Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
The civil war in Syria rages on.
There are now more than one hundred thousand people dead and around two million refugees. And the rate at which civilians are fleeing the conflict, six thousand a day, hasn’t been seen since the Rwandan genocide.
And 57-year-old Hajj Mutee doesn’t understand why the United States won’t act to protect civilians in Syria:
“America is the most powerful country in the world. It has an army from where it can hit anyone, anywhere. It can destroy a nation from wherever it wants. So therefore why this neglect? Are the Syrian people valueless? We’ve been bombed, and hit with scud missiles and killed for the past two years, why do they do nothing?”
It used to be that world powers could more easily turn a blind eye to humanitarian crises. But then came Rwanda...an instance where eight hundred thousand people were killed in just 100 days, back in 1994. And the world did nothing. Since then, the international community has said it will pay more attention.
The United Nations adopted a principle called the “Responsibility to Protect.” It says world powers need to consider doing something if they see mass atrocities being committed in another country.
What they do, though, is up to them.
And with Syria, there’s no clear answer.
“There is certainly a case to be made for intervention, but we are going to need a stabilization force, thousands of peacekeepers, billions of dollars. Yes, responsibility to protect, but also responsibility to put humpty-dumpty back together again,” said Aaron David Miller.
Host Madeleine Brand says, “In this next hour, should we intervene in Syria on humanitarian grounds? How has Rwanda and other past conflicts influenced our decision to act?
And if we don’t act now, what does that mean for our collective commitment to protect human rights in other countries?”
At a rehabilitation center in Lebanon, a few miles from the Syrian border, some 80 rebel fighters are being treated. Reporter Ben Gilbert brings us the scene.
Ben Gilbert: “20-year-old Kassem Aoud is not as optimistic. He was hit by shrapnel in both arms when a rocket exploded near his firing position on May 13, 2013. His thoughts on the situation in Syria?”
Kassem Aoud: “Miserable. Miserable.”
Aoud: “Because nobody help us. We fight alone. Nobody stand beside us. Nobody at all.”
Gilbert: “And who would you like to see stand by you and help you?”
Aoud: “Anyone, we need any help. You think a machine gun can fight a tank?”
Gilbert: “Do you think the United States should help?”
Aoud: “Of course they should help. But I don’t think they’ll help.”
Gilbert: “I ask him about a no-fly zone . . .”
Aoud: “If they wanted to do it, they could have done it a long time ago. They just don’t have the motive for it, maybe some people care, but if people die, they don’t really have any motive to do this. I don’t think they will do it.”
Gilbert: “Are you angry about that?”
Aoud: “No. We are used to this.”
As the war in Syria has intensified, and the numbers of civilians killed or displaced has increased, the Obama Administration has come under mounting criticism.
We’re not doing enough, his critics say, to stop the violence, including arming the Syrian opposition so they can defend themselves against the Assad regime and to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad from power.
Some of the most vocal criticism on Capitol Hill has come from Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona:
“For us to sit by, and watch these people being massacred, raped, tortured in the most terrible fashion, meanwhile, the Russians are all in, Hezbollah is all in, and we’re talking about giving them more light weapons? It’s insane.”
Libya is one reason McCain and others are frustrated with US policy on Syria. The US and other powers acted when they saw gross human rights violations. It used that as the reason to act. That conflict in Libya was the strongest validation of the “Responsibility to Protect,” the eight-year-old mandate that calls on world powers to try to prevent mass atrocities such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the name of this principle, the US and its NATO allies used limited air strikes to prevent Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi from carrying out his threat to slaughter civilians.
“The first time in the Security Council they actually invoked the words ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in a resolution to dealing with this crisis. And then voted to authorize an intervention,” said Richard Williamson, former US Ambassador to the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission.
In the case of Libya, it became clear to the international community fairly early on that non-military means would not be enough to stop mass atrocities.
In early 2011, the rebel force challenging Muammar Qaddafi was made up primarily of citizens: teachers, students, oil workers, police and some professionally trained soldiers. They rallied around frustration with chronic economic problems and a desire for greater political freedoms. Their resolve was strengthened by events in nearby Tunisia and Egypt - the revolutionary movements that have come to be known as the “Arab Spring.”
In reaction, Qaddafi went after protesters and civilians.
His soldiers systematically raped women in their homes. He attempted to starve people into submission by destroying food supplies and cutting off water and power to the city of Misurata, and he went on national television and threatened to hunt rebels down and kill them.
