Values Matter in International Relations


As debate continues whether a military intervention is imminent to deter Syria from using poison weapons in its grisly civil war, the world community seems confused about the outcome of so called limited use of force by America. Civil war in Syria has been going on for about two years with attendant fatalities of more than 100000 deaths and its regional implications are too serious to ignore.

While none is sure about the outcome of armed intervention in Syria, which the Obama administration is almost set to launch, should the U.S. Congress give blessing, experts are busy analyzing the legality of such use of force against the background of lack of UN Security Council authorization.

Unsurprisingly though the State Department legal advisors may cite the past precedents, in particular, the Kosovo intervention in 1999, which then was not backed by the resolution of the UN Security Council to justify the proposed military intervention in Syria. Nevertheless, they should not be unaware of the loss of credibility which the armed intervention in Iraq by former president George W. Bush in 2003 brought to the U.S. leadership, when the UN was bypassed.

A parallel exists between Iraqi situation of 2003 when its former president Saddam Hussein was accused of possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction (MAD) and now in Syria where its beleaguered president Bashar al-Assad has been blamed for gassing its own citizens on August 21. Then Iraq was alleged to have violated the international norm by breaching the UN Security Council resolution (687), which had obliged it as one of the UN members to disarm in the wake of 1990-91 Gulf War.

U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the suspicion of hiding nuclear, biological and chemical weapons categorized as MAD, was launched even before the UN inspectors’ team had verified the existence of such horrific weapons and coincidentally American administration under Barack Obama, who is known as a anti-war president based on his previous stands, is moving towards armed intervention in Syria before the UN inspectors have submitted their reports, let alone their confirmation of use of chemical weapons by Assad.

How determined is the current U.S. leadership in attacking Syrian military targets is evidenced not only by its decision to move aircraft carriers with Tomahawk cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea but also by president’s speech which he gave recently blaming Assad for using chemical weapons. Roger Cohen, an op-ed columnist of the New York Times in his piece “Make Assad Pay” has quoted Obama who said ”We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that is so, then there need to be international consequences.” His Secretary of State John Kerry has repeated the same version emboldening the suspicion that military attack is likely on that ground.

Doubtless that there is international taboo against chemical weapons that include harmful gases like sarin, nerve gas etc. because 189 members of the UN have abjured the scourge of such weapons by becoming parties to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The use of these gases must be condemned and the perpetrators of the same must also be brought to justice , however, in the name of doing justice can we throw the existing architecture of enforcing rule of law that governs inter-state relations into a waste paper basket.

Shouldn’t we adhere to the UN Charter, the central treaty of modern era is the question asked by international law expert David Kaye, in his Foreign Affairs feature “The Legal Consequences of Illegal Wars”. If the U.S. as a self-declared world’s policeman, finally decides to launch military intervention in Syria on the ground that it believes president Assad has used chemical weapons against the Syrians, it should, as advised by David Kaye, think coolly about what the legal and institutional consequences of law-breaking might be.

Some advocate that the use of force by the U.S. in Syria in absence of UN blessing is justifiable citing the examples of former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They conducted unilateral military campaigns in Libya (1986) and Afghanistan and the Sudan (1998) respectively without seeking international endorsement, which means UN Security Council resolution. But let’s not forget that both presidents then defended their action claiming self-defense.

A look at the relevant Article of the UN Charter on member states’ right to use force would be in order. It says “States are generally prohibited from using force against other states unless they are acting in individual or collective self-defense or pursuant to an authorization of the UN Security Council. Many are skeptical if the American leadership can invoke this provision in Syrian intervention as there is no direct threat to the security of the Americans.

Smart lawyers may advise the president that they can rely on the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) to craft an exception to the above UN Charter requirements. But one should not turn a blind eye to the vital point that R2P, even though endorsed from the UN Summit in 2005 (commemoration of 60th anniversary of the UN), would be illegal if not backed by Security Council authorization.

A former Australian Foreign Minister and Chancellor of Australian National University, Gareth Evans in his Project-Syndicate essay “Diplomacy and Double Standards” has argued that R2P is inherently flawed, because the major powers will always be immune from intervention, not only because five (China, France, Russia, UK, and U.S.) of them exercise Security Council veto, but also because of their inherent military strength.” Viewed from this perspective the frequent invocation of such controversial principle in managing international affairs puts a small country like Nepal at a greater advantage.

In his opinion the U.S. eagerness to punish Assad on his alleged use of prohibitive weapons even without UN sanction and cool response to the military suppression of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt is akin to America’s espousal of double standards.

At a time when the region of Middle East is burning fueled by Shitte-Sunni divide and continuous struggle for regional leadership, it would be unwise to undertake a military campaign in Syria enlisting support from the “Coalition of the Willing” rather than focus on comprehensive diplomacy. Such diplomacy should aim at resolving the wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East, which is a bigger threat to world peace according to David Brooks, whose thoughts have appeared in his latest New York Times piece “One Great Big War”.

The present world may be American-led and American-protected as opined by Roger Cohen but values matter a lot in international relations. America should be able to erase the growing perception around the world that some lives are more important than others. Continuing to offer billions of dollars to the military that kills the citizens because the latter oppose their policies in one country and leading the military campaign in another in the same region only because Syria has been alleged to have used banned weapons will always question the credibility of the leadership.

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