A test of our humanity

Tasneem Jamal

Author
Cesar Jaramillo

From the Director’s desk

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 4 Winter 2015

The international introspection that followed the 1994 Rwandan genocide seemed a genuine effort to comprehend how the global community of nations could have allowed the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings—despite abundant warning signs about the impending violence. After the blood had dried on all the rusty machetes that were the weapon of choice, there were hearings and reports, mea culpas and finger-pointing, films and doctoral dissertations. Lessons learned and best practices.

Lessons learned?

Emboldened by hindsight, pundits and scholars pointed to an inadequate international security architecture, which lacked the diplomatic, military, and humanitarian response capacity to stop the killings. They pointed to lack of political will, and underfunded and understaffed UN peacekeepers. And along with all the condemnation came the apparently sincere determination to ensure that such egregious international negligence would “never again” occur.

More than two decades later, and well into the 21st century, machetes have been replaced by AK-47s. As Syria slowly disintegrates, the same states that were the audience to Rwanda look on timidly once more. Scenes of unspeakable carnage and human suffering in Syria have become commonplace as the humanitarian crisis has exponentially outpaced the global response.

By the time terrorists attacked and killed more than 130 in Paris, at least 250,000 Syrians had died in the country’s civil war. About the same number died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With no end in sight, the number of Syrian casualties will continue to grow.

For all the “lessons learned,” it seems that old habits die hard in global affairs. Some of the same countries that seem unable to comprehend the genesis of the Syrian quagmire are vying for, and entering into, arms export deals with states such as Saudi Arabia—and thereby strengthening the same type of autocratic regime that turned Syria into a political pressure cooker.

How should Canada respond?

Canada’s new government is even now formulating its own foreign policy. It has the opportunity to base its response to the Syrian crisis on humanitarian imperatives. Whatever actions it takes now will be an important indicator of the type of approach and underlying assumptions that will inform Ottawa’s response to international security challenges.

The government’s announcement that Canada will accept 25,000 refugees is welcome, but is only one modest step, given the magnitude of the crisis, which is far from contained. The European Community’s capacity to respond to hundreds of thousands of refugees is being severely tested. Other countries, including Lebanon and Jordan, are at capacity—and beyond. A concerted, sustained multilateral effort to assist refugees must be a priority of the highest order for Canada and all responsible global actors.

While the flow of refugees is the most visible manifestation of the humanitarian emergency resulting from the Syrian conflict, many innocent civilians remain trapped in Syria, often caught in the crossfire of warring parties. It is imperative for Canada to engage with partners and allies to develop measures to protect this vulnerable population. Robust solutions (short of direct military engagement) could include internationally enforced no-fly zones and protective humanitarian corridors.

When the destruction finally ends, a long-term rebuilding strategy will be needed. If Syria is to reemerge as a viable state, it will require significant international engagement, coordination, and assistance. Whatever military component is deemed necessary for the stabilization of Syria must be complemented by significant investments in humanitarian assistance, support to refugees, arms control, security sector reform, political accommodation, and support for human rights and the rule of law. Canada should be a significant investor.

You can’t do it with guns

A common response to the Paris attacks and the ongoing violence in Syria is to fight fire with fire. Project Ploughshares will continue to caution strongly against the reliance on military responses in the absence of a broader political strategy to create the conditions for sustainable peace. Airstrikes don’t make peace.

As Project Ploughshares has long argued, there is a need to advance, in Syria and elsewhere, a comprehensive security envelope: the “5 Ds.” They encompass:

  • Development – Measures to create the kinds of economic, social, and environmental conditions that are conducive to sustainable peace and stability;
  • Democracy – Measures to promote good governance that emphasize political inclusiveness and participation, as well as respect for human rights;
  • Disarmament – Measures to prevent excessive and destabilizing accumulations of arms and to prohibit weapons of mass destruction;
  • Diplomacy – Engagement in multilateral efforts toward the prevention of armed conflict, the peaceful management of political conflict, the development of a rules-based international order, and the promotion of development, democracy, and disarmament; and
  • Defence – The capacity to resort to the use of force in extraordinary circumstances in support of the full range of peace and security efforts.

Yet there remains a huge global imbalance between the resources and attention devoted to military approaches and those devoted to broader political and diplomatic strategies to ensure sustainable peace. Even as the Syrian refugee crisis unfolds under the most scrutiny and media coverage experienced in recent memory, the global humanitarian response flounders due to inadequate funding.

The Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan (3RP) established to respond to the Syrian crisis—made up of more than 200 NGOs and UN agencies, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—has not been able to secure the $4.5-billion it needs to meet projected demand for 2015. It is projecting a 59-per-cent funding gap by the end of the year. If NATO member states, Russia, and China were to share the responsibility for that amount, each would need to contribute only $150-million.

Professional boxer Floyd Mayweather has made twice that amount this year alone.

Much can—and must—be done. This is a test, not only of the international capacity to respond to a humanitarian crisis, but of the character of nations and our very humanity.

We can do much more

At the 20th-anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lamented, “We could have done much more. We should have done much more.” The same can be said about Syria. Many lives have been irretrievably lost. But many can still be saved. The global community is capable of forging a robust emergency plan to tackle this undeniably formidable humanitarian crisis. “Much more” must be done now.

Mea culpas about the Syrian collapse can come later—if they come at all.

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