Ed Luck is the former Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and currently Dean of the University of San Diego (USD) Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies. Luck remembers the Libyan leader made blood-chilling pronouncements:
“When Gaddafi talked about his political opponents as being cockroaches, the word that was used in Rwanda, when he talked about blood flowing in the streets of Benghazi, we took him very seriously at the UN.”
About a month into the uprising in Libya, the UN Security Council voted to authorize NATO air strikes against Qaddafi’s forces in March 2011.
Then, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the strikes from Paris.
“Today we’re intervening in Libya, under a mandate from the UN Security Council alongside our partners, in particular, our Arab partners. And we are doing this in order to protect the civilian population from the murderous madness of a regime, that by killing its own people has lost all legitimacy,” said Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Now, America has unique capabilities, and we will bring them to bear to help our European and Canadian allies, and Arab partners, stop further violence against civilians. Including through the effective implementation of a no-fly zone,” said Hillary Clinton.
Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and says of Libya:
“Many people at the time thought it was going to be a precedent for how R2P would work in the future”
“In that case, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which authorized all necessary means to basically stop the depredations that Muammar Qaddafi’s forces were committing, and also more importantly, were perceived as going to permit, particularly in Benghazi. That was a relatively clean intervention, at least in the beginning. There was a NATO-led coalition, there was Arab League diplomatic support, and actually some participation from Arab countries. And then, obviously, Qaddafi was removed.”
But that jubilation didn’t last long. Observers, such as Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, say yes, Libya was a validation for the “Responsibility to Protect” mandate, but it was successful because it was a relatively easy.
“Libya was low-hanging fruit in the sense that the intervention there, in the sense that Libya, a country roughly the size of the state of Alaska with about six million people had no serious military defenses, no CW, no chemical weapons, very little support in the region or in the international community, no serious air defense system,” said Aaron David Miller.
He points out that Libya happened in the heat and promise of the Arab Spring:
“And the task, even with all of those reasonably fortuitous circumstances, still took eight months to remove Muammar Gaddafi.”
Syria is a much more complicated case. The opposition movement to Muammar Qaddafi was cohesive and well defined, unlike Syria’s. And, while both China and Russia didn’t oppose NATO airstrikes in Libya, both adamantly reject air strikes in Syria. Syria itself has a more sophisticated air defense system than Libya.
Though that makes this crisis harder, some advocates for Responsibility to Protect believe that either partial or full-blown international military involvement in Syria is morally necessary and feasible to stop the bloodshed.
"The next thing we can do is, we could take out their air force through cruise missiles, through air. We could actually make it much, much harder for him to use chemical weapons,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, former State Department official under the Obama Administration and head of the New America Foundation.
She regrets that the US did not act a year or two ago to put down the Assad regime with force, or at least help arm the Syrian opposition. Slaughter’s boss at the time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus supported arming the rebels, but President Obama vetoed the idea.
But Speaking on CNN in May of this year, Slaughter argued that the international powers can still act:
“And actually I do think it's possible to have a no-fly zone or to have safe zones which would ultimately what we need to do here is tip the balance of power within Syria so that the people supporting Assad have a reason to come to the negotiating table. We do have to have a political settlement. But there is zero incentive for Assad and his people to negotiate. He's got Russia and Iran behind him, and we want him out. So we need to tip the balance of power.”
To intervene and stop the killing of civilians, she says, is a basic obligation that sovereign states now have under the, “Responsibility to Protect.” It’s a responsibility, she says, to protect citizens “from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and grave and systematic war crimes”.
“This intervening may not single-handedly change people’s perception of us, but at least we will be able to say we stood for these principles, and when the chips were down we acted,” said Slaughter.
That’s a sentiment shared by other human rights advocates as well as Republican Senators Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona.
“What the president did was he gave them a red line but gave them a green light to do everything else. And if I sound a little emotional about this it's because the news out of that country is horrific,” said John McCain.
“We just have to take a deep breath and go down that tough diplomatic route and see what it brings. Whatever Senator McCain or anyone else says -- Anne Marie Slaughter or any of the other cheer squad for military action, I just can't see, and I don't think most observers can see a way in which the dynamic can be changed by military action, by the US or anybody else at the moment,” said Gareth Evans.
