There have been plenty of column inches in recent weeks dedicated to why the world should intervene in Syria: for most of us the unspeakable pictures of children with their throats cut from the massacre in Houla is enough. It seems undeniable that the world should do something in the face of genocide or likely genocide, but something – especially since Iraq – holds many of us back on the left from saying so.
So perhaps it’s useful to step back and look at a more fundamental, perhaps more philosophical point: how can we on the left not feel obliged to stop genocide in general, and not just its implementation within the constraints of the UN, via its doctrine of Responsibility To Protect (RTP)?
Does it not sometimes feel like people still see human life through a nineteenth century prism, where the nation state is all we care about? When it was simply not possible to make military interventions without mass loss of British life, and our interest in intervention was pure colonialism (as, in Diane Abbott’s parallel universe , it probably still is)?
But this is the twenty-first century. We no longer only care about other Britons, our colonial possessions and our allies. Many of us travel widely and form strong relationships with others from across the world, who we may just not want to be massacred.
The simple fact is that it is no longer appropriate, if it ever was, to behave as if we value the life of a single Briton more than multiple lives in a foreign country. We cannot make the daily grind of everyone in the developing world better. But we can at least try to stop them being deliberately killed by murderous regimes.
We feel moved and touched when we remember the Holocaust. Many of us feel guilty about Bosnia and Rwanda. But unless we learn to channel these feelings into a constructive, repeatable act, we will not prevent genocide on anything more than the current, haphazard basis.
There are two ways of reconciling ourselves to this, the most basic and justifiable reason for intervention.
The hard way is this: accept the awkward truth that there is a moral obligation to try to intervene in all circumstances where there is genocide or likely genocide.
If we cannot within the UN, it is perfectly legitimate to build a coalition outside the UN. It can work, and it did in Libya and elsewhere. That would be a true example of the “ethical foreign policy” that we as a party once promised.
The easy way is this, and it’s the way we often choose: there are a number of obvious reasons why we might decide, in our hearts, that we lack the will to intervene: be it isolationism, pacifism, anti-Americanism or something else. Then, armed with the subconscious motive, we set about looking for reasons in our heads as to why action is not possible, each of them wrong.
One: standing on international law. Intervention has not been approved by the UN, we say, despite the fact that the UN is a fundamentally flawed body , backed by an edifice of international law which is sometimes useful but also, by extension, fundamentally flawed.
It is dominated by a small group of five countries, chosen simply for having nuclear weapons; maintained because no-one can come up with a better idea; any of which can have a veto; and only three-and-a-half of which are, arguably, democratic.
If you want to see why RTP is badly hobbled by the dysfunctional UN structure under which it operates, you need look no further than the current case of Syria, where the structures are blocked by one man: an ignoble and grandstanding Vladimir Putin, struggling vainly to retain cold war spheres of influence while thousands are massacred.
Two: standing on the principle of non-interference in another nation’s sovereignty. Tosh. If you are killing large numbers of your own people, common sense dictates that you have forfeited all moral rights to be their legitimate government. End of.
Three: whataboutery. If we can’t intervene everywhere, we shouldn’t intervene anywhere. This is merely a seductive moral relativism, what happens in other cases is quite irrelevant. Besides, genocide just isn’t that common. Even if we can’t secure action in every single case, we should surely always try.
Four: resources. We can’t afford it, we could spend that money on twenty new hospitals, and so on. It sounds convincing, doesn’t it? But it is a false argument, and one which we can apply equally to any political priority we don’t happen to agree with. Next.
Five: like any conflict, this one will pull us in and we’ll never get out. This is a more convincing argument than any of the others, but neither is it enough. You do not know what the future holds, no-one does.
It could end with a continuing nightmare, like Afghanistan. Or it could be relatively straightforward, like Libya. But we can at least try. And bear in mind that the conflict in Afghanistan was not started in order to prevent the genocide of Afghans; it would probably have been much different if it had been. Neither was Iraq. Many recent interventions for this reason (Kosovo, Libya) have been relatively short and sweet, although that is admittedly no guarantee.
In short, there are plenty of familiar reasons we may call on, but they do not excuse our non-intervention in the case of genocide. Nothing does. We have an obligation because we are internationalists; and there will be many other Syrias over the coming decades.
In the end, the only real barrier to intervention is a lack of collective will to intervene. The rest are just excuses.
This post first published at Labour Uncut