Should the world leave Syrian civilians at the mercy of armed forces that seem to be out of control in deference to national sovereignty? What are options are there to protect them?
The news from Syria is ominous. Heavily armed forces are reportedly besieging the city of Homs in preparation for taking it by force. Simultaneously, President Bashar Assad appeared on TV to abdicate responsibility for actions taken by these forces.
This looming disaster is not without precedent. In 1982, another Syrian city, Hama, was subjected to disproportionate firepower, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. Could a similar disaster be averted?
Russia has expressed opposition to efforts at the UN Security Council aimed at taking decisive action to protect Syrian civilians. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explicitly ruled out a repetition of the Libyan scenario.
If the impasse at the UN and Arab League continues, one may look into other options, including the “right to humanitarian intervention,” or the use of force to intervene for humanitarian reasons. The evolution of this idea over the past two decades has necessarily created divisions among international law scholars, but the idea has taken strong root within the profession.
The main reason for the debate is that the UN Charter bars intervention in matters “which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction” of member states. The UN Charter is then understood to preclude the use of force except in self-defense or according to the conditions set forth in Chapter VII of the charter that require Security Council action.
Hence, non-intervention in internal affairs has become a mantra used to shield abusive governments from international censure.
Does that mean that if the Security Council is unable to intervene, the world should remain silent while civilians are attacked with disproportionate firepower? Should Syrian forces be allowed to attack defenseless civilians at will in the name of national sovereignty?
Is respect for national sovereignty an absolute principle? Perhaps it was when the UN Charter was adopted in 1945. However, since then scores of international instruments have been concluded that effectively condition such sovereignty. Member states, including Syria, have willingly entered into agreements that limit the use of force within national borders and provide protection for civilians during armed conflicts, regardless of how otherwise justified the use of force may be on military or political grounds.
There is even greater justification for humanitarian intervention when national governments are unable or unwilling, as the case seems to be in Syria, to take precautions to protect civilians.
There have been several examples when the UN failed to reach a consensus, but a number of concerned states moved anyway to enforce those agreements. One clear example was Kosovo, when the UN Security Council failed in 1999 to act to protect civilians but NATO was able to intervene successfully.
Obviously, concerted action through regular Arab League or UN channels is preferable, but the world should consider other options that are perfectly within international law to intervene to protect civilians in Syria.
The writer is a columist and political commentator. This article first appeared in Arab News on Dec. 11, 2011