Former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, is a key advisor to the Global Center on the “Responsibility to Protect.” And like Anne Marie Slaughter, he is a strong advocate for the “Responsibility to Protect mandate. But Evans does not believe that we should intervene in Syria now. He says diplomacy is the best way to solve the crisis.
“That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ has no application and the tragedy of the Syrian case is that some of the lesser measures that might have made a real difference and given a very different set of signals to ASSAD in 2011, like condemnation by the security council, like sanctions, like the threat of international criminal court prosecution.
Unfortunately, none of those strategies were applied because of, if you want to talk about it, the backlash basically that occurred against the perceived overreach of military action in Libya,” said Evans.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agrees that the “responsibility to protect” is about much more than the use of force and she wishes President Obama had acted earlier. She emphasizes that Responsibility to Protect means we have all tools available such as preventative diplomacy, increased development aid, and economic sanctions.
“I think that people automatically think that we’re going to militarily intervene somewhere. The military intervention part is the last step, not the first step. I think that the areas that have been the most difficult are the ones where not enough attention has been paid early on,” said Albright.
Albright, who also is on the board of this program, spoke at a recent forum on the “Responsibility to Protect” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She notes that it’s worked in smaller conflicts like Libya and also Kenya:
I think it’s interesting in terms of Kenya, where in the set of elections that took place in 2008 led to a lot of violence, and then we were able to figure out how to get some international action in there. To try to not only diffuse the violence, but also set up a procedure, which allowed the next elections, and had an international negotiator, Kofi Annan went in in order to do a lot of diplomatic work.
It is this preventative action, she says -- and the heeding of early warning signs -- that is at the heart of the “Responsibility to Protect.” And so what does that mean for Syria? We saw the early warning signs and sent some humanitarian aid and allowed limited weapons to a few rebel groups...but not enough to make a difference.
“We are seeing Syria turn into a failed state before our eyes,” said Michael O’Hanlon. He is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on America’s military.
He also agrees that something more should have been done earlier in Syria, but he argues that point from a different perspective:
“I’m still a little frustrated that we didn’t do more in 2011 and 2012 when I think the odds of building on momentum of the Arab Spring and the initial successes of the insurgency in Syria were much more promising for getting rid of Assad.”
O’Hanlon says humanitarian concerns are important but they don’t override the United States strategic interests in the region:
“I don’t look at this strictly in humanitarian in terms. I also look at it in terms of denying an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, that’s President Assad, or an ally of Al Qaida, Al Nusrah, one of the insurgent groups, denying them greater power and sanctuary and ability to cause unrest in the broader Middle East, in effect, our strategic interests. That’s just as important for me as the humanitarian angle I have to confess, and I think, frankly, that’s healthy to get that on the table.”
“Is it morally wrong for a country to think about self interest? And I would say, no, that that’s not morally wrong. Countries do have interests,” said Father Bryan Hehir, a Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
For twenty years he worked for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He directed their office on the church’s role in international relations and foreign policy. He’s thought a lot about the tension between morality and self-interest in international relations and what it means for the idea of the “Responsibility to Protect.”
“What I mean by that is you can’t think about the question of right and wrong in international relations without knowing something about international relations. You can have deep moral convictions that may be essentially unconnected to the reality of world politics, and that will greatly prejudice your ability to make insightful moral decisions about the kind of complex questions that make up international relations,” said Hehir.
Madeleine: And he’s also thought about how intervention has unintended consequences, And those consequences can also be fraught with moral complications.
“For example, you don’t want to break down all the boundaries in the Middle East from Iraq to Egypt and from Jordan to Iran,” said Hehir. “You don’t want to do that. At the same time, there are compelling moral reasons for things to be done regarding Syria. Now, the question is who would do them, and how should they be done, and what would work, and those three questions are enough to keep us till dinnertime anyway. So, if you take the US case, there is some reason for hesitation. The United States has just been climbing out of massive interventions in countries with predominately Islamic populations, and that cannot be ignored as one of the complicating factors. Having the United States running around in and out of Islamic countries every other year using force, is not regarded as a positive long-term policy. At the same time, obviously you can get to the point where you can be regarded as being so careful that you are not fulfilling minimal standards.”
Madeleine: Hehir thinks the international community is not quite meeting the “minimal standard.” But anything that we do, he stresses, must be done collaboratively:
“The United States, I think, can do other things that can have a greater strategic impact than they’ve had so far. I’m saying, you do have to take some risk that some of the guys that you don’t want to have the guns will have the guns, but with Assad showing no limit whatsoever, I think it’s worthwhile taking that risk.”
