[Thomas G Weiss is a Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies]
This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.
Professor Spencer Zifcak’s article on the international reactions to Libya and Syria is thorough and thoughtful, and well worth reading for the treasure trove of documentation. But I was frankly surprised by his unsurprising conclusion that ‘judgments as to whether and when to intervene are likely in the foreseeable future to be made case by case rather than according to predetermined, universally applicable principles’.
How else? Obviously, political scientists and lawyers have quite different expectations.
Undoubtedly the loss of life and suffering is much higher in Syria than in Libya, and it has gotten worse in the time taken to get Professor Zifcak’s article into print. The death toll has risen fivefold — now approaching 25 000 — and the joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has resigned from his ‘mission impossible’, an assignment that trouble-shooter Lakhdar Brahimi has assumed.
The paralysis amidst atrocities and killings in Syria suggests, in case there was any doubt, that robust action in one crisis does not necessarily foreshadow similar efforts elsewhere. Inconsistency is not only the hobgoblin of little minds but also the proverbial bottom line for political decision-making. Rhetoric is one thing, tough decisions are another. Talk is cheap, action is not.
Indeed, to expect anything else is to play into the hands of the usual spoilers in the global South — the Nicaraguas and Cubas, the Zimbabwes and Sudans — who point to the double standard of the Responsibility to Protect (‘R2P’) as neo-imperial meddling. They, of course, would prefer the old single standard for mass atrocities and do nothing because state sovereignty is sacrosanct and includes the license for mass murder. The best should never be the enemy of the good — for R2P or anything else.
In describing the present global governance of mass atrocities, humanitarian ‘impulse’ is more accurate than humanitarian ‘imperative’. The latter entails an obligation to treat victims similarly and react to all crises consistently — in effect, to deny the relevance of politics, which consists of drawing lines and weighing options and available resources. Yet humanitarian action remains desirable not obligatory. The humanitarian impulse is permissive; the humanitarian imperative is peremptory. Similarly, R2P is not a peremptory obligation but a desirable and emerging norm whose consolidation can result in occasional enforcement when the politics are right.
Politics and military capacity ultimately determine whether, when, where and why to protect and assist war-affected populations. However shocking to the conscience a particular emergency and however hard or soft the applicable public international law, when political will and a military capacity exist, humanitarian space will open and war victims will be assisted and protected. In Libya the moral, legal, political, and military dimensions dovetailed under the R2P rubric. Rather than speaking truth to power, the value-added of R2P was speaking truth with power. And if Assad leaves Syria, it will in part be attributed to the evolving power of the R2P norm.