By Torgeir E. Fjærtoft
After the air campaign in Libya to protect civilians against the murderous intent of Ghadafi, what about protecting Syrians against Assad?
This question involves the difficult trade-off between two competing principles: national sovereignty versus individual human rights. When the special envoy, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, now is charged with the daunting task of restraining the violence in Syria, he brings with him the discussion he initiated as UN Secretary General in the 1990’s on humanitarian intervention. He then urged that when a state fails to protect the human rights of its citizens, the regime forfeits its right to sovereignty and the international community must intervene.
This discussion is as old as the United Nations. An important principle at its founding after World War II was decolonization, or anti-imperialism, in other words the right to self-determination and respect for national sovereignty. This principle is even visibly embodied in the lay-out of the UN building in New York when you ascend the escalator and face the three chambers symbolizing the ideas upon which the UN was conceived: The Security Council, the Economic and Social Council – and the Trusteeship Chamber, envisaged dealing with decolonization.
This principle of national sovereignty, with the ensuing principle of non-interference, suited old and new dictatorships. But at the same time a campaign was launched by activists in the democratic member states for a competing principle, individual human rights, leading to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The end of the Cold War created a freedom of manoeuvre in which the competition between these to principles surfaced in the 1990’s. The impotence to prevent genocide in Rwanda spurred the discussion of international humanitarian responsibility, leading to military interventions in Yugoslavia and Somalia. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, by calling for humanitarian intervention, then called into question the very concept of national sovereignty upon which the UN was built. But he went even further. When the Security Council was deadlocked by superpower veto, he called upon regional organizations, such as NATO, to assume the responsibility to protect.
The principle of humanitarian intervention was discredited by the 2003 invasion of Iraq when the British Prime Minister Tony Blair explicitly and the US President George Bush implicitly invoked it. The invasion was widely seen as illegitimate and the consequences as disaster. (The invasion of Afghanistan is a more complicated case and beyond the scope of this input.)
Then the 2011 aerial campaign in Libya, an archetypal humanitarian intervention in the spirit of Kofi Anan, was seen as successful (even if the long-term effects remain uncertain), revindicating the principle set forth in the 1990’s.
But as mediator in the case of Syria Kofi Anan does not yet call for humanitarian military intervention. In addition to the obvious political risks and inevitable collateral damage of bombing like in Libya, there are other considerations. The principle of humanitarian intervention works most effectively when kept as an option of ultimate recourse, a threat if the ruler fails to show restraint in violence. Also, short of war, the international community, for practical purposes the West, has other effective tools of pressure, as Kofi Annan himself pointed out while UN Secretary General. Sanctions have a bad record of effectiveness, but targeting individual power-holders with freezing their funds abroad and restricting their right to travel has proven effective and should be applied at a much earlier stage. After all, by accepting assets and allowing travel governments can become accessories to abuse considered criminal in the countries where the Ghadaffies and Assads keep their money and go to relax or – ultimately – escape.