Madeleine: In essence, says Hehir, the “Responsibility to Protect: “
“Modifies the working principles of world politics. It says, there is sovereignty; sovereignty is legitimate; sovereignty is also limited. That is to say sovereign states cannot simply do what they will internally and everyone else is supposed to stand by and say, that’s their business.”
Madeleine: Indeed, even looking at Libya now, the example of a successful intervention, there are now problems says Mark Danner. “Under the notion of the “Responsibility to Protect” the international community got involved in the sovereign affairs of Libya. Thousands of civilian lives were likely saved from the brutality of the Qaddafi regime, an achievement celebrated by supporters of humanitarian intervention. But now, we are watching what has evolved since Qaddafi’s death. The results have been distinctly mixed.”
Mark Danner writes for the New York Review of Books. He says arms that were in Qaddafi’s arsenal found their way to the rebels in Syria. They’re showing up in Egypt and among terrorist forces in Mali:
“So Libya has now become, in a sense, a source of instability in other countries in the region. That certainly wasn't anticipated and the government there, the situation there is very unstable. So, on the one hand, the intervention in Libya seemed to be cost-free, but in fact, there have been a lot of consequences that were not anticipated.”
It’s those unintended consequences that seem to making the Obama White House very cautious with regard to the “Responsibility to Protect” in Syria.
As well as the unintended consequences from two extremely costly and drawn out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mark Danner says: “I think there is an increasing exhaustion factor when it comes to the American public with foreign interventions. It's not simply exhaustion with foreign interventions. It's exhaustion and frustration when it comes to interventions that are sold as neat, quick, important actions, like Iraq.”
Even so, Jon Western, currently a professor at Mt. Holyoke College and former State Department official, says the intervention in Libya was worth it:
“I think the general sense is that was a successful case of R2P. It averted a mass atrocity event in Benghazi. The challenge, I think, for the doctrine of R2P was the kind of fundamental challenges, how do you deal with a situation where you're trying to prevent not only the mass atrocity event in Benghazi, but also the next mass atrocity event somewhere else.”
In the civil war more than a million Syrians have fled Syria into Lebanon... Many just want stability, and for life to return to normal. Among the refugees there’s a cry for intervention from the West. Ben Gilbert talked with some of them in Lebanon. Only first names have been used out of concern for the security of the interviewees and their families who remain in Syria.
Gilbert: The Imam Ouzai Collective Shelter is a half-complete four-story cement block building that sits on the outskirts of Lebanon’s third largest city, Saida. 850 Syrian refugees live here, 60 percent of them children. One of the adults is 57-year-old Hajj Mutee. He’s tall, his skin wrinkled and dark from years working as a construction worker. He doesn’t understand why the United States won’t at least act to protect civilians in Syria.
Abu Mutai: “America is the most powerful country in the world. It has an army from where it can hit anyone, anywhere. It can destroy a nation from wherever it wants. So therefore why this neglect? Are the Syrian people valueless? We’ve been bombed, and hit with scud missiles and killed for the past two years, why do they do nothing?
We are not asking for military intervention, we are asking for a no-fly zone to protect us from these airplanes, and to give us some weapons. But even weapons are banned from us.”
Ben Gilbert: “When I mention Al-Qaeda affiliated groups that the some US analysts fear a US intervention would empower in Syria – he says these groups became stronger due to the Americans inaction.”
Mutai: “It as Americas neglect and slow movement that made them go in, and now you have all these different Jihadi groups, you have all these people coming in, we have Jolani and Bhadadi – this is America’s fault.”
Gilbert: Hajj Mutee takes us to meet more refugees on the first floor. On our way to meeting refugees, an old woman starts yelling in our direction that Obama is doing nothing for us.
Upstairs, I am introduced to a 22-year-old woman named Ghada. She wears a brown hijab and square rimmed glasses. She came here with eight other members of her family. She had just registered in a university to study French, when the situation in Syria became unbearable.
“So what’s the story when you were hit?” Gilbert asks.
Ghada: “We were sitting at home, and I was actually having a Nescafe. And then we heard the first shell hit. And it was out in the mountains. And I said ok, let’s leave, and go and hide in these caves and caverns inside the mountain itself, sort of ersatz bombs shelter. But as we were going there, on way to that shelter, another shell fell, we heard the whistle sound, we quickly hit behind something, and I got hit.”
