Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Who takes responsibility for Syria?

  • Print
FILE - This image provided by by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show several bodies being buried in a suburb of Damascus, Syria during a funeral on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. The early-morning barrage against rebel-held areas around the the Syrian capital Damascus immediately seemed different: The rockets made a strange, whistling noise. Seconds after one hit near his home, Qusai Zakarya says he couldn't breathe, and he desperately punched himself in the chest to get air. Hundreds of suffocating, twitching victims flooded into hospitals. Others were later found dead in their homes, towels still on their faces from their last moments trying to protect themselves from gas. Doctors and survivors recount scenes of horror from the alleged chemical attack a week ago.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

FILE - This image provided by by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show several bodies being buried in a suburb of Damascus, Syria during a funeral on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. The early-morning barrage against rebel-held areas around the the Syrian capital Damascus immediately seemed different: The rockets made a strange, whistling noise. Seconds after one hit near his home, Qusai Zakarya says he couldn't breathe, and he desperately punched himself in the chest to get air. Hundreds of suffocating, twitching victims flooded into hospitals. Others were later found dead in their homes, towels still on their faces from their last moments trying to protect themselves from gas. Doctors and survivors recount scenes of horror from the alleged chemical attack a week ago.

WHITEHORSE — Syrian Reconciliation Minister AliHaidar has every reason to be pleased with the disarmament deal his country reached in Geneva last week. As he put it, the deal "helps avoid (a) war against Syria (by) depriving those who wanted to launch it of arguments to do so."

He’s right. Chemical weapons spurred talk of intervening in Syria because many countries considered the unanswered use of such weapons as a threat to national security. Neutralizing that threat removed the urgency of intervention, which, for much of the world, was a relief.

For Syrians, it was a letdown. The deal will do little to end the war and save Syrian lives; it will only restrict the means by which they are lost.

The world has never quite figured out how to deal with civil wars like Syria’s because death and destruction within one country ultimately do not affect the national interests of another. Syria is like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The main interests at stake in a civil war are those of endangered civilians.

World leaders may work towards diplomatic solutions or condemn the violence, but until they feel that their nation’s interests are threatened, for instance by chemical weapons, the moral goal of saving lives will rarely drive countries to act. After all, protecting civilians is the responsibility of the state to which they belong.

But who is responsible for protecting citizens when it is their own state from which they need protection?

The unfortunate answer is, no one.

The responsibility to intervene in such cases should presumably fall to the United Nations, but that organization is paralyzed by its own structure. The Security Council is responsible for interventions, yet its five permanent members all have differing interests and can each use veto power to pursue them. Russia has been particularly obstinate on Syria given its alliance to the Syrian government. Because it has operated within the legal framework of the UN, however, its actions are technically legitimate.

Still, Franklin Roosevelt never envisioned legal legitimacy to trump morality in UN decision-making. He pictured the UN as the world’s moral defender of human rights, not just as a forum for debate or a court of international law. His vision is inscribed in the UN Charter, which requires its members to "[solve] international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and [to promote] and [encourage] respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all."

By the act of signing the Charter, each member has, in theory, committed to these principles, but the organization has no mechanism by which to compel its members to uphold them in practice. Even Russia and China, ranking members of the Security Council, do not uphold human rights within their own countries; it should come as no surprise that they feel little drive to uphold them elsewhere.

There should be consequences for members who ignore or contravene the UN’s principles, but the reality of the organization’s makeup precludes this option: the UN cannot enforce its principles nor make moral decisions because it cannot claim one moral code to be the "right" one without discrediting all the others.

This inability to unite its members around shared ideals has hampered the UN’s effectiveness since the beginning and continues to hamper it on Syria. Even the UN’s founding members were bound together more by the common enemies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan than common principles; it did not take long for their cooperation to unravel in the Cold War.

The 193 members in the UN today represent an even greater diversity of cultures and creeds that do not necessarily share Roosevelt’s decidedly Western understanding of human rights, much less his belief that the UN has a moral responsibility to defend them. The UN thus relies on legal rationale and dodges moral crises like Syria because it is simply too hard to find a moral code upon which the entire world can agree.

There is no easy solution to Syria, nor would intervention guarantee peace.

But there is a disconnect between the world’s muted disapproval of the act of killing civilians and its loud outrage over the manner in which it is done. Somehow in this web of international conventions and competing interests, the moral truth has been lost that a child dying by mortar is no less tragic than one dying by sarin.

U.S. President Barack Obama asked recently what message should be sent to a dictator who gasses children and pays no price. I wonder what message has been sent to the many dictators who have killed their people and paid no price because they used guns.

 

Troy Media columnist Yule Schmidt holds a B.A. in History from Stanford University and an M.A. in History from McGill University.

 

—troymedia.com

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Peguis Chief Hudson comments on toddler's death upgrade to homicide investigation

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • A goose flys defensively to protect their young Wednesday near Kenaston Blvd and Waverley -See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 16 - May 23, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you like Gord Steeves’ idea to sell four city-owned golf courses to fund road renewal?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google