Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Syrian Offensive: Taking on International “Enforcement” of Human Rights

In Geneva on November 28, 2011, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented its report, which had been requested by the UN Human Rights Council. According to the report’s summary, the “deteriorating situation in the Syrian Arab Republic prompted The Human Rights Council to establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged violations of human rights since March 2011.” The Commission interviewed 223 victims and witnesses. The Commission was able to document “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.”One might suppose that the Syrian government would have been seeking to placate the international organization and other governments.

The New York Times reports instead that Sryia’s foreign minister, “(o)utraged at the Arab League’s unprecedented battery of sanctions on Syria,” denounced the Arab League’s “unprecedented sanctions” as instantiating “economic war” by “brethren states.”  Hinting at retaliation, the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, told reporters at a televised news conference in Damascus. “Sanctions are a two-way street. I am not warning here, but we will defend the interests of our people.” It sounds rather like he was actually defending the interests of his government (and his own job). The Commission’s report itself points to evidence that the two interests were not at the time identical.

Because a government receives its legitimacy from other governments on the basis of protecting a people, it is astonishing that officials in the Syrian government thought they were any position to push back. If anything, the international accountability had been extremely lacking. This is astonishing in itself, given the success of the UN-sanctioned NATO effort that facilitated the downfall of Qaddafi in Libya. To be sure, NATO had at the very least stretched its mandate to protect civilians by going on the offensive against Qaddafi’s compound. Even so, given the Syrian government’s documented human rights violations and its utter refusal to recognize its crimes—let alone to hold back from striking out against justified international reactions—international action with teeth was urgently needed as it was wan at best.

Within the E.U.’s “euro zone,” 2011 was a year in which state leaders were coming to grips with the necessary for “ever closer union” on fiscal matters to support the monetary union. Similarly on the international level, I suspect it was dawning on people around the world that mechanisms with teeth are needed to enforce the norm of governmental sovereignty being contingent on a given government protecting rather than attacking its citizens en masse. If it was gaining ground, such a recognition would have challenged the status quo before the downfall of Qaddafi. Specifically, it had been accepted that tyrants having power in the world is an inevitable fact of life, so it is pointless to try to remove one or two of them. This fallacy even allowed U.S. Government aid to brutal dictators. The year 2011 might have shifted the ground under this conservative plank.

In the context of the unrepentant Syrian government, people must surely have been realizing that depending on unions such as the E.U. or U.S. to have strategic interests in line with taking on an independent state or even another empire like China or Russia that is violating its mandate to rule by violating its citizens’ human rights is woefully inadequate. Indeed, looking the other way after the Libyan case could be looked at as criminal in nature. I suspect that although below the radar of the media, this realization was tacitly gaining ground at the grass-roots level around the world. The Arab Spring along with the specific case of Libya may have subtly shifted the ground even as recalcitrant rulers like Assad in Syria looked the other way. The fruit of the Spring would likely take years to mature, being in the form of new international mechanisms with teeth that represent a revised, explicitly conditional, conception of national sovereignty.


Neil MacFarquhar and Nada Bakri, “Syria Calls Arab League Sanctions ‘Economic War.’” The New York Times, November 28, 2011.