The injury wasn’t bad, and she has since recovered. Gilbert asks her what she thinks the world should do about Syria. She starts to cry.
Ghada: “Of course the world has responsibility for us. We did nothing wrong, we were in our homes. And they hit us and bombed us in our homes. Is this acceptable? All we demanded was our legitimate rights. We were doing nothing. And now we’re all over the place. My family’s all over the globe in Turkey, and here, elsewhere. My studies have been interrupted; all these children can’t study anymore. All these people have been killed and hit. My mother and father, for example, are in Turkey. I have one brother who is wanted- he’s still stuck in Syria. I can’t get him out. He’s still there, under bombing and the shelling. I miss them all very much. And the world does nothing.”
Gilbert asks her, do you think America has a responsibility to protect civilians in Syria. She says, yes, definitely.
Ghada: “America should put Assad in his place. The fact is that he should either leave, or he should stop this bombing and shelling, and let people go back home and be with their families. It’s that simple. All the nations of the world should condemn his actions, and let us go home.”
“In the last two years, more than 100-thousand people have been killed in Syria and millions are now refugees, in need of humanitarian aid,” says host Madeleine Brand. “Now, where intervention on humanitarian grounds is codified in the UN mandate Responsibility to Protect -- what does that mean for Syria?
“I put that question to Mark Danner at the New York Review of Books- whether to aid the Syrian rebels and with more arms or air power, or whether to do more to help the more than six million people in need of humanitarian assistance. This debate is not something that can be fit into neat ideological or partisan boxes. As we heard earlier, not all who adamantly support the idea of the “Responsibility to Protect” agree it is time to intervene with armed force. Similarly, those who see national self-interest as the driving force behind US foreign policy choices also don’t agree on timing. I spoke to him about why he thinks now is not the time to intervene aggressively.”
Mark Danner: “If you are going to intervene, you want to have at least a scenario where you think you know what you're doing. Events on the ground will always diverge from that scenario, but you at least want to intervene with some notion of what you're trying to achieve. I think that requirement has not yet been met when it comes to Syria.”
Madeleine Brand: “Right, but are there any thresholds, redlines if you will, when it comes to intervening on a humanitarian basis or is it a case-by-case basis? In other words, does it have to be particularly horrific? Does there have to be a certain number of people killed or a certain number of people displaced?”
Mark Danner: “Well, I think we'd like to consider that one redline, when it comes to intervention, is genocide. The US is a signatory, as are most nations, to the Genocide Convention. Theoretically, if genocide is taking place, other nations have an obligation to intervene to stop it. One of the problems is the definition of genocide is rather complicated and somewhat broad. It has to do with the intention to destroy an entire people and very often, including in Bosnia and in Rwanda, people disagree on whether genocide is actually happening. In Rwanda, the United States ultimately admitted that genocide was probably happening, but dismissed the notion that it compelled US action. But I'd say that the red line is probably genocide and when we get to it, that debate perhaps might begin to happen when it comes to Syria. You have people claiming that this is a genocidal war in Syria, although it doesn't seem to fit the traditional definition of genocide. I'd say that's probably a red line. The fact is, in Syria, there are very few good choices when it comes to intervention.”
Understandably, the United States is leery and weary of getting into a protracted foreign crisis...especially in the Middle East. Rwanda and Bosnia are reminders that quick and decisive international intervention can prevent mass killings, and that even belated intervention - in the case of Bosnia can be better than nothing.”
Prudence Bushnell was serving as the deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Bushnell and her team tried to appeal to the US military to jam the radio signals in Rwanda, which Hutu extremists were using to spread propaganda and fuel the genocide.
“I come back to the fact that I was given wide latitude in terms of strategies to stop the killing as long as I didn’t do anything meaningful to stop the killing,” said Bushnell.
But without endorsements from the top US foreign policy officials, either the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher at the time, or the head of the National Security Council, Anthony Lake, the military declined to find a way to jam the signals. US inaction in the case of Rwanda is one of the darkest moments in the history of US foreign policy.
And the reason for the inaction, Rwanda was just not a foreign policy priority. Here’s former National Security advisor, Anthony Lake:
“I think the problem here, for me, for the president, for most of us at senior levels, was that it never became a serious issue. We never came to grips with, what in retrospect should have been a central issue of do we do much more to insist that the international community intervene and go out and find the troops that are necessary, or even contemplate an American intervention itself. That issue just never arose,” said Anthony Lake.
