform. Acting preventatively is always the best option, when it is still an option. But when prevention fails, we cannot simply throw our hands up an say “oh well, prevention is not an option, guess there is nothing we can do.” In the face of slaughter, words ring hollow and inaction carries a cost as well.


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Conflict Watch: The Syrian Civil War is Deadlier Than Ever

2014 was the deadliest year of the Syrian Civil War–more than 76,000 people died in 2014, including 17,790 civilians (among them 3,501 children) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The injection of ISIL into the hurting stalemate between Assad and Syrian Rebels has further marginalized any peaceful, pluralistic forces that still exist in Syria.

Paradoxically, it seems that the Syrian Civil war has receded from international headlines. Surely the rise of ISIL has diverted both public attention and resources from removing Assad. The absence of a viable alternative to govern Syria has probably also muted calls to remove Assad. It is worth noting that both these phenomenon–the marginalization of the moderate Syrian opposition and the rise of ISIL–are partially the result of Western inaction in Syria.

By itself, lack of media attention is not such a big deal; highlighting the atrocities of war is a means to an end (pressuring parties to conflict and the international community to defend human rights / uphold humanitarian law), not an end itself. But when lack of media attention coincides with inaction by the international community, there is cause for concern:

Western states are focusing too much on tackling Islamic State and are forgetting the daily suffering of ordinary Syrians in areas of the country where the medical situation has become catastrophic, a group of Syrian doctors said.

The situation has been exacerbated since a U.S-led coalition began bombing areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State, which seized swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq last year.

“Between 30 to 60 people are dying each day since the bombings started,” said Tawfik Shamaa, spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a non-governmental association that brings together 14 groups.

“There is only talk of extremism and Islamic State, but not the women and children who are killed, the bodies torn apart, the stomachs blown open, which is what doctors are dealing with each day.”

“There are only 30 doctors of all specialities,” he said adding that people were dying of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, scabies and tuberculosis because there were no treatments or vaccines available.

Talks of “humanitarian corridors“, which less than a year ago received unanimous support from most of the UNSC, have foundered. The introduction of a wildcard “spoiler” group like ISIL have made humanitarian corridors (which we’re difficult enough to negotiate between Assad and rebel forces) logistically impossible in areas under their control.

Support for Syrian refugees has been lacking, as Syria’s neighbors lack the resources and in some cases the desire to handle such a large influx of people.

“The economic, social and human cost of caring for refugees and the internally displaced is being borne mostly by poor communities, those who are least able to afford it.”

Mr. Guterres explained that enhanced international solidarity is a must to avoid the risk of more and more vulnerable people being left without proper support.

Among the report’s main findings are that Syrians, for the first time, have become the largest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans, who had held that position for more than three decades.

As of June 2014, the three million Syrian refugees now account for 23 per cent of all refugees being helped by UNHCR worldwide.

Assad tortures his opponents, he has used chemical weapons, and drops barrel bombs which kill indiscriminately. Diseases which are easily curable or had largely disappeared (polio) claim lives on a daily basis. Compared to ISIL Assad may be the lesser of two evils, but both parties are evils that must be dealt with.

To this end, the U.S. and Turkey are finalizing plans to train moderate Syrian rebels, a condition of Turkey’s in exchange for using its bases to carry out airstrikes against ISIL:

Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels this month, a senior foreign ministry official said on Monday, part of the U.S.-led campaign to battle Islamic State militants.

The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish official said. The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.

Turkey has by no means been a perfect partner in the fights against Assad and ISIL. Turkey has dragged its feet in the battle against ISIL, fearful that it will empower rival Kurdish factions in the region. But in this case Turkey is right–the rise of ISIL must not detract from the goal of removing Assad from power.

As a regional power and member of NATO, I would like to see Turkey lend use of its air bases, help in training efforts, and contribute ground troops in the fights against Assad and ISIL–I will not hold my breath.

A recent United Nations report found that Syria has lost more than three decades in human development in just three-year old civil war:

The report released by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) shows that almost 45 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, compared to 12 per cent prior to the war.

The unemployment rate has also drastically increased, from eight to almost 50 per cent.

Abdalla Dardari, a senior economist at ESCWA, says that before the war, Syria was one of the few Arab countries which had surpassed all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, he says Syria is only more advanced in reaching the goals than Somalia.

The report predicts that if the crisis continues until 2015, 90 per cent of Syrians will be considered as poor.

Unfortunately, the ravages of war will not end when the fighting eventually stops. Many Syrian children are dealing with psychological trauma and a lack of schooling which will greatly inhibit their future earning potential. Others are being indoctrinated by ISIL, learning to hate “the West” instead of learning the skills needed to compete in a modern, globalized world.

The road to rebuilding Syria into a modern society will be a long, expensive one. It requires an immediate influx of resources from the international community to support refugees and their host countries, deliver aid to internally displaced peoples (whenever possible), and build the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition.

The groundwork for slipping back into conflict will exist as soon as the civil war ends. It will require unprecedented political will, a dedication to pluralism and accountable governance, and support from the international community to rebuild a modern, peaceful Syria.

But in order for a future Syrian government to even have a chance to attempt this difficult feat, both Assad and ISIL must be defeated.