Syria, Human Rights and International Order
Posted on 1-April-2012
"The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realised. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end, it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realise the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause! Think of the feelings of the author when he counts the dead who died because he uttered a phrase!" American Secretary of State Robert Lansing's entry in his diary in reaction to President Woodrow Wilson's speech about the self determination of peoples
In today's world, whenever there is large scale death or destruction due to natural calamities or industrial accidents, or when large numbers die in famines, people across continents and national frontiers, ordinary people, react almost spontaneously with sympathy. Many willingly do what they can to help the victims. Likewise, the reaction of most ordinary people anywhere to insensate butchery perpetrated by a despot or massacres by parties in a civil war somewhere is one of revulsion. Calls to stop the killing resonate widely. Such reactions, it can be argued, represent moral progress in the sense that compassion towards the victims of natural or man made disasters or of violence arises out of what is the best and the noblest in human nature. Those who suffer due to earthquakes, storms, tsunamis, floods or the negligence or greed of industrial establishments must be helped just as those rulers who trample over the rights of their citizens or of those living in territories under their military occupation or those who kill in sectarian or tribal strife must be condemned. Yet, upholding a set of moral principles without regard to the difficulties involved in implementing them can also be problematic.
While helping the victims of a flood for example or helping in the fight against diseases such as AIDS or Malaria across national boundaries can never, if ever, raise difficulties, interventionist responses to violation of human rights or of violent suppression of a revolt inside national frontiers almost always raise other complex questions. The first question will inevitably be about the legality of such an intervention. Even if it is assumed that in the present international context, a valid UN Security Council resolution approving intervention inside a country to safeguard the human rights of its population will give it legal force, that will leave two other questions unanswered. Has the UN always equally and impartially applied uniform standards in support of intervention or is it capable of doing so? Secondly, if the UN approves of intervention in a country, should the intervention be in the form of a multilateral UN managed force or can it legitimately be in the form of armed forces under the control of a group of national governments? Finally, can the UN ever be used to stop any of the great powers and even some of the middling powers from doing what they want to do? The UN has been a bystander in for example the suppression of protesters at Tien An Men Square, the US intervention in Granada, the alienation of Palestinians from their land and homes in the occupied West Bank and the daily crushing of their dignity, the suppression of the Chechen revolt, the Indian intervention in East Pakistan, the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, the killings in Kampuchea under Pol Pot and his men, the genocidal killings in Rwanda and of course the bloodiest intervention of all after the Second World War, that of the USA in Vietnam--all of them done in the name of some proclaimed high principle. Then there is the problem of deciding between relative badness of two regimes. Moammar El Qaddhafi was removed with the quasi-approval of the UN. Mobutu Sese Seko ruled his country as autocratically as any for a quarter century and went when he lost the support of the USA. Was Qaddhafi worse for Lybia than Mobutu for the Congo?
In the late 1940's many eminent intellectuals, among them people like Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, persuaded of the imminence or inevitability of a nuclear war advocated the establishment of a World Government. Suppose such a move had succeeded and we actually had a World Government. Such a government would first of all suppress all other sovereignties just as in Europe in the late Middle Ages the rise of modern states meant the suppression of the powers of feudal barons. Secondly such a government would be based on a uniform set of laws shaped by the highest standards of freedom and human rights, to be applied equally and impartially to all its citizens. Such a government, founded on liberal and democratic principles, would be governed by a constitution and would work for the welfare of all the people, ensure equitable distribution of the earth's resources, safeguard the environment and above all maintain peace and order. Punishment of human rights violation or of the destruction of the environment would come as naturally to it as punishment of crimes or of unauthorised construction come to national governments now. But a World Government will be problematic in other ways. First of all, since its authority would cover all the globe, citizens under its authority who will find it tyrannical will have no recourse such as migration to another jurisdiction. In the present day world a state which deals unfairly with another is retaliated against and it is this that keeps many states on the righteous path in their dealings with other states. There will be no such checks on a World Government and if it were to turn autocratic or to become the tool of a small clique, mankind will slide into an inferno rather than rise towards a paradise. But also in the present divided world, it is difficult to see how a World Government can win the minimum trust and consent of the majority of its citizens necessary for any government to function. World Government will in all probability remain a distant utopia for a long time. The United Nations is not and was not meant to be a World Government and therefore it should not aim to exercise supra national authority.