Clearly, in the case of Syria, the issue of intervention has been raised.
Bushnell said, “I can understand why the White House has decided not to make a decision about Syria. I can understand because I've been in the bureaucracy. Every foreign policy decision is based in good part on domestic political considerations and international pressure. The White House has made the decision that it has not been in our national interest certainly not to intervene with boots on the ground. What I missed - I missed this from President Obama's foreign policy in general - is I missed a sense of what it is the United States stands for, as to ultimately what our vision is, what we are striving for as a major leader in the international community. What I have missed all along, as I said, from this administration is a guiding principle, our north star, if you will.”
And when it came to the other major humanitarian crisis, Bosnia, where it became increasingly clear that ethnic cleansing was going on, the United States vacillated. And then, of course, there was also Bosnia. As with Syria, the White House knew what was going on in Bosnia but waited to act. The conflict started when George H.W. Bush was President:
“We are not going to get bogged down in some guerrilla warfare, and I don’t care what the pressures are,” said former President Bush.
It wasn’t until 1995, when President Clinton was in office, after tens of thousands of civilians had been killed, that the United States and its allies intervened.
Here’s the now well-known exchange between CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, and President Clinton on Bosnia:
Amanpour: “Why, in the absence of policy have you allowed the US and the West to be held hostage to those who do have a clear policy: the Bosnian Serbs. Do you not think that the constant flip flops of your administration on the issue of Bosnia sets a very dangerous precedent and would lead people to take you less seriously than you would like to be taken?”
Clinton: “No, but speeches like that make them take me less seriously than I would like to be taken. There have been no constant flip flops, madam. I ran for president saying that I would do my best to limit ethnic cleansing and to see the United States play a more active role in resolving the problem in Bosnia.”
“I asked Mark Danner, who covered the Bosnian conflict closely for the New York Review of Books, what was going on,” said Madeleine Brand.
Madeleine Brand: “So, just give us a little bit of background there in terms of why we waited so long to intervene and then, what precipitated the ultimate intervention.”
Mark Danner: “The debate about Bosnia—it’s interesting to me—reflects, I think, later debates, including the present one about Syria. You can divide it into two parts. One is realist reasons, reasons having to do with stark American interests and the second is humanitarian interests. Is the US obliged to intervene when people, innocent people many times, civilians, are being massacred? Does the United States have an interest to intervene to protect the innocent? This debate raged for years, while hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were killed and finally, the US intervened in a sense in 1995-96 because the Clinton Administration found itself forced to.”
Forced to, because Clinton was up for re-election in 1996 and getting a lot of pressure on Bosnia from his opponent Bob Dole. In Bosnia, the United States essentially denied that genocide was going on.
“I mean, first the diagnosis of the conflict in Bosnia from a political standpoint was that this was age-old ethnic hatreds about which nothing could be done,” said Jon Western.
Jon Western, currently a professor at Mt. Holyoke College. He was an analyst at the State Department in 1992 at the beginning of the atrocities. Every day he read through thousands of documents depicting horrific acts in Bosnia.
“For those of us who were analysts on the ground, the conflict looked a lot more like an elite-driven, highly coordinated campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide,” Western continued.
He and other State Department analysts were tasked with figuring out whether this was, in fact, genocide. The Genocide convention itself did not give very clear guidance. Even if they could prove this was genocide, there was no guarantee that the US would be expected to act. The Genocide Convention requires members to prevent genocide within their own borders, but:
“There's no obligation to respond to mass atrocity violence or genocide if it's happening in another state, and it's out of that kind of limitation of the genocide convention that R2P or the “Responsibility to Protect” emerged, moving from a condition under which we can observe, watch, express moral indignation and move it towards trying -- an affirmative response,” said Western.
Western and his team submitted a memo in late 1992 that documented a high degree of coordinated command and control between the Bosnia-Serb conventional army forces and the Bosnian and Serb paramilitary forces:
“What we saw there was a situation where the Bosnian-Serb army would launch artillery barrages against towns and villages, and after a couple days, they would then send in the paramilitary forces to kind of mop up and move people out, kill civilian populations and get others to flee, and over the course of the summer of 1992 and the spring of 1993, we saw systematic patterns of mass violence against civilian population, so from an analytical perspective, we made the determination that this constituted genocide,” said Western.
