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.