Syria: Universal Human Rights And The State Of Sovereignty

Plato’s theory of the forms states that there is an overarching truth or universality; that our ideas and objects (beauty, virtue, chairs) are mere knock offs of these ubiquitous truths. The 1648 Westphalia treaty set parameters for state sovereignty. However, the nature of sovereignty has been in such flux that it can indeed be considered an abstract concept.  In the last 50 years there has been a shift from non-intervention during the cold war period – with exceptions noted below – to the humanitarian interventionist stance of the 1990’s which saw responsibility to protect (R2P) as integral to a state’s legitimate sovereignty.  Tony Blair used the term post-Westphalian to denote the increasing responsibility on sovereign states to act on a humanitarian basis. This vacillation leads to the idea that sovereignty is still abstract, contextual and far from Plato’s ideal form.

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” – Socrates

Human rights must be approaching the standards of Plato’s theory of the forms; as they are, at least in theory, universal and just.

A 2001 report published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) attempts to consolidate human rights with sovereignty. The ICISS have demarcated, all be it opaquely, when intervention is required. This has led to suggestion that the international community is shifting toward a more interventionist approach. However, despite the stance of the ICISS, the international community’s reluctance to intervene in the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, lends weight toward the notion that sovereign states need only act in their self-interest. What does the Syrian refugee crisis and human rights violations under the Assad regime say about the state of sovereignty?


A Very Brief History of the Syrian Civil War

“Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time”- Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

The first shots which triggered the Syrian civil war were fired by President Bashar al-Assad’s military against civilians during a peaceful Arab-spring demonstration in March 2011. By July 2011 a liberation organisation, the Free Syrian Army, was formed by civilians and military defectors. In 2012 the USA and nine other members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) attempted to impose sanctions on Syria which aimed to stop the Syrian government’s weapons proliferation, involvement in terrorist activities, and its attacks on Syrian civilians. However, the UNSC failed to ratify these sanctions due to the veto of permanent council members Russia and China. A proxy war began in 2013 which saw support for the rebels by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and the USA, and support for the Assad regime by Iran. In August of 2013, Assad used chemical weapons against civilians killing 1,429 individuals, including 426 children, although Assad denied these figures. In an address to the nation, President Barack Obama stipulated the USA’s position to the use of chemical warfare, stating:

“The United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 governments that represent 98 percent of humanity. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people – to those children – is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

This initial intervention was not followed through by the USA. However, due to the growing threat of terrorism posed by ISIS, exacerbated by ISIS claiming responsibility for the beheading of two American citizens, President Obama announced in September 2014 that the USA would conduct airstrikes in Syria against the terrorist organisation. In October 2015, Russia officially intervened in Syria bolstering the Assad regime. In late 2016, coordinated airstrikes conducted by the Russian military decimated the rebel forces in Aleppo.

The dying days of 2016 ushered in the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s 4 year battle of Aleppo. Fighting in Aleppo has ostensibly ceased but it leaves in its place the death of thousands and the displacement of millions of individuals.  Aleppo which was, before the outbreak of civil war, the largest city in Syria is for all intent and purpose a pile of rubble. Reports of mass executions and barrel bombing by the Assad regime against civilians are prolific. Civilians who managed to flee the city have ended up being held by Assad’s military in makeshift internment camps. Further driving the atrocities of the siege on Aleppo are the reports of sexual violence which have led at least 20 women into choosing suicide over what they fear would be inevitable rape. Since the civil war erupted in March 2011, it is estimated that 400,000 Syrians have died, 11 million have been forced to evacuate their homes, 4.8 million have fled to neighboring countries, and 6.6 million are internally displaced.


Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention: A Zero Sum Game?

“{Sovereignty is} supreme legitimate authority within a territory”  – Daniel Philpot

Philpot’s beautifully truncated definition of sovereignty has the ubiquitous “catch all” nature that I believe would be accepted by Socrates. Unfortunately, as infallible and gracile as this definition may be in theory, the caveat becomes apparent when the word “legitimate” is put into practice.

The signing of the Montevideo convention – which entered into force December 26, 1934 – circumscribed the nature and requirements of legitimate statehood. Although the signing of Montevideo was isolated to countries within the American continent, the convention codified international legal norms, and as such was applicable to all members of international law.  Article 1 of the convention pertains to the requirements of the state, noting:

“The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

While article 3 of the convention refers to the requirement of recognition by other states:

“The political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.”

Article 8 notes:

“No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another. “

Despite the atrocities committed against Jewish citizens of Germany during World War II further non-interventionist support can be observed in the 1945 founding charter of the United Nations in which Article 2 (7) holds, if a dispute is confined to a domestic jurisdiction no other State may intervene.