At that time, George HW Bush was still in office. As his Administration was on its way out, senior policy officials did not act on Western’s memo on genocide. But they did respond to another humanitarian crisis. It would prove to be an important influence on what President Clinton did on Bosnia. Bush decided to launch an UN-sanctioned humanitarian mission into Somalia, where millions faced starvation. The US led multilateral mission successfully saved a 100,000 lives.
Western continues, “ . . . and I think this is what often gets lost when we talk about intervention in different contexts. Most events don't happen independently. They're very much linked to other things happening at the same time. In the case of Somalia and Bosnia, those two cases were very much linked.”
By October 1993, US troops on a humanitarian mission in Somalia became embroiled in the power struggles of a local warlord.
That led to the now well-known “Black Hawk Down,” incident in which some of the bodies of 18 dead US soldiers were dragged through the streets by Somalis.
“As a result of that, the administration almost quickly concluded that it wasn't going to do anything additional in Bosnia,” said Western.
The Black Hawk Down incident provided the Clinton Administration with a reason not to intervene in Bosnia. And when Jon Western’s memo on genocide in Bosnia was passed onto the Clinton White house, again - nothing was done. And so Jon Western resigned in protest:
“ . . . and by the summer of 1993, I made the decision that I could probably do better trying to end the conflict than working in the US government.”
That was two years before the US decided to use force. And when US led NATO airstrikes were finally approved, Western says:
“In August of 1995, the war stopped on a dime.”
NATO’s use of force was immediately successful in compelling the Serbs to see they had no good options but to sign the Dayton Peace Accords. When those accords were signed, the war ended. And while opponents of intervention had long pointed out the risks of military action, NATO’s success showed that sometimes decisive military force could be used to stop mass atrocities and protect civilians.
Christiane Amanpour, who had harshly questioned Clinton on his “flip flopping” and lack of decisive action on Bosnia, had this final note:
“The truth of the matter is that later . . . the United States did lead a successful end to the Bosnian War. And the peace holds until today.”
With the conflict in their country escalating, more and more Syrians are taking refuge in neighboring countries. 37-year-old Sirine Malas left Syria in February, and is now living in Beirut, Lebanon. Reporter Ben Gilbert met her there, and asked her about her thoughts on US intervention in Syria.
Now, to Beirut, and to a bar called Radio Beirut, where the DJ’s here are live-streamed on the Internet. A lot of Syrians hang out here – activists, artists, musicians . . . journalists. Including Sirine.
“My name is Sirine Malas, I’m 37-years-old, I’m a writer. The NGO I founded is called SRDH development, or in Arabic, Sirdeh, and I founded it in, last June . . .”
Her NGO has set up a kindergarten for Syria children in Beirut and helps with other development-related projects. The co-founder, Rami Suleiman, is currently detained by the Syrian government. Sirine herself is living in Lebanon because it’s safer.
“I left on the fourth of February, 2012. That day . . . I came to Lebanon for only a couple of days only, for work, just for work. Then I started getting news – don’t come back. You know, people are asking about it. Stick where you are. And I spent a year here.”
Sirine was afraid Syrian security services were after her, because of her support for the opposition. Now, she goes back and forth to Damascus, but her home is in Beirut. She says that at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, she was opposed to foreign intervention in Syria.
“We were opposed, because it’s like a taboo to us. It’s always perceived as treason. It’s always perceived as, we shouldn’t be doing that, let’s fix it together. But sometimes when you’re dying, you can go to your enemy to save you. So now, it’s like a dilemma, with us, I’m not saying I’m with Western intervention. I was one of the first people against it, but the truth is that they’re the only ones who can stop this.
Ben Gilbert: “You think the West should have intervened and, what? Taken out Assad, bombed Damascus?”
Sirine Malas: “Like in Libya. In Libya, it finished very quickly. We didn’t want them to intervene, because we didn’t want people to die. There are over two hundred thousand people dying, people . . . getting detained, and it’s going on and on. When is it going to stop? Do you get my point, we don’t want people to die, and we don’t want the west to intervene, but there’s no other way. No other way.”
Given the amount of people dead in Syria and the reports of torture and other atrocities, and the inaction on the part of the US and other powers -- where does that leave the “Responsibility to Protect,” also known as “R2P?"
