Justice for Syrians?

syria

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

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Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

Battle for Abidjan

Centre ville d'Abidjan

I don’t want to draw the parallel too much, but as I wrote for UN Dispatch yesterday, I think there might be a useful historical comparison between the current events in Cote d’Ivoire and the siege of Monrovia, which precipitated the end of the second civil war in Liberia in 2003.

Of course, things were quite different in Liberia. Following more than decade of unrest, the country was in shambles, and there was little restraint among warring factions. I’m not on the ground to confirm, but other than the horrifying massacre at Duekoue, I have not heard many reports of widespread, indiscriminate, full-blown violence. For all the differences between the two conflicts, Laurent Gbagbo’s desperate hold on power is profoundly reminiscent of Charles Taylor’s in Liberia. Like Taylor, Gbagbo has his most loyal men controlling key areas, while he continues to sit in the presidential palace. Monrovia’s unique geography played into the hands of advancing rebel forces, who were able to isolate Taylor in the center of Monrovia by taking over bridges leading into the city. In Abidjan, the layout is different, but, similarly to Monrovia, there are islands and bridges, which are strategically important in urban warfare – whoever gains control of access routes has the advantage.  The airport, which is currently controlled by UN and French forces, is on an island. The presidential palace sits on a peninsula.

I don’t know how long this siege will last. Gbagbo will not step down, and will not leave easily. The best case scenario is that he’s currently negotiating exile conditions in a third country and will get airlifted with his family. Worst case scenario is that the presidential palace where he sits is stormed by rebels and he is killed. At this stage, I’d say both of these possibilities are equally as realistic.

It’s our responsibility to bear witness to what is happening in Cote d’Ivoire now. Unspeakable crimes have already been committed by both sides of the conflict, and will continue to happen. Media and public attention are not silver bullets, but along with the real threat of prosecution, may help attenuate the levels of violence. At least, that is my hope.

Photo credit:
Côte d’Ivoire – Reuters
Liberia – Corbis/Jehad Nga

Do good, do nothing?

In a recent article in The New Republic entitled “We Can’t Just Do Nothing“, Richard Just criticizes Mahmood Mamdani’s attacks on what he calls “human rights fundamentalists” in his book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.” Just writes:

For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

In his piece, Just contrasts Mamdani’s perspective with contending views, as  expressed by Gareth Evans in his recent book, “The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.” Essentially, it comes down to whether preventing, reacting and punishing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in a given country are not just the responsibility of that nation and its citizens, but also a common, shared responsibility for all.

This debate is not – by any means – new. Since the end of colonial times, thinkers, practitioners, politicians have brandished the moral and ethical argument on both sides of the debate. It is one of the most potent battle of ideas: is it more or less moral to intervene (broadly speaking)  in another sovereign country’s affairs? Some argue that national sovereignty is essentially sacred, and when it is breached, we are not only weakening the entire international system, but also creating space for misguided, neo-imperalist  interventions and intrusions. Others (like Just and Evans) believe that we have a shared, common responsibility to intervene, especially when sovereign regimes are committing crimes against their own population.

It have yet to fully figure out my own beliefs when it comes to this debate, because in some sense, I can see how “interventionists” can be labeled neoimperialists (although I think that term is contentious – at best). There is a part of me that understands how people like Mamdani construe “Western” (or other) intervention in the affairs of another country as neoimperialist, and the parallels drawn between the justifications for the war in Iraq and those for an intervention in Sudan are thought provoking.  Amanda, over at the excellent blog Wronging Rights, asks the tough questions about when or how foreign intervention is appropriate. Alex de Waal, a pre-eminent specialist on Sudan, recently wrote:

[I]f there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.

Ouch.

Idiots?
Idiots?

While I agree that “misguided, though still well-intentioned” activism (celebrity or otherwise) is not the solution to ensuring a peaceful future for Sudan and its people, I worry that this type of argument is being used to justify inaction. And, in my mind, inaction – not just when it comes to Sudan, but also for a whole host of issues – is not acceptable.

We still live in a world where national sovereignty is elevated above individual rights – and in a very real way, this contributes to the peace and stability of the international system, as the violation of a country’s borders and sovereign prerogatives are still considered the ultimate act of aggression. But I get really frustrated when this line of argument is used to justify South Africa’s inability to take a real stand on Zimbabwe, or the support of clearly corrupt, ineffective and frankly plain crappy governments in places like Chad or Gabon.