In contrast, the 2001 R2P report published by the ICISS highlighted that the function of the state was to protect its citizens from undue persecution and human rights violations. The report notes:

“Sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe – from mass murder and rape, from starvation – but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.”

The inability or unwillingness of the State to perform this function would act as just provocation for the international community to intervene on humanitarian grounds. A case which highlights the counter-intuitive nature of the UN can be found in the ICISS referral to the 1978 Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia. The UN condemned this intervention as unlawfully breaching Cambodian sovereignty under the non-intervention principle. This condemnation came despite the genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, a regime which contravened almost every article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The ICISS report holds that sovereignty is not only superseded by universal human rights but the legitimacy of the state is dependent upon the fulfillment of the responsibility to protect.

The Genocide Convention further codifies the State’s obligation toward its people as Article 1 stipulates:

“The state carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement.”

Article 2 puts impetus on the international community to protect individuals from crimes against humanity:

The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling this responsibility;

As does Article 3 essentially legitimizing intervention:

“The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes.”

If we were to view the Montevideo convention in a vacuum, we slip into an atomized world of non-intervention where common humanity is lost to self-interest and the letter of the law. The declaration of human rights combined with the post-Westphalia era has undoubtedly mitigated the autonomy of the state as enshrined in the Montevideo Convention. This has led some to say that absolute sovereignty and universal human rights are irreconcilable. However, recall Philpot’s terse axiom that it is the “supreme legitimate authority within a territory” that denotes the sovereignty of a state. The international community’s uptake of the responsibility to protect now legitimates the use of humanitarian intervention; reconfiguring the notion of sovereignty in the process. As such, it is redundant to view sovereignty and human rights in zero-sum terms.

Intervention in a Failed State

“Failed states are tense, deeply conflicted, dangerous and contested bitterly by warring factions.”  – Robert Rotberg

Can Syria be considered a failed state and if so does this strengthen the legality of intervention? In situations of civil war, legitimacy goes to the existing government. This is paradoxical as it implies that whichever government is ruling must be considered legitimate. Therefore, to delineate we need to consider the notion of a state failing. The debate on the existence of a “failed state” is contentious. Some scholars note that there is insufficient criteria and lack of concurrence to define a state as failed, while others see the notion of state failure as a hegemonic construct. However, the school of thought that does view an ontological basis for state failure defines it as the government’s inability to “…maintain public services, institutions, or authority, and that central control over territory does not exist.” Details of the Assad government’s failure to protect its people from gross human rights violations have been detailed in a recent report published by the UN Human Rights Council. Further, the government does not have effective control of the country. The Fragile States Index of 2016 lists Syria at number 6 in the world. The argument can be made that Syria is indeed a failed State. Some scholars would say that failure does not lead to the revocation of statehood; it does, however, mean that it has lost the legal capacity to exercise it. As such, intervention under R2P would appear to be legally justifiable.

 Gambits and Endgame

“Syria has always been, and will remain, a free and sovereign country that won’t accept submission and tutelage.” – President Bashar al-Assad

Granting anonymity and freedom from interference to the state has cast an egalitarian light across the international community. Sadly, the liberal ideology contained within the Montevideo Convention has proved incongruous with the principles of universal human rights. The non-interventionist stance has created a pillar which certainly impedes the proliferation of common humanity across all sovereign states. However, R2P now legitimates the use of humanitarian intervention and as such we are seeing a further variation to the nature of sovereignty. Unfortunately, in light of the atrocities committed under the Assad regime and the lack of, sovereignty still appears to limit the international community’s ability for concise action. A despotic leader will incrementally exert power; clandestine actions will habituate citizens to the ruler’s way of law and life. However, due to the very essence of the dictator, there is a turning point, a moment of clarity for the audience in which the curtain lifts and the tyranny with egocentricity that make Bieber appear pious are revealed. For Assad, that moment was the use of force against the peaceful protesters of the Arab Spring. Does a leader who uses chemical weapons against civilians deserve to be labelled a leader? Is six years of rebuked attempts by intergovernmental organisations for peaceful negotiation enough to show the monomania of a despot? As an atheist named Christian I am an intuitively cynical and it is not without reservations that I say the interventions in Cambodia and Kosovo were the only true examples of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention is a self-interested war in sheep’s clothing. The natural resources and geo-politics of Syria are simply not worth the effort it would take to overthrow a perpetrator of crimes against humanity.

The liberties granted to those of us, who only by chance were, born into “free societies” is that we can make our own decisions. Is the universal uptake of human rights the height of human endeavor? Or is it sovereignty? Does common humanity make negotiations finite? The limitations of action and inaction have been illustrated throughout history; a rational mind will find partisanship bordering on impossibility. However, one must engage with the topic as it affects the present and future of the collective human experience.



Christian Harraway

Christian Harraway

Christian Harraway

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