Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Syria: The Naive, Idealistic Approach of a Spectator

Guest blog by Diana Oncioiu

In 2007 the International Criminal Justice accused Serbia of violating the UN Genocide Convention; according to ICJ, Serbia had the legal duty to prevent the genocide in Srebrenica, and it failed in doing so. Several years earlier, the obligation to intervene was raised in the Kosovo conflict. NATO, due to Russia's opposition did not have authorization of the UN Security Council to bomb Serb positions in Kosovo. There were discussions regarding the legality of an armed intervention without such a mandate. But since what was happening in Kosovo was described as genocide, there was no longer a question of legality; the intervention was legitimate and needed.

This is not a debate about how we define genocide, and how the definition is politicized and misused. It is rather about the principles and duties that the International Community assumed after the Second World War and the Holocaust. I base it on the "Never again" argument: UN Member States have agreed through international treaties to prevent genocide and punish those responsible for it.

In most of the books about genocide, at the end there is a chapter about prevention and reaction to genocide. And very often these chapters focus on how difficult it is to achieve such goals. At the same time, when reading about a specific case of genocide, there is also a discussion about how the international community failed in its obligation to prevent genocide. Sometimes prevention and reconciliation seem to be utopian goals. I do not know of a single case where genocide was prevented. In most situations the intervention occurred after killings began. What intervention did was to prevent more killings. But since genocide is seen as a process, we might say it was stopped in an early or more advanced phase.

Syria is far from constituting a case of successful genocide prevention. Rather, it is an instance where the international community needs to stop the regime from torturing and killing more civilians. Syria should not be be another example of a perpetrator regime keeping power after committing extreme forms of violence. We should not debate about definitions while more innocent people are killed. Syria is a place where those in power are killing members of their own national group (to use the terms of the UN Genocide convention). "The other" is not defined based on ethnic or racial concepts, though there is a significant ethnic dimension to politics in Syria; but rather in terms of loyalty, treason, and sabotage. The victims are protesters: people who contested the regime and its legitimacy, or simply supporters of the protesters. The Syrian authorities are "cleansing" their country of those who disobeyed, who dared to speak freely about the regime and its leaders, and who through their actions are undermining the regime as such.

What is to be done? The Guardian recently published an article in which commentators discussed "ways in which the outside world could respond to Syria's crisis." These included humanitarian, legal, political, or military responses. The political and legal approaches represent the card the International Community is presently willing to play. It is hard to believe the former would work, since the only way ICC can prosecute Bashar is if UN Security Council refers the Syrian regime to the ICC. That is because Syria did not ratify the Rome treaty, and the ICC has no jurisdiction there. Therefore, the fear of being brought in front of a tribunal for crimes committed is unlikely to work. What most of the commentators in the Guardian discussion promoted is "mediated talks between Damascus and the opposition." I do not want to reject any potential plan out of hand, but how will negotiations help in a case where a policy of genocide has already been initiated? Will negotiations stop the killings or make Bashar give up power? How, since Bashar manifestly feels he can win, that he has more power than those protesting against him? Bashar is not intimidated by the opposition; he feels he can squash them. So negotiations will not stop the killings. Meanwhile, the people in the streets of major cities want Bashar out.

There is one possibility that is rarely taken into account, and that is a military response. Like Rwanda in 1994, Syria is the example of a country bearing the consequences of other failures of the international community. The failure of other missions makes states reluctant to get involved in conflict situations, transforming them in spectators. Military responses can take different forms, from traditional peacekeeping operations to coercive armed interventions with the goal of protecting civilians. Traditionally, armed interventions are not so much about stopping genocide, but rather about defeating and expelling the perpetrator regime (as the Vietnamese military toppled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, or India intervened against Pakistan to aid Bangladesh). Recent attempts to implement a peacekeeping solution include Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Darfur. Military occupation and administration is the least common alternative; it was implemented in Bosnia and Kosovo. I am aware that each of these military responses has its shortcomings. But what do you do when nothing else seems to work? As simplistic as this approach might sound, we either postpone the inevitable with the risk of having more and more people killed, or we actually do something now.

There will be many who will argue that things are not so straightforward, that various factors need to be taken into account, that interests and bureaucracies stand in the way. But nothing is simple, and there will always be hidden agendas. The bottom line is that we made a commitment -- "never again" -- and it seems like we keep failing. Analysis and pragmatic excuses are no substitute for stopping the killings.

[Diana Oncioiu received her MA in Comparative Politics from the University of Bucharest and an MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Her thesis, The Dangerous Side of Nationalism: The Relation between Ideologies of Ethnic Nationalism and Genocidal Policies in Serbia and Romania, was published by Lambert Academic Publishing in September 2011.]

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Please be constructive in your comments. - AJ