A world of humanitarian indifference


Reading the bulletins of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, it seems that about the only thing the institution has not done until now among its parallel activities is organize a cooking contest between the wives of the alternative judges. Meanwhile the Lebanese still await a trial. The wheels of justice may be slow, but in the STL’s case they are positively glacial. One strains to see any movement at all.

And yet in the last decade there have been several instances where it seemed international justice was about to make significant headway, and that human rights would benefit as a consequence.

The STL was one example cited by the optimists, as was the International Criminal Court’s indictment in 2008 of the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. In May 2012, the former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced by the ICC to a 50-year prison term for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law during the conflict in Sierra Leone.

However today, with the war in Syria setting new benchmarks in terms of barbarity, the belief that international justice will punish the guilty seems fanciful. The other day the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, even praised the Syrian regime for moving to implement the agreement for the destruction of its chemical weapons. In other words Kerry applauded a man who used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians because he was fulfilling an agreement that allowed him to escape retribution for engaging in mass murder.

Perhaps someone at the ICC is preparing an indictment of Assad and other regime figures, but there are no obvious signs of this. One problem is that Syria is not a signatory to the ICC convention. The Rome Statute establishing the court allows the Security Council, under Chapter VII, to refer cases to the ICC. But as Russia has veto power, the likelihood of this happening is extremely low.

The slowness of the legal reaction to the Syrian conflict is also tied in to politics. For as long as the major powers view a negotiated solution as the only way to end the killing, judges will have to tread carefully, so that an indictment does not undermine political outcomes. Assad will not voluntarily leave office only to land in a trial chamber.

Aside from legal and political realities, which are most essential to advancing international humanitarian norms, there is another factor that cannot be underestimated: attitudes in liberal Western societies in favor of such an objective. Why the liberal West? Because the principles held up by international humanitarian law, which governs armed conflict, have emerged from a Western historical and cultural tradition going back to the Enlightenment.

That’s not to say that non-Westerners are incapable of embracing such values nor that Westerners have not violated them. But when societies that uphold such values, and have given them life, become indifferent to their realization in the world, this represents a severe blow to international humanitarian law.

Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons was a case in point. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in early September, as President Barack Obama was considering airstrikes against Syria, 60 percent of respondents said they opposed such action. This forceful rejection came even though 75 percent of respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Instead, the focus among Americans was on domestic tribulations. As Jeanette Baskin, a social worker on Staten Island, told the New York Times: “What our government needs to do is work on keeping our country safe. We invest all this money in foreign countries and fixing their problems, and this country is falling apart. Makes no sense.”

Attitudes in Western Europe were little different, and helped undermine efforts by British Prime Minister David Cameron to deploy his forces alongside those of the United States.

In France, where President Francois Hollande didn’t face the same institutional barriers as did Obama and Cameron, public opinion was nevertheless stalwartly opposed to military involvement in Syria.

When three out of four Americans admit that a regime used one of the most lethal and vilified weapons on earth, killing hundreds of people, including numerous children, and still refuse to do anything about it, they essentially undercut any solidarity that would help reinforce and further humanitarian principles in the international system.

Americans complain that they are not the world’s policeman. But the global order in the past 60 years or so has rested on a foundation of principles and institutions that the United States has been instrumental in creating and defending. By virtue of its vast power, America cannot be just another state. Moreover, the new self-centeredness ignores that when Americans are the victims, as they were on Sept. 11, 2001, they rightfully expect the rest of the world to sympathize with their predicament and take their side.

Syrians justifiably lament that they are treated as second-class citizens in a world that has rallied for foreign victims in countless other places. The tragedy is that as most Westerners look at Syria, their revulsion with the inhumanity of the conflict makes them react in a paradoxical way: They want to have nothing to do with the savagery there, because what is happening conforms so little to the standards of humanitarian behavior to which they aspire.

But those standards don’t descend from heaven. They only become stronger and more widespread if states make this a priority. And that can only happen when societies back their governments in making it possible. We’re nowhere near that stage today, especially in the West, where all politics appear to have become domestic politics.

Michael Young is opinion editor of [THE DAILY STAR->
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2013/Oct-10/234124-a-world-of-humanitarian-indifference.ashx#ixzz2hkZZNVK2 ]. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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