In all the turmoil spare a thought for Syria’s victims
It has been a few weeks since the terrible Friday the 13th killings in Paris. Since that time terrorist attacks have taken place in Mali, Tunisia and Bangladesh but none provoked the same global outrage as the attacks in France.
In the aftermath of the carnage in Paris, some Lebanese went onto social networks to complain. They pointed out that a suicide bombing in Beirut only one day earlier, in which dozens of people were killed, had failed to elicit similar solidarity from the world. Others spoke of a double standard in the subdued reaction to the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai.
There was something unbecoming in all this, a way of demanding attention at a time of tragedy. But there was something true in it as well. People around the world will always react to a bloodbath in a great Western capital differently than to one in countries about which they know little, where political violence is endemic and whose values they perceive as alien to theirs.
Such indifference is, alas, widespread. For instance, very few people in the West — or Lebanon, Mali and Bangladesh — paid any attention to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which killed between 500,000 and 1 million people. All men may be equal but all victims certainly are not and the shabby reaction all around to the refugees from Syria is further confirmation of this.
What matters is not the publicity surrounding a terrorist attack, or whether individuals suddenly clamour “I am Beirut” or “I am Tunisia” but whether there is a global sense of shared values around which all people can rally and express their outrage and commonality. For now, that is largely absent.
It is hard to recall that the 1990s was a decade in which the ideals of humanitarian intervention were welcomed. So much so that after the Rwandan genocide and the massacre in the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica in 1995, the United Nations began pushing for adoption of an international norm, that of a Responsibility to Protect, to defend victims of war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
It was the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, that facilitated NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, to assist ethnic Albanians facing the abuses carried out by Serbian security forces. A similar rationale led to Western intervention in Libya in 2011, precipitating the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
The ensuing chaos in Libya did much damage to R2P, showing that it was not enough to shield civilians; what was needed was also a smooth post-war transition in order to stabilise countries. In other words, for R2P to be successful it frequently had to be accompanied by a major project of nation-building.
Yet the Iraq war of 2003 largely discredited nation-building. That is why President Barack Obama’s administration and most European governments were so reluctant to engage in Syria, fearing it would entail a monumental international effort, when they were facing financial crises and their societies were turning inward.
This alignment of factors meant that the suffering in Syria for a long time disappeared under the Western radar. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in one of the most savage wars in the modern Middle East, which has had its share of conflicts. Yet until Syrian refugees ended up on Europe’s doorstep last summer, it was a conflict towards which most Europeans were apathetic, one that seemed far away.
Now Europe knows otherwise. The impact of the Syrian chaos is being felt in the streets of its major cities. In other words, while reacting in solidarity with the victims of terrorism is laudable, it seems strangely insufficient when unaccompanied by solidarity with the victims of the very conflicts responsible for creating the extremists engaging in the terrorist acts.
The problem is that Western societies have no appetite for reinforcing an international order based on rights, humanitarian values and respect for international law. On the contrary, Europe and the United States until recently seemed detached from much of the world, pursuing an ideal of consumption and individualism in isolation. Self-absorption is defensible but, in an integrated world, problems elsewhere can quickly become domestic ones.
Perhaps the Western failure to grasp this is why the widespread sympathy with the dead and wounded in Paris disturbed people whose own dead and injured had been disregarded. But if so, the impulse was foolish. Whoever seeks solidarity with the aim of strengthening an international order based on human rights and humanitarian values cannot legitimately denounce those who identify with victims, even if the victims are elsewhere.
The West failed in largely abandoning the R2P norm in Syria. However, having since struggled with the consequences, attitudes may be changing. No one can casually say nowadays that Syria is “somebody else’s civil war,” as US President Barack Obama did in 2013. It is now everybody’s war, just as the victims in Paris, Beirut, Bamako, Tunis, Dhaka and above all Syria are everybody’s victims.