“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction—and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said as the rebels agreed to withdraw from the city on December 13, 2016. Civilians, having been trapped in the rebel-held areas of the city, faced summary-execution; at least 82 had recently been intentionally killed simply for having lived in an area controlled by the rebels. “The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said at the time. Additionally, precision-bombing targeted hospitals in the rebel-held areas—leaving no doubt, according to U.S. Senator John McCain, of Assad’s intent.
Meanwhile, at the U.N., the focus of a Security Council meeting was on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity to be levied against the Syrian government. Hamstrung by a well-anticipated veto from Russia, an ally of Assad’s Syrian government, the U.N. was impotent to act on the duty of the international community to act. According to the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the “duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a rule that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty. Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; [sovereignty] is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people.” National sovereignty is not absolute, and the international community, institutionalized as the United Nations, has a responsibility to intervene not merely to see that war criminals are prosecuted, but also and more importantly to stop the atrocities in real time. Just as national sovereignty cannot protect the offending State, so too should sovereignty in a country’s veto in the U.N. be valid in obstructing this duty. The U.N.’s own procedure was thus out of step with the responsibility. Hence, the duty fell to the countries of the world not allied with Syria, yet political considerations of self-interest, and perhaps even the faulty assumption that any international action must or should be under U.N. auspices were formidable obstacles. The promotion of the duty falling on mankind to protect its most vulnerable from their own government was left to Syrian civilians in Aleppo using cell-phone videos to chastise the governments of the world for standing by.
It was within the competence of an international “coalition of the willing”—one not subject to a veto at the U.N.—to go in and target the protection of civilians, leaving the rebel and government troops to fight. Obviously, such a clear demarcation is impractical during a major battle, but the force exerted on the ground and air by an overwhelming coalition could have been enough to group and protect the remaining civilians in demarcated areas. No help would be given to the rebel fighters; the mission would have been carefully targeted to meet the call of responsibility by those in need who were not party to the conflict. Relative to such a response, calls for eventual war crimes and even crimes against humanity to be prosecuted—assuming the culprits could be removed from Syria and tried—could seem like a lame rationale for inaction in real time.
Such a change in perspective, such that human-rights jurisprudence is ironically viewed as weakness, would represent an advance for the species. We have demonstrated a capability for such amazing technological development since the late nineteenth century that the lack of progress in the domain of international relations, even only in protecting people from their own government, is perplexing. Put another way, the innocent Syrians in Aleppo sorely needed a revised answer, practically speaking, to absolute national-sovereignty, whose default-status has strangely been allowed to go unchallenged as if it were a natural law. The right to the unqualified version of the doctrine by governments can be challenged, if done prudently with regard to intent and ensuing action.
Lest it be feared that arriving at a newly revised answer in a practical manner could unleash a torrent of war, the modifications could be modest. In other words, governments such as that of Syria could get the message on the ground that limits do exist in terms of what a government can legitimately do to its own people. The key, I submit, is to limit the intervention to this point. Hence, the military strategy of the international protectors—humanity coming in to protect vestiges of humanity—would rightly and prudently have been limited to protecting civilians rather than taking sides in the conflict. Any contact with the military of either side would be limited to the protection of civilians, as if drumming home the point that the very legitimacy of the intervention is limited, just as is the legitimacy of any government. Contrarywise, taking on a “bad” government would turn the intervention itself into a partisan in the conflict; more retaliation could be expected than were a coalition limited in its coverage to protecting civilians—even if just providing safe passage. Whereas such a response is a step in the direction of changing a seemingly intractable default in international relations, going after war-criminals years after a war takes absolute sovereignty as a given and punishes people for having acted badly in it.