David Cameron the UK prime minister was dealt a political blow on Thursday night when he lost the Syria vote in the House of Commons. Whilst that must have been a huge disappointment for Cameron it was hugely demonstrative as to what good governance should look like and indeed a big day for democracy.
But this was neither about good governance nor democracy in the United Kingdom but instead in a far away land that most of us in the UK only ever see through the eyes of the international media. According to that media, the citizens of Syria are dying and are desperate for the international community to intervene with a view to resolving this whole situation.
To say that the situation in Syria is complex is an understatement. It has tested international relations in ways that could not have been conceived by most. We are after all used to the good guys going into such situations and taking out the bad guys- Gaddafi Saddam, Osama bin Laden etc
A good friend of mine and I had a heated discussion yesterday about this whole situation and no doubt some of you have done so with family members, colleagues and or friends.
This is an bridged version of that conversation
The conversation started with a simple question from me that went like this
There is such a thing as International Law, but whose job is it to enforce that law in the absence of an International government?
This seemingly simple question is central to the Syria situation as it gives rise to several issues for consideration
Sovereignty : The government of Syria has authority within a geographical region that is internationally recognised as Syria and has a right to defend that territory and has vowed to do so should the international community invade. The difficulty with this, is that whatever the international community might think, Syria would be justified on grounds of sovereignty.
We have to consider too, that the extent to which Syria would go to defend itself is an unknown quantity and there is every possibility that intervention would make matters worse for the very citizens the international community would be trying to save. Moreover, whilst it is agreed that, chemical weapons have been used we do not know definitively by whom.
This led us to another question.
Should the international community simply standby and watch whilst the government of Syria kills thousands of its people? Surely the international community has a moral duty to set aside issues of sovereignty and defend innocent citizens against their government. Indeed and we if looked hard enough, we would find several world treaties to support intervention.
So why are UK, Iranian, Russian and Chinese legislators amongst others reluctant to go to the aid of the citizens of the Syria?
Interests: as far as my friend and I can work out, interests of the international community are playing a big role on questions whether to get involved in Syria or not.
Russia and Iran are said to have financial and other interests in Syria and as such they will do whatever it takes to protect what they are calling their national interests in Syria. For Russia this has meant using its veto at the UN Security Council
The USA: how does it maintain its world position as a world power if it cannot see through a threat it made about RED LINES?
Will going into Syria mean that the USA is fighting the Syrian government alongside Al-Qaeda and other such radical political groups? Surely that is not in America’s interest given its history with respect to the war on terror
Our discussion turned to the interests of tax payers here in the UK. Whilst most tax payers are happy to see the UK government spend their taxes on humanitarian aid some question the wisdom of spending their taxes on a war in a far away land whilst their wages have gone down in real terms and are struggling to make ends meet. This is a valid point, when UK citizens look back at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
David Cameron has often argued for the stopping of problems in these far away lands at sources before “they arrive on our door step” > Question is do the interests of the nation as he perceives them line up with the nation’s perspective?
Back to the question of international laws and how to enforce them, we concluded that, international laws are impacted by national interests of the international community. We found ourselves agreeing with realists in as far their assertion that those countries with superior hard power often win the day in these circumstances.
Where does this leave the international community and the citizens of Syria in particular? The answer to this question will unfold over the coming days, weeks months, or even years!
But my friend and I pondered yet another aspect of international relations.
The international structure has evolved from bi-polar during the cold war, unipolar with America leading the world to what we call a multilateral structure with no apparent leader in international relations, but instead several stakeholders, including international institutions. But has this multilateral world order led to indecision and as such the situation in Syria?
At this stage in our conversation we concluded that we were going round in circles as it appears that lining up the ducks on the Syria matter is a delicate balance and if the international community gets it wrong the consequences are scary!
Please join the conversation and share your views
Syria is just a victim of circumstance. It came about when so many factors are at play, even with a singular super power I doubt the reaction would have been any different given the current state of affairs. The world is watching Egypt implode and is realizing the Arab Spring has not been a success story for all. When long marginalized and politically untried parties are suddenly thrust into power the result is not pretty. The learning curve is huge and the people lack the patience necessary when rulers need on- the-job-training. US is just winding down its war in Afghanistan, The US is a bit gun shy, after the Iraqi WMD debacle, coupled with a bad economy and hostile congress, Obama is between a rock and a hard place. For Russia, it’s more than just protecting its interests in Syria. It is about its position in the world structure. Russia is looking for respect on the global stage and is challenging anything the US is in favor of. The UK is more concerned with the economy at home and with austerity measures, does not really want to spend on a war. So the Cameroon vote was a calculated way to not act but be seen to be doing something. Mr. Cameroon knew he didn’t have the vote on this matter but went ahead with it anyway. So even if the power structure was uni or bi polar the reaction would have been no different. Sadly for the innocent Syrians,their country may go down in the books as a Rwanda 2.0 when the world watched and did nothing
Thanks for stopping by Chieddzot. You would think that the world would learn from what went down in Rwanda. There is a lot of posturing from the likes of China, Russia and Iran and as you quite rightly say it is all about giving America a bloody nose. Unfortunately whilst the international community debates the rights and wrongs of intervention children are dying on the streets of Syria.
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Flavia Kirunda says
How do we respond to a regime that has used chemical weapons against its own civilian population something that is against int law and indeed a crime. The pictures on our tel sets are disturbing and intolerable. How much of this are we willing to tolerate in the future? It is not guaranteed that mil action against this regime will deter Asad from doing similar things in the future.
Much of the debate has already focused on the consequences of taking action but we must also focus on the consequences of not taking action. On other regimes with chemical weapons what signal are we sending to them? And let’s not forget Iran with its nuclear intentions in testing what they have.
If we do nothing that’s an abdication of our legal and moral obligations of international law.
We cannot allow a situation where the international community is thwarted in its ability to implement international law by constant veto by Russia and China.
My question then is how effective is the UN and what’s the yardstick for judging that efficacy?
Thanks for joining the conversation Flavia. The world should not stand by as innocent citizens die at the hands of their governments.
You pose an interesting question with respect to the UN’s efficacy as an institution. In the absence of an International government, international institutions were set up to manage world affairs. We however have to take a step back and examine a couple of things, the location and funding of such institutions. The national interests of such countries impact the efficacy of institutions such as the UN.
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So using chemical weapons is the problem and not the killings that have continued for months now? Its alright to murder your citizens so long as you don’t use chemical weapons?
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Welcome to the conversation Mark. The killing of people with whatever methods can never be justified. Of course states like Syria and such like will justify their actions by calling political opponents terrorists and as such the state is doing what is in the national interest of citizens by eliminating insurgency – I believe the technical name is “counter terrorism”. But strip away the jargon and you will find what we are witnessing is state sponsored terrorism against its own people
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