The ‘double standards’ critique is not relevant to justify a military intervention in Syria, and denotes a dangerous romanticism in international relations.
As helpless spectators of the massacres in Syria, we are all outraged. Willingness to intervene is natural, and it can rely on the tradition that refuses to regard sovereignty as a shield behind which human rights could be grossly violated. Some then decree to wage war in the name of humanity, advocating “intervention”, a medical analogy used since the 19th century, giving war a ‘cleaner’ appearance, much like the controlled precision of a surgeon’s knife whose aim is not to kill but to heal.
But was Carl Schmitt not right when he said “whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat”? It is never “humanity” itself which wages war, but states citing the concept of humanity. Therefore, it is important to clarify the debate, and not rely on what Raymond Aron termed “vague and grandiose words”.
Is There a Responsibility to Protect?
There is a common perception that the so-called international community has an obligation to intervene, to prevent or stop humanitarian catastrophes. This idea is usually called “responsibility to protect” (R2P), from the title of a report submitted by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. It is said that this responsibility “exists” – and that it gives legal justification to intervene – since it was adopted by the UN General Assembly at the World Summit Outcome of 2005.
But what kind of responsibility does it entail? A responsibility signifies more than a mere permission or allowance, it is an obligation. However, the 2001 report speaks nowhere of duty – because there is no desire to commit nations to intervene. What the report really defends is a right to intervene in cases of gross violations of human rights, which is a completely different concept. Does a “responsibility” to protect have any true significance, if what we really mean is that we can intervene as we see fit?
The text adopted by the UN four years later is even weaker. It abandoned the idea of a “constructive abstention” of the veto with respect to situations of humanitarian emergency where no vital national interests of the permanent members are involved. It also turns the “collective” responsibility into a “UN” one, thereby excluding the possibility of an “illegal but legitimate” intervention outside the UN framework.
Significantly, the 2005 version confirms the lack of responsibility. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, made this clear in his August 30, 2005, letter: “the obligation/responsibility discussed in the text is not of a legal character… We do not accept that either the United Nations as a whole, or the Security Council, or individual states, have an obligation to intervene under international law.”
The final articles say that the responsibility is first and foremost the one of “each individual state” to protect “its population”. This internal responsibility was already stated in international human rights law since 1948, and in international humanitarian law since even earlier. However, what about the external responsibility, that of the international community? States are “prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council”. But being prepared does not make it a legal requirement to do so. There is still no duty.
The R2P is a slogan that has some media efficacy but a rather dubious legal existence. That does not prevent the majority of observers asserting that it was the basis of Resolution 1973, authorizing intervention in Libya. That is not true either. The Resolution reiterated the internal responsibility “of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population”, but nowhere did it speak of an external responsibility of the international community to intervene. This does not imply that the concept did not play a role in the motivations of certain permanent members, only that it is not considered as a consensual “norm” worthy of being explicitly mentioned.
The military intervention in Libya did not represent an implementation of a purportedly universal “responsibility to protect”, but an ad hoc consensus among powerful states. Moreover, it was motivated by both humanitarian reasons and national interests, as British Prime Minister David Cameron explained in his March 18 speeches evoking the security risk for Europe, posed by terrorist threats and potential migration pressure. It is also a question of moral image and political gain. Nicolas Sarkozy used the intervention to consolidate his presidential calibre and keep the failures of French diplomacy in Tunisia and Egypt out of the limelight.
Is the ‘Double Standards’ Issue Really a Problem?
Because we intervened to save the Libyans and not the Syrians, those who invoke our “responsibility to protect” cite the “double standards” or selectivity critique. Bernard-Henri Levy asked the French president to initiate military intervention in Syria, as was done in Libya: "Will France do for Houla and Homs what she has done for Benghazi and Misrata?”
This attitude is based on the most minimal principle of justice: similar cases should be treated similarly. This recurring question emerges with each intervention: why Kosovo and not Chechnya? Why Iraq and not Darfur? It is legitimate since, on one hand, one professes to act on behalf of a universal rule – the protection of human rights – yet on the other hand, one does not apply it universally. Are there worthy victims, who deserve to be rescued, whilst others are deemed unworthy, and thus allowed to die? How can we justify this moral asymmetry?
As valid as it may appear, the double standards critique is a false problem, arising only to those with two convictions. First, that intervention is purely humanitarian or altruistic, and second, that there is a duty, not just a right, to intervene.
