Don McKinnon: We must do more to help Syria

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In the absence of UN consensus countries need to unite to find another way to stop mass killings.

Nato used the Responsibility to Protect resolution to intervene in Libya when its leader Muammar Gaddafi was indiscriminately killing his own people. Photo / AP
Nato used the Responsibility to Protect resolution to intervene in Libya when its leader Muammar Gaddafi was indiscriminately killing his own people. Photo / AP

Two of the strongest advocates of the need to "teach Bashar al-Assad a lesson" appear to be having difficulty in ensuring their actions have many supporters.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's loss of a vote in the House of Commons and President Barack Obama continuing to seek support from Congress put any action further away from when chemical weapons were used against the Syrian people.

It is not a small issue. All agree that chemical weapons should never be used. The horror of Saddam Hussein using them in Iraq and killing more than 50,000 people is not forgotten. I still remember New Zealanders in the 1950s who had been gassed in World War I- they did not have a happy life.

It is clear, however, that getting UN Security Council consent for such action looks very unlikely.

So are we just left to wring our hands and say we can't do more than what we have - and that is not much?

Al-Assad will feel emboldened by a lack of an immediate "Western" response and by the fact the Russians may help him.

So this poses the obvious question: at what point can a collection of governments work outside the UN Security Council architecture and should they so do?

The strongest example was the issue of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, particularly Srebrenica and later in Kosovo. There was no consent from the Security Council, with Russia in opposition to such a move. Ultimately, it was a coalition of Nato nations, particularly with strong American military assistance, that effectively brought an end to those killings.

It was the memory of Kosovo, and a desire not to see it happen again that prompted the initiative known as the "Responsibility to Protect" or R2P which established the basis for international action to prevent or stop the wholesale murder of innocent people by their governments.

The principle holds that military action, as a last resort, is justified to protect civilian populations from mass murder, provided the force used is proportionate to the threat likely to succeed and unlikely to cause more harm than good.

This R2P resolution was unanimously adopted by all member states of the UN.

It was also the basis for the Nato intervention in Libya more recently where Muammar Gaddafi was indiscriminately killing his citizens, particularly in the east of his country.

As it is obvious now there will never be consent for a military action in Syria supported by the Security Council, how does the world best respond to such atrocities?

If it is not Syria today, it will be somewhere else tomorrow.

One option is to ignore it because it's not in our interest to intervene. Remember 100,000 have died, 350,000 have apparently been injured and more than two million are refugees in neighbouring countries.

Or a solution could be pursued through diplomatic means and within the ambit of the UN. Both former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi put in hours and weeks with no result. And let's not forget the hours and hours of informal meetings of the Security Council trying without success to forge a consensus.

Another option is to develop a "coalition of the willing", a group of countries which believe al-Assad must be militarily punished for the use of chemical weapons, for what they have done, and because they have been outlawed internationally.

This of course is punishment; the war will no doubt continue, which is also saying death by any means other than gassing will probably continue.

A recent bipartisan group of senior US officials headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged the inclusion of R2P as a key element in American Foreign Policy as it answered the question of those who said "if it does not affect our national interests we do not engage".

The hope of this particular two-party group was to put a response to mass suffering and killing on a higher plane than national power politics. It is hard to disagree with.

So Kosovo and R2P does provide a template and a direction. Remembering that it was soon after it ended that Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was before the international tribunal answering for his crimes.

Establishing the coalition of the willing is something that President Obama must seek to achieve. Only with a large number of players supporting a military strike on chemical weapons areas would there be a chance of such action succeeding. That may not include the consent of the Arab world, but would they actively oppose it?

Time, however, doesn't stop, and to achieve that will be more difficult as each day goes by unless al-Assad repeats the action, killing more of his own people.

While it's easier to develop a solution around a single issue, even if it's difficult to implement, this will not be the last time.

Countries like New Zealand do have a strong feeling for people's rights everywhere, the challenge being what do you do that can bring "in-country genocide" to an end, whether in Syria, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, without the support of the UN.

Maybe we do have to take the issue of people's protection and R2P more seriously and develop agreed mechanisms to respond in the absence of a UN consensus.

New Zealanders want the UN to work, to fulfil the responsibility for which it was endowed, but we don't like giving up because it doesn't always work. There must be another way.

Sir Don McKinnon is a former Commonwealth Secretary-General.

- NZ Herald

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