The best the United Nations can hope for is to be a federation of participating states which voluntarily cede some of their authority to it, something in the manner of an international federation of states proposed by Immanuel Kant in his essay on Perpetual Peace. There are two principles that underlie the present international order which the United nations is expected to manage: non-interference in the internal affairs of states and the inviolability of frontiers of states. No member state has ceded authority to the United Nations to mediate relations between itself and its citizens and the principle of inviolability of the frontiers of states has been invoked in cases of armed aggression by one state against another and sometimes the UN has with full legitimacy intervened to stop fighting between two member states. The non-interference principle and the principle of inviolability of frontiers have in the last six and a half decades succeeded in preventing anarchy in the international order--that order has held in spite of the nearly fourfold increase in the membership of the United Nations since its establishment. New doctrines are being propounded--such as the right to protect civilian populations from violence initiated by their governments--to justify selective interventions by the international community,--and there is nothing in the behaviour of the major powers to suggest that these interventions will be anything but selective--inside states in defence of the human rights of their populations. Despite the loftiness of the purpose of protecting human rights everywhere, the overthrow of the principle of non interference in the internal affairs of states will almost certainly create more problems than solve.
The doctrine of the right to protect has been invoked by some quarters most recently in the case of Syria where in some parts of the country there has been a partially armed uprising against the government. The insurgents' maximal demand has been that the present President of Syria must relinquish power first and then his successors should negotiate with the insurgents over a new political system in the country--the insurgents themselves are far from agreed on what this new arrangement should consist of. The governments of the USA, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also asked for the Syrian President's more or less immediate departure. The Syrian government has characterised the insurgents as armed terrorists and used its army to suppress the insurgency by force. According to recent reports, around nine thousand people have lost their lives in the thirteen months or so since the insurgency began. This kind of violence offends modern sensibilities and violates norms of civilised behaviour. But the demands for intervention by outside powers raise a number of troubling questions: Does not encouragement of the insurgents and support to them by supply of arms by outsiders amount to interference justifying the suppression of the uprising by force by the Syrian government? Was the uprising spontaneous as in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain or was it manufactured by outsiders interested in regime change in Damascus under the guise of another instance of the Arab spring? Can those powers which along with the insurgents are asking for the removal of the Syrian president be viewed as neutral between the Syrian government and the insurgents? Are they really disinterested, their motive nothing more than protection of human rights? Unacceptable as the violence in Syria is, it is minor compared to what happened in Kampuchea, East Pakistan, Rwanda and Vietnam which the international community did nothing to stop. It will be useful to look at the Syrian situation in this perspective. The best course for those who are genuinely interested in helping Syria end the violence is for them to persuade the insurgents and the government to cease the killing and then to work towards a political dispensation under which it would be possible for the Syrian people to peacefully change their government if the majority of them want it.
The basic UN document enshrining the principles of universal human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Its strength lies not in that it is meant to be enforced by the international community but that it is meant as a moral compass. Judging by the number of member states that have signed the declaration, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of today's states accept the principles contained in that Declaration even when they do not practice them. The acceptance of the principles by governments is bound to create a movement by citizens for holding their governments' feet to the fire whenever they violate their rights. This is the only sure and unproblematic way in which the moral force of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will advance. Moral principles always take time in gaining universal acceptance. Interventionists speaking of the right to protect will end up creating unintended negative consequences by destroying one of the basic principles undergirding the present international order. They might do well to remember Robert Lansing's disquiet about another high principle enunciated by an idealistic American president: the self-determination of peoples.