Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The Syrian Dilemma: Binoy Kampmark Discusses the Pitfalls of Humanitarian Intervention

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The Syrian Dilemma: Binoy Kampmark Discusses the Pitfalls of Humanitarian Intervention

Article excerpt

The civil conflict in Syria, which at the time of writing has seen the loss of almost 8000 lives, has stirred international outrage with little official sign of outside military action against the Assad regime. Advocates of intervention argue that it should be done on a humanitarian basis. Opponents argue that the lessons of NATO's Libyan involvement show how the pretext of 'protection' rapidly alters during the conflict into one of regime change. The debates surrounding the Syrian conflict suggest that humanitarian intervention remains a confused concept that is still rooted in the interests of power politics.


'Hence, Seneca thinks that I may make war upon one who is not one of my people but oppresses his own, ... a procedure which is often connected with the protection of innocent persons.'

Hugo Grotius (1)

The French philosopher Albert Camus posed a dilemma of madness in his detailed notebooks: the absolute helplessness one feels in doing nothing, and the dangerous consequences of doing something. The escalating, blood-drenched violence in Syria, which at the time of this writing has seen the loss of almost 8000 lives, is such a case--the sense of helplessness of not intervening, on the one hand, and the catastrophic consequences that any such intervention would lead to. Either pathway ensures damnation.

More recently, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has further muddied the waters on the ethical clarity of such involvements, suggesting that an overwhelming desire to intervene in moral, ethical dilemmas to stem violence are themselves excuses for violence, the underlying justification for its perpetuation. 'The threat today is not passivity but pseudoactivity, the urge to be "active", to "participate", to mask the nothingness of what goes on.' (2) We are all perpetrators of violence--the question is simply how to minimise it.

Other commentators suggest that humanitarian intervention itself is a problematic concept, hard to juggle, shot through with problems of motivation, on the one hand, and application, on the other. 'As some put it, there can be nothing humanitarian about a bomb.' (3) Theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont is insistent that there is simply no context to justify humanitarian intervention, given the way it is used by powers that claim its importance. It is an ideological code--and the modern ideological dress code is human rights. Coalitions that force intervention are based on constellations of powers that are self-interested, much like that of the 'Holy Alliance nearly two centuries ago'. (4) While a theoretical physicist might be criticised for being ill-equipped to venture into the field of human rights, his views have struck a chord. Veteran anti-war activist Noam Chomsky wonders whether the category even exists, citing a host of brutal events during the Cold War to demonstrate the falseness of the claim. He simply concludes that any such justifiable actions are 'vanishingly small'. (5)

From 1945 to 1967, no UN Security Council resolution

mentions humanitarian intervention, and the same applies to the period from the 1970s to the 1980s. (6) The 1990s saw a change. By the end of the 1990s, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was speaking about the necessity to intervene to prevent abuses against governments that could no longer rely on 'state frontiers' as a barrier. (7)


Which standard?

In the post-Cold War world, advocates of humanitarian intervention felt that a change of focus was needed. New standards justifying breaches of international sovereignty had to be crafted. In the words of Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group and Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, 'If the international community is to respond to this challenge, the whole debate must be turned on its head. The issue must be reframed not as an argument about the "right to intervene" but about the "responsibility to protect". …

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