Column by Alex Shaner
If you are someone who has been even casually watching the news of late, the ongoing civil war in Syria will be familiar to you. Over the past two years, starting in the early months of 2011, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has waged a tremendous military conflict against “rebels” and citizens alike in order to retain his autocratic hold on power within Syria.
In July of this year, the United Nations estimated the total casualties in Syria to number over 100,000 people. This number does not even include the subsequent fighting and the much-publicized chemical attacks in August.
Clearly, this conflict is becoming intractable — by this I mean the options for resolution are slowly disappearing after each day.
The options for resolution from the international community have ranged from military intervention to an opinion of non-interference in the conflict. Last week, President Obama made the case for American military involvement. Speaking on two occasions, Obama laid out the case for involvement by addressing the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict to both the international community and the American public. “Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States in not enforced?” The President is seeking to legitimize the need for military involvement on the basis of America’s commitment to human rights and dignity for all people. This statement is hardly new.
The nature of our republic is founded upon the inherent right of all people to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. While one might be tempted to apply this narrowly to just American citizens, the United States has demonstrated through our numerous declarations in the international community for these rights to be applied to all people, everywhere. Genocides, civil war, and violent repression of people are occurring on a daily basis all across the world. Some of these events receive media attention as in Syria. However, most of these conflicts do not.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a decade-long civil war has cost the lives of around 5.4 million people since 1998. This is the second installment of a civil conflict within the DRC.
Human Rights groups estimate that the conflict along with various diseases kills 45,000 people every month with more that half of that total being children under the age of five. Now, this sadly might be news to most of you. Why has this conflict not garnered as much social media attention as Syria? It’s simple. Interests. Through the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s to the example of the DRC mentioned above, the United States has observed a very duplicitous stance on military interventions on the grounds of humanitarian causes.
Now, I do not want to be confused with a war hawk, who arbitrarily advocates droning dictators or governments for abusing their people. We simply need to take a look in the mirror and do a bit of self-reflection. Are we really upholding the coveted human rights pillar by ignoring conflicts such as in Rwanda and the DRC? Even a small measure of intervention such as economic sanctions, alliances with regional bodies and coordinated diplomatic negations count as “intervention” in my book.
If we are truly a country founded upon the principles of human rights and dignity, we must correct this bipolar attitude with regards to humanitarian interventions. Either we embrace this stance as a pillar of our foreign policy to be applied rationally, or we simply have to concede that by picking and choosing conflicts based upon a vague notion of “interests” our reputation as a world leader on human rights is nothing but a convenient oratory tool.
Shaner is a senior international relations and politics double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org