Colin Chapman on DOING SOMETHING

Image You hear it all the time. Why don’t they DO SOMETHING? Radio shock jocks, television couch potatoes, old warriors down at the RSL, students on campus, the chorus is that something must be done to stop the terrible slaughter of the innocents in Syria, where Medicines sans Frontiers has chronicled torture, even of children.

‘They’, of course, are the world community, or those parts of it that still believe there is a moral responsibility to act to prevent humanitarian crises, especially crimes against humanity.

But what?

I’m reminded of the hand-wringing by political leaders like former British prime minister Tony Blair when the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic began his brutal onslaught on Kosovo in 1998. Blair attended numerous European summits where there was much talk of intervention, but no follow-up. Russia blocked UN action. In the end Blair appealed to his friend, United States president Bill Clinton, and Milosevic’s reign of terror came to an end – at a price, of course.

We now have a not dissimilar crisis in the Levant. An opthomologist turned president, Bashir Al Assad, under the influence of his military, is engaged in indiscriminate killing of his opponents. The Arab League has intervened, without success. Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the UN, has been in and out of Damascus, and brokered a ceasefire, which did not work.

Attempts by the UN Security Council to end this conflict have been blocked by Russia and China, who both called for more dialogue, after their meeting in Beijing last week, which also involved Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

President Vladimir Putin’s plea for more dialogue is especially cynical. One week later, Russia is delivering new military helicopters to Syria which, as US secretary of state Hillary Clinton says, will escalate the conflict.

It perhaps should be said that it rather suits the US that Russia has blocked direct action in Syria, because the Americans themselves have no desire to get involved in another messy conflict in the Middle East, especially so soon after they have left Iraq to its devices, and plan shortly also to leave Afghanistan. The only leader who appears to have any taste for involvement is France’s Francois Hollande, and it is hard to see Paris translating talk into an action that would likely to be as long as it would be bloody.

But there is another consideration for Syria. What happened to the United Nations mantra of “Responsibility to Protect, Right to Intervene”. After its ineffectiveness in the Balkans in the 1990s, the UN adopted this concept.

One of the pillars of the UN declaration is that if a state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities – and peaceful measures have failed – the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures.

Of course, this is easier said than done. At the Glover Cottages on Tuesday next, June 18, Dr Robert Howard, a specialist on the UN, and members of the international committee of the NSW Young Lawyers’ Group will be looking at this important issue in some detail.

Please try and come. You can sign up on line here.

And you can read a lecture by former foreign minister Gareth Evans here.

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in New South Wales


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