When attempts at finding solutions or courses of action for the “international community” (you beautiful, ethereal term that signifies everything from advocacy NGOs to national armies) are devised, they are often fraught with political conflict (eg. the Security Council’s paralysis and ineffectiveness at being the guarantors of peace and security – ha!). As a result, we see many international “interventions” (again, in the broad sense of the term) that are underfunded and half-assed. Of course, the best (and worst) example of this is the disaster of the international response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The end of apartheid in South Africa was the result of massive, long term, committed efforts from South African political activists. While Nelson Mandela and others fought for decades to bring justice to their country, at some point, the “international community” did step in, in the form of divestments and boycotts. And while these were not necessarily watershed moments or key turning points, these efforts did in part contribute to bringing down the regime in South Africa (a white regime oppressing a black majority – uncomfortable for a lot of Western nations).

While human rights activists’ efforts are not always effective, I don’t think we (or the causes they represent) would be better off without them. Pressuring governments, international bodies, corporations and other “heavy weight” stakeholders to deal with matters of crimes against humanity and serious, chronic human rights violations is a good thing – what’s the alternative? If easy answers or solutions were available to dealing with violence and injustice in places like Sudan, the DRC or Burma, surely someone would have thought of them by now. Critics of “human rights fundamentalists” and who see the “responsibility to protect” as a neo-imperalist concept also come from the same well-intentioned place as those they decry – I find it interesting that some of the harshest critics of “intervention” are people who have spent their lives working in the aid or development, or as diplomats posted in foreign, war-torn nations. At the very least, they share an ethic of responsibility with those they criticize.

This ‘n’ that

Amazing conversation/fight between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs going on right now over at Huffington Post – the “Cliffs Notes” of it are available here. I’m pretty amused by all of this – it seems so very modern for two of the world’s most renowned development economists to duke it out via their blogs and columns. And Easterly just joined Twitter: 

penelopeinparis@bill_easterly vs. J. Sachs: http://ow.ly/aInw.amusing – although I wonder if this is sorta lowering the standards of educated debate.
bill_easterly@penelopeinparis @saundras_s u mean that educated debate that includes Bono&Angelina?
penelopeinparis@bill_easterly – touche. Still, 2 bad muck raking takes over the constructive discussion,& thats what ppl will focus on,instd of real issues

I’m so very entertained by modern media and information exchange. 

In other news, I just finished reading Tears of the Desert, the memoirs of Dr. Halima Bashir, a woman doctor in Darfur. In spite of the fact that I spent most of the second half of the book swallowing my tears, I really enjoyed her story. The horror… Goodness. We have all seen, read or heard accounts of rape as a weapon of war (in Liberia, in the DRC, in Sudan….), but the personal nature of her account made it even harder to bear. It almost makes me in favor of celebrity advocacy – how could you not want to be outspoken if you knew you could draw media (and potentially, political) attention? 

Point of View – Rony Brauman

My new life has so far not afforded me quality time for thinking/blogging – I need to refocus my energy! I’ve been reading a lot though, and feel constantly inspired to share thoughts with all (2 or 3) of you – after blogging about the ICC and Bashir’s indictment last week, I read this great piece written by Rony Brauman, who was the head of Doctors Without Borders (as you might know, one of my all time favorite NGOs).

He also happens to be a former professor of mine, whose analysis and vision of the world had a profound impact on me. He is one of those disheveled guys that you would probably not think much of at first glance – but he is an amazing thinker (dare I say philosopher??), and is held in the highest regard by field practicioners who have worked with him.

This piece definitely characterizes his controversial take on most issues – his views are almost always counter-intuitive, but he is extremely convincing. His views on genocide are absolutely worth reading about – if this piece piques your interest, I strongly encourage you to look further into his work (drop me an email if you’d like some recommendations)

Apart from the judicial inflation to which it gives rise, the major problem with this perception of armed conflicts as “genocides” (the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and undoubtedly more to come) is that it removes them from history and politics, in order to subject them instead to a purely moral judgment. To qualify a war as genocidal is to leave the terrain of politics, of its relations of force, of its compromises and contingencies, in order to situate oneself in some metaphysical beyond in which the only conflict is between Good and Evil: fanatics versus moderates, blood-thirsty hordes versus innocent civilians….

Read the full piece here.

Meanwhile, African Union soldiers are wearing blue plastic bags on their helmets to indicate they now operate under the UN… Boy, do we care about the situation in Darfur or what?? Very unsatisfactory state of affairs – as much as I am a huge supporter of strengthening international law, I am even more a believer in putting your $$ where your mouth is… Which, quite unfortunately, most countries, most leaders fail to do, time and time again.