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A.-M. Lizin: Indirect Interventionism: Consequences for the Geneva II Peace Conference

Speech at the UPF Interfaith Consultation on the Crisis in Syria
Amman, Jordan, October 11-13, 2013

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013

This article does not have the intention to philosophize about international law. Rather, I will try to give some guidelines regarding the evolution of interventionism in the last two decades, in order to be able to discuss some conclusions applicable to the Syrian war and to the future Geneva II Peace Conference. After discussing the theory of interventionism, I attempt to analyze the current Syrian conflict in terms of international law and the responsibility to protect (RTP), and draw conclusions based on RTP about a good course for peace activists to take in this serious, ongoing war and in the Geneva II Peace Conference.

Democratic interventionism

If we begin to track interventionism in the international sphere, we see in the last 20 years a shift from interventionism for humanitarian reasons to what we might call “democratic interventionism,” namely interventionism based on the responsibility to protect the citizens from a dictatorship that is causing a huge amount of damage to its own population, not necessarily people suffering from poverty, hunger or illiteracy, with the objective of elections being held to restore a democratic state.

Wars may be classified on a scale ranging from illegal to legally justified:

Kosovo: the war was implemented without a resolution by the UN Security Council, but a Security Council resolution came two days after the war began and referred for the first time to the responsibility to protect unarmed civilians.

Iraq: The Iraqi war was obviously illegal in terms of international law: there was no resolution by the Security Council, no local support and no RTP.

Libya: A resolution by the Security Council mentioned RTP and a change of the institutional system of the state. During the course of the war, there was an evolution to just changing the system (at the end there was no more reference to RTP). The actions may be considered to have exceeded the scope of the resolution, which was ultimately distorted.

Syrian model: for the first time, an “indirect intervention” was implemented, with a resolution being made by the Security Council after war had already ravaged the country for two years. The Western group inside the Security Council failed to obtain any resolution for launching a war in Syria. The possibility of a veto by Russia and China created a strong sense of paralysis in this UN body, based partly on the West’s exceeding the terms of the Libya resolution a year earlier (an argument clearly used by the Russian authorities) and partly on the differences in the geopolitical interests of Russia in this Syrian/Turkish region.

De facto, the war began outside of any framework of international law and so far has remained in this situation. There have been a lot of declarations and public statements by various intelligence services, diplomats and heads of military units of the five members of the UN Security Council directly concerned about support being given to rebels or official Syrian authorities, but without any international legal basis. This is precisely what I refer to as “‘indirect intervention,” and this is the first example of it in the international system of law concerning war.

For a more complete analysis of this issue, see the splendid work of Prof. Reinart Merkel of the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Democratic interventionism refers to the possibility, with the agreement of the international community, of intervening militarily against a state that is unable or unwilling to exercise power in a legitimate manner.

A state has the duty to protect its citizens (Article 5 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) and, when it manifestly fails to do so, the international community (if united) may take far-reaching steps, up to Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This clearly means the right to use force to implement its responsibility to protect, with an external military force (ideally a UN force), while respecting the sovereignty of the state. The means to be used depend on the circumstances and the possibilities of diplomatic negotiations. The responsibility to protect clearly gives the international community the right to take active measures to provide the protection needed by the population of the state. This concept refers clearly to the legitimacy of a state.

When can a state be considered illegitimate?

A state may lose its legitimacy only in relation to its citizens. An external action against a state can only be justified if there is a loss of legitimacy within the state with regard to its citizens. It is impossible to justify an international action for external reasons; but when a state loses its legitimacy from within, it exposes itself to the possibility of external action.

To be legitimate, a state must organize free and fair elections, apply the rule of law and abide by the human rights conventions. If it fails to do so, its citizens have the right to take action to oppose the regime, including civil war. This is not self-defense; it is the principle of “necessity.”

In such a case, the duties of an illegitimate state towards its internal population have to be assumed by external groups. It should be mentioned here that during the Second World War, for example, the collateral killings by the US Army in Belgium and France were considered legitimate by the population living under German rule, even if they themselves were the victims of the external action.

The military action must abide by certain criteria, such as existing threats, positive objectives, ultimate solution and the use of proportional military measures.

Critical period: civil war supported by external “indirect” forces

In our analysis, we must take into account the internal population that refuses to engage in war, especially civil war: this population also has to be protected. This part of the internal population disagrees with the failing state but does not support military action by external forces, especially when this external action is not based on internationally accepted law (example: Syria with no resolution by the UN Security Council). The responsibility to protect means also to protect unarmed opposition people or groups.