If intervention is not mandatory, it is selective per se. Intervening in Libya, for reasons that are unique to this particular situation, does not imply having to intervene in Syria or elsewhere. It is rather ironic that the same people who denounce the US, the UK, France or NATO as a “world police” also criticize them for intervening selectively, as if they were in charge of enforcing egalitarianism.
Also, the “selectivity” critique can worsen the situation. What exactly do those indignant of intervention in Libya and Kosovo, over Syria and Chechnya, actually propose? Probably not that we intervene everywhere, because they know there are prudential reasons not to declare war on Russia, nor to throw the entire Middle East into unrest. Do they ask then that we intervene nowhere? That out of logical consistency, we leave certain victims to die on the ground because we cannot save them all? That is absurd. Just because we cannot intervene everywhere, does not mean we should not intervene where it is possible to do so.
The principle of justice – similar cases should be treated similarly – makes perfect sense but, in this instance, how similar are the actual cases? Those who use the Libyan precedent to argue proactively for military intervention in Syria see only half of the problem. They compare the massacres, which are indeed similar, even arguably worse in Syria. In the words of the just war doctrine, we would have the same just cause to intervene. But if that were sufficient, we would have intervened against Russia for Chechnya, against China for Tibet, and wherever we have not done so because of the other criterion that is the likely consequence of the intervention. The rationale of humanitarian intervention is not for it to occur whenever it is justified, but for when it can save more lives than it kills.
Now, let us compare Libya and Syria in that respect. The different contexts in which these two conflicts are situated are reason enough to concur that the consequences of any military intervention would also differ. In Libya, the opposition had effective control over a part of the territory, the regular army was weak, and the risk of regional escalation was almost negligible. That is not to say the intervention had no regional impact – today we understand its consequences on the Western Sahel, particularly Mali – but Libya’s isolation avoided an extension of the war to neighbouring countries. In Syria, this is exactly the opposite: the opposition is brave and getting stronger, but they still lack permanent control over an important city. The regular army, equipped with modern Russian weaponry, is strong and above all, the country’s location at the heart of an explosive region, renders a very high risk of conflagration.
One would like us to believe that we do not intervene in Syria for legalist reasons, because Russia and China would block a Security Council resolution. It is comforting to use Russia and China as convenient scapegoats for the lack of intervention. However, if by hypothesis they would decide to support a resolution, it may be cause for great embarrassment in the West because nobody really wants a full-scale military intervention; for reasons which have nothing to do with legality – which did not prevent some of us from intervening in Kosovo and Iraq.
If we do not intervene in Syria, this is, on one hand, for prudential reasons: because we are afraid, not of “this paper tiger” as Levy wrote, but of doing more harm than good. And on the other hand, because we do not have the same interests to intervene in Syria that we had to do so in Libya. Barack Obama will not take any risk in a difficult re-election campaign, and the Europeans already fighting an economic war at home simply cannot afford to open a new costly front in the Middle East.
What we should do to help the Syrian people is not launch a massive Libyan-style intervention, but negotiate with Russia, harden the sanctions, refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and support the rebels.
A Dangerous Romanticism
Not asking the question in these terms — going no further than a principle of consistency requiring us to intervene either everywhere or nowhere — is to speak from the vantage point of the intervener, not the victims. The paradox being that it is those who, like Levy, appear to care the most about the victims, through vibrant calls for intervention to save them, who in doing so disregard their actual interests since they do not address the issue of the consequences of military intervention. They merely assume that war will solve their problems, since we have a just cause, and we have the “responsibility to protect”.
This military romanticism, particularly popular in a France that defines itself as the “homeland of human rights” (while historically it is no more than the UK and the US), shows that moral motivations are often narcissistic, and intervention is carried out not only to save lives, but above all the image we have of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the two nations which, given a claim to universality, are most likely to assume a messianic role in world affairs — the United States and France — have both developed interventionist doctrines: humanitarian intervention and the droit d’ingérence. They did so partly for self-image and identity reasons: France, to defend its self-proclaimed status, and the US to defend values they consider consubstantial with their identity – human rights, freedom and democracy – and also because they link their leadership to a responsibility to act.
This military romanticism is not only impractical, it is dangerous. In defending a doctrinal belief regardless of its consequences, it may propose remedies worse than its evils. Placing too much importance on vague notions – the R2P, which is not a legal obligation but a moral and political appeal or the concept of an “international community”, which is more wishful thinking than reality – and neglecting the interests of states, this attitude will not allow one to understand the selectivity of interventions. “Realism and acknowledgment of national egoisms,” as Raymond Aron argued, “is more favourable to being aware of others’ interests and ideas, than idealism or the cult of abstract principles.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs
on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This
doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.