“Well, I have nothing but praise for the responsibility to protect movement,” Michael O’Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “On the other hand, I’m struck that our invocation of that concept today is no more impressive than it was 20 years ago. If anything, we’re a little slower in handling Syria than we had been in handling Bosnia, so frankly I’m not sure responsibility to protect has achieved anything close to the kinds of outcomes that would have been hoped for, but even if it’s contributing incrementally, that’s still good, and sometimes you have to be happy with or at least partially satisfied with avoiding the worse outcomes rather than achieving the best outcomes.”
And the Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Stewart Patrick says:
“If there are a number of repeated situations in which atrocities are massive and the international community stands by, then the R2P norm risks being so divergent from the reality of state practice and state conduct that it begins to lose its credibility. And if a norm is never implemented, then it just simply appears to be a window dressing or cynically invoked on the odd occasion, then that’s a major problem.”
Patrick argues that the principle might best work in areas in which the geopolitical stakes for the United States are much lower. Mark Danner, who covered conflicts like Bosnia and Iraq for the New Yorker magazine, says that in the future, coordination for international humanitarian intervention will remain elusive:
“There isn't an international mechanism for intervention. One could conceive of some kind of force under UN auspices that would reply to situations of clear genocide, but in fact, that force simply does not exist. There is no UN force. There are individual militaries around the world which lend forces to peacekeeping missions, Blue Helmet missions, under the auspices of the UN and those peacekeeping missions, of course, are supposed to be exactly that. They're supposed to be keeping a peace that's been arrived at. So, in effect, if indeed you have another genocide, some nation or combination of nations are going to have to decide to do something. I mean, this is what happened in Bosnia, as well. Several years of what seemed very clearly to be genocide happened under the nose of the international community and in fact, under the gaze of peacekeepers from all of the US allies and the United States, of course, had planes flying overhead; had its Navy and Air Force planes overhead and essentially watching the slaughter.”
But Father J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard argues that we, as a world community, have made progress in discussing how to avert or stop humanitarian crises:
“It would have been very hard to have that kind of discussion 25 years ago. So the fact that it is commonly accepted as a discussion that needs to be going on in states, among states at the UN is all to the good. Secondly, I don’t think, at least in my judgment, that R2P, responsibility to protect, has become customary international law. It is still in tension with the classical sovereignty non-intervention principle.”
And that non-intervention principle, he says, is good because it tends to protect small states from old-fashioned imperialism.
Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Institute for Scholars seconds the notion that Responsibility to Protect is not a binding international principle:
“It’s part of the great powers’ job description, frankly, to behave in anomalous, inconsistent, and often contradictory fashion. The United States, despite the best of intentions, it respects international law when it suits it and ignores it when it doesn’t. And on the issue of R2P, it seems to me that an American capacity to consider intervention is going to be based primarily on what it judges to be its own interests, the severity or difficulty of the task at hand, and the potential problems that it might cause. So, there are many different reasons why the United States would choose to involve itself in Conflict A and not involve itself in Conflict B, and while from a moral, humanitarian, and ethical point of view that may be appear to be and perhaps is -- it does reflect a certain degree of moral bankruptcy, the reality is, this is how great powers in this international system behave.”
Even so, former State Department analyst Jon Western argues that there’s still value in the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect”:
“It’s premised on the right set of ideas. Everybody agrees on the core values that we should stop genocide and prevent genocide. So it's not going to go away. The question is how to better institutionalize it, and here I think, looking at, for example, the Brazilians who were very upset about the way in which NATO used the R2P and UN Security Council resolution in Libya to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, rather than abandon R2P, the Brazilians went back to the table and said "How do we make it better?" and they developed this concept called responsibility while protecting, RWP, which basically creates new institutional mechanisms and we're still debating it in the international community.”
“The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine is absolutely not dead. It’s alive and well at the preventative level,” said Evans.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans says even if it isn’t working in Syria, the doctrine is working elsewhere:
“It’s alive and well in terms of the commitment that states are making to it in General Assembly debates. Even since the Libya episode, we’ve had at least three occasions in which the Security Council has passed resolutions in Mali, South Sudan, Yemen invoking specifically the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ concept. So the fact that things have gone off the rails in Syria doesn’t mean that we have to abandon all hope of some sanity and rationality about dealing better with these situations in the future.”
A future that is certain to provide the international community with more humanitarian challenges, pulling us between our strategic interests and our moral imperative to protect.