Regarding the conference on the peace process: we may actively support the representation of this category of population at the negotiating table.

Post-military action period

This analysis of democratic interventionism linked to the responsibility to protect applies also to the post-military period. There are two major aspects to be discussed and implemented if we want a real role in the establishment of peace:

How to rebuild a state after a legitimate action against it? The example of Iraq after such an illegitimate action is a real shame, allowing a country to be completely destroyed and become completely disorganized. Regarding the conference on the peace process: we must insist that all forces involved in destruction and military actions are present at the negotiating table.

If we accept the analysis that the state (in this case, Syria) is illegitimate, we cannot support or sustain only that part of the citizenry who decided to engage in the armed struggle. The most difficult role, in this case, is to support those who decided to side with the opposition without taking up arms against the regime in power. When an armed action begins, those who decide not to engage in it are immediately considered traitors by both sides: by the regime in power, because they are from the opposition, and by the armed militias, because they are not engaging in their military actions.

Conclusions for Syria and the Geneva II Conference

1. Rebuilding the state

The institutional status of the state has to be discussed among all of the parties involved: should it be unified or federal? Syrians need to decide, and the question of the Kurds, who already organized themselves into groups during their military actions, will be the key issue on the agenda.

The map of the military forces on the ground must be agreed upon by the conference and translated into an equilibrated sharing of power.

Respect must be given to the army and the structures of the society, especially in terms of civil society, but also political parties (in the case of Syria, guarantees need to be given to the Baath Party and to the head of the Syrian army and armed services.

Empower women in the process.

Obtain from all religious groups, especially Sunni Muslims, a commitment to deliver messages to stop “self-proclaimed religious extremists.”

Stop all sources of ammunition and arms inside the state and begin a process of disarming militias.

Organize, through an international peace conference, a transitional government and democratic elections as soon as possible.

Confront those forces that will clearly not accept the conclusions of the peace conference and begin to eliminate them in a legitimate and explained process.

2. Give power to the opposition who did not engage in the armed struggle.

This has to be deliberately done in the Geneva II conference, because it has to come from those who are looking at the conflict from an external interventionist point of view, not only from a Syrian point of view. There is room now for a Russian/American initiative to support the group called the “Coordination Committee for Democratic Change” in Syria as the leader of the opposition delegation. The objective would be to have a moderate Sunni at the head of the transitional period in Syria to organize elections (Mr. Haytham Manna). The initiative has to come from outside in this case, but must be implemented by the Syrians.

3. The peace conference on Syria also has to demonstrate a willingness to accommodate all of the religions represented in the Syrian population.

Organizing a meeting with religious leaders in Geneva, in parallel to Geneva II, to share information from inside the international conference and to follow step by step the results of this conference is absolutely necessary. The religious leaders looking from outside will be most reluctant to accept a peace process that will not give them full victory, so the conference must find a way to stop them from having a negative influence.

4. Some recommendations for the components of the opposition delegation:

  • Take into account the huge importance of the non-armed opposition.
  • Contribute to the messages sent to the countries involved in financing armed struggle, and the religious forces supportive of them, in support of a ceasefire, coming from Muslim leaders and the Russian and American authorities.
  • Include Syrian women in all components of the opposition as a precondition to participation (this was already done at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan led by Mr. Brahimi).
  • Rebuild a Syrian state as a model for all Syrians (federal or unified?), and take the Kurdish situation into consideration. The new state must include the role of civil society and associations in all sectors of civil life.
  • Decide on a provisional government of Syria, headed by a Sunni without blood on his hands, involving all parties, both religious and secular, thereby correcting the current disequilibrium.
  • Organize, in a short period of time, democratic elections in 2014, under the control of a specialized, internationally accepted structure: the mission of the provisional government must be to prepare and conduct elections and to change the constitution so as to put democratic power into the hands of the newly elected bodies.

Hon. Anne-Marie Lizin, Honorary Speaker of the Senate of Belgium, was a member of the Belgian government from 1988 to 1992. She became speaker of the Senate of Belgium after being directly elected as a Senator for 20 years. She was elected as a member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1988 and was an independent expert with the Human Rights Commission in Geneva from 1998 to 2004. She has written a number of books while teaching in Paris and is now coordinator of the NGO League of International Women’s Rights in Paris, where she is in charge of the international network against early marriages.