Monday, May 28, 2018

The Russian Conscience: Human Rights in Syria

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned on January 18, 2012, according to the New York Times, “that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to ‘a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.’” A very big war, it would seem, with very big stick, would be the result of “outsiders” stepping in to protect the Syrian protesters from their own government. In fact, the Times reports that “Lavrov said Russia would use its position on the United Nations Security Council to veto any United Nations authorization of military strikes against the government [of Syria].” It made no difference to Lavrov that the United Nations, including the Secretary General, had “repeatedly called for Syria [to] end a crackdown on opposition demonstrators, which Arab League monitors say resulted in hundreds of deaths over the past month.” In other words, the U.N. was officially impotent in being able to act on the basis of its “demand” because one of its members has a veto.

Lavrov’s position forces potential “outside” interventionists to justify their position. I would have thought that stepping in to stop people from being killed is a good thing. Lavrov was insisting it is bad. “If someone conceives the idea of using force at any cost—and I’ve already heard calls for sending some Arab troops to Syria—we are unlikely to be able to prevent this,” he said, “(b)ut this should be done on their own initiative and should remain on their conscience. They won’t get any authorization from the Security Council.” In other words, stopping people from being killed—from their own government no less—is a matter that would weigh on one’s conscience. One might ask Lavrov whether the Syrians killed because of his veto ought to weigh on his conscience. He was undoubtedly putting an absolutist view of national sovereignty before any right of “outsiders” to stop killing that at the very least, given a government’s formal monopoly of lethal force, unfair. Were he to relax his view of national sovereignty, would he still say that stopping the killing would remain on a conscience? There would not be much daylight between insisting even that and saying that interfering with Hitler’s concentration camps (or Stalin’s mass killing of the Polish elite) from abroad would have weighed on consciences. In other words, Lavrov can almost be read as being in favor of Assad’s killing spree, irrespective of national sovereignty needing to be respected for the world of nations to have order.

Of course, it could be objected that there was not much order in Syria at the time, and, moreover, that national sovereignty is not absolute on account of human nature, and that far from weighing on consciences, “outsiders” have a moral obligation to step in to stop killings when there is a reasonable expectation that they would otherwise happen. This obligation can be based on Kant’s imperative that there is a duty to treat rational nature, which humans have, as an end in itself and not merely as a means. This duty presumably includes stopping those people who would otherwise treat others only as means to their own designs. Alternatively, the obligation could be based on Hume’s moral theory, which holds that “immoral” simply is the sentiment of disapproval that humans naturally feel in watching something like a protester being dragged down the street and killed. In other words, what we naturally feel as a reaction to watching footage from Homs Syria is a valid basis for moral action.

Therefore, from both a rationalist and a psychological basis, moral theory can be used to justify the obligation of intervention by “outsiders.” This directly refutes Lavrov’s contention that there is an obligation not to intervene. Were one to talk with the family of a murdered Syrian, which position do you suppose the family members would say concurs with conscience? I’m thinking it’s not good ole Sergey’s. Fortunately, the rest of us can move on, past even our limp, even crippled U.N., to formulate and implement a mechanism with teeth for dealing with governments that engage in wholesale slaughter of their own citizens. Our consciences naturally demand nothing less.

Ellen Barry and Michael Schwirtz, “Russian Warns That Western Support for Arab Revolts Could Cause a ‘Big War’,” The New York Times, January 19, 2012.