Above and Beyond the law

The Syrian conflict is a complete and utter mess and one not of our doing. The opposition is divided, with extremist elements such as Jahbat-Al-Nusra forming a part of the coalition to try and derail Mr Assad, with Mr Assad relying on the Iranian sponsored Hezbollah to help turn the fight in his favour. According to French, British and American intelligence agencies Mr Assad has also relied upon chemical weapons to help to try and put a stop to the opposition trying to remove him.  Over 100,000 are dead and millions of people are displaced. ‘We’ in the West have been debating on what to do about this dire situation and what we can do to alleviate it. The majority of people (89% to be exact) want us to have no part in Syria; that it isn’t our business what the Syrian government does and what it indeed subjects the Syrian people to.

I believe this position to be morally abhorrent. It is our business, and I would argue our duty as secular liberal democratic countries to help promote these values across the world. It is our duty to stop innocent civilians being massacred and if we had stuck to that line of reasoning earlier Syria wouldn’t be a regional powder keg ready to explode right now. The Syrian opposition were originally peaceful. They protested and they were fired upon by Mr Assad for having the gall to not be entirely happy with the regime they were given. The West, perfectly happy with its governmental system with the ability to protest, dissent, vote in/out and abuse the people who run the country, sat back and watched like a football fan in front of the t.v. on his barker-lounger and allowed the conflict to escalate to a point where the Syrian protesters had to become violent in order to stop themselves from being massacred.

The left and also the libertarian right worship Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon for their acts of service to our countries in releasing top secret intelligence documents which revealed a lot of unnecessary material, and has damaged the chances for diplomacy in certain areas. Some of these grave acts arguably needed to be revealed. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison due to breaking the espionage act, Edward Snowdon had to live in an airport for two months before finally being granted asylum in Russia (hardly the bastions of freedom)  and Julian Assange is cowering in the Ecuadorian embassy because of his refusal to answer rape charges in Sweden. The left and the libertarian right support these people immensely and consider their sentences and their arrest to answer charges of breaking the law as ethically odorous at best, and at worst the actions of a vengeful government using the law to prosecute someone whom they are angry with. Manning, Snowdon and Assange argue the law is wrong in this case and that it is ethically acceptable to break the law and even to not be punished for breaking the law.

However if you ask many of the same people whether it is okay to break international law in order to help to save people and bring freedom they would argue that it is not okay in any sense. I am arguing that it is acceptable and even morally gallant in some circumstances to break international law, just like in some circumstances it is okay to break criminal law in this country and in others.

The ‘right to protect’ (r2p) doctrine is one which was first really accepted by the international community in 2005. It is aimed at trying to enforce the international community to maintain basic human rights in different States, which includes stopping genocide and ethnic cleansing if a State is simply killing its population or committing other grave human rights abuses. It was first adopted at the World Summit in 2005, agreeing that the international community should at times violate State sovereignty if that State has gone too far in killing its own citizens. The lack of action in places such as Rwanda and Darfur caused the UN and the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the time great shame. This doctrine has three pillars; firstly that a State has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; secondly, that the international community has a responsibility to assist the State fulfill this primary responsibility; and thirdly, if a State fails in this task the international community has a responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions with military action being a last resort. According to paragraph 139 of the Outcome document which was decided at the World Summit, all military action has to be voted through the Security Council. However with Russia a permanent member of the Security Council, the problem of intervening in certain countries arise. Simply put, the doctrine r2p and the international norm that it is, are worthless if one has to gain a Security Council resolution, as Russia will simply veto any measures to get rid of dictators it likes such as Mr Assad. In 2009 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (I.C.I.S.S.) authored a report which suggested that action could still be lawful even if the Security Council rejected action but the majority of the General Assembly consented. The report went on to argue that regional bodies and even States as a last resort could implement action to make sure States lived up to their responsibilities. This was subsequently rejected before it even got to an Assembly vote.

As is widely known Mr Assad’s government has not fulfilled any of the three pillars which are essential if your State wishes to maintain sovereignty. Mr Assad has perpetrated war crimes by bombing civilian areas, killed his own citizens in order to maintain power and now there is a growing body of evidence from the British, American and French intelligence services that he has used chemical weapons on his own people; another war crime. Our inaction has led the situation to evolve from a protest movement for further democratic reforms, to a civil war which has now mutated into a regional war with Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda groups involved on opposite sides. Russia still protects their man in Syria and thus the Security Council will not authorise any action that is required. If r2p is a doctrine which has meaning and substance we need to break international law to enforce a greater moral standard across the world. To enforce law so that people will not be chemically attacked and butchered in the street for daring to protest. The time for realism is over. It has led us to accept despots, criminals and thugs running countries which are strategically important across the region and the world. We need to be bold in our decisions and not accept the unacceptable. This starts with Mr Assad and the beginning of air strikes to cripple his air superiority and his chemical weapons stocks. This does not need to involve troops on the ground and should alleviate the situation. We should also arm the rebels who are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda. This shouldn’t be difficult to do as jahbat-al-Nusra only have around 6,000 troops on the ground and the group known as AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) only have around 3,000 troops. I feel this is the only moral option which is available to us. Just like Mr Snowdon, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange we’ll have to break the law to commit the moral action, which is helping free the people of Syria from over three decades of tyranny.

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