A year and a half after the killings began, a question hangs in the air: Why haven’t we sent our soldiers to save the people of Syria from mass murder by their government?
Twenty-five years ago, that question would have been almost nonsensical. Until the end of the Cold War, the idea of sending the world’s soldiers to stop a country’s internal atrocity would almost never have been considered. Armies were used strictly for purposes of strategic interest.
And then, as a new world order emerged, we experienced a series of just such interventions, most very controversial, some successful, many facing serious opposition from some countries, and most involving Canada.
When Serbian militias were slaughtering Muslims in Bosnia, we sent troops in an attempt to prevent a larger massacre. When Slobodan Milosevic was threatening mass killings in Kosovo, we launched an attack against his forces and his capital to prevent it. When Sierra Leone was descending into butchery, we flew our soldiers in to bring stability. And when Moammar Gadhafi was poised to shoot his country’s people, we sent military planes to hold him back. Over that 16-year period, it seemed we were making progress.
The 1999 Kosovo intervention had been fiercely opposed by Russia, and was technically “illegal,” but, by 2011, there were no votes in the United Nations Security Council against the Libya action.
The seemingly absolute values of human rights and national sovereignty, whose contradicting agendas allowed atrocities to go unstopped in such places as Cambodia and Rwanda, no longer seemed so incompatible. A consensus seemed to emerge: Maybe national sovereignty is not so much a right as a responsibility, one that carried obligations.
Starting in 2001, a Canadian-led team began formulating a way around that problem. In 2005, their new set of principles, known as the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, became part of UN policy. R2P meant that, if a country’s government started killing its people, then the world’s armies were required to consider doing something about it, and the Security Council was allowed to authorize force to stop the killing.
After the debacle of the Iraq war, R2P seemed highly unlikely to succeed. It was a policy championed by Paul Martin, and co-authored by Michael Ignatieff, so it was with some surprise that its first major use came last year, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s strong backing, when Canada and other NATO nations went to war in Libya. Suddenly, it seemed this idealistic policy just might work.
And then it all fell apart. The Syrian slaughter, which is more deadly and more complicated than the Libyan uprising, has gone unstopped (except by NATO member Turkey, which is playing an active role in backing the rebels). It took more than a year just to get the Security Council members to condemn the violence.
It’s easy to say that this is because Russia is an ally of Syria or that Iran’s backing of Bashar al-Assad makes the conflict potentially explosive. But the fact is, the problem goes much deeper, and it’s not the same old Cold War problem.
At its root is our use of the word “we.” The countries proposing intervention, usually on noble human-rights grounds, are mostly former colonizers. The world’s new economic and military powers, increasingly able to call the shots, are mostly former colonies such as India, South Africa and Brazil.
Many of these countries were angered by the Libya campaign – not because it stopped mass murder (they backed it for that reason) but because it didn’t stop until it had overthrown the regime.
In recent months, these former colonial countries have been pushing for a new policy that will make intervention more difficult, on the basis of “sovereign equality” – that is, making national borders sacred again.
“Sovereign equality, for former colonial states, is hugely important, and it became a leading principle for them after the Libyan war,” says Jennifer Welsh, the Canadian Oxford University professor who has played a leading role in creating human-rights intervention policy in Canada and elsewhere. “And while the relative influence of the United States is on the decline, these statements from countries like India and China and Brazil are only going to get stronger.”
This may be the end of the era when “we” can easily invade a country to protect its people. We can only hope that someone else will start taking up the challenge.