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Opinion: Canadian leadership is needed to end Syria’s suffering

by Kyle Matthews

Montreal Gazette
March 27, 2015

This month marks the fourth anniversary of the start of Syria’s civil war. Yet another year has gone by, and the failure of the world to protect civilians in conflict zones remains as noticeable as ever. A United Nations-backed report released this month has found that 80 per cent of Syrians now live in poverty and the country’s average life expectancy has dropped by 20 years. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Syrians now account for the largest population of displaced people in the world.

Following the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was adopted unanimously by all countries at the UN World Summit in 2005. Its purpose was to protect human rights by transforming national sovereignty from being an inviolable right to being a responsibility to protect one’s population from mass atrocity crimes, namely genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Canada was instrumental in championing R2P from the outset. Today, at a time in which the UN Security Council remains paralyzed in the face of an increasing Syrian body count, it can be one of the leading forces in ensuring that preventing and halting mass atrocities remains relevant and important in global affairs for decades to come.

One of today’s principal problems is that the Security Council, despite having an obligation to authorize international action when civilians are being slaughtered, has failed repeatedly to do so. Russia and China have vetoed four resolutions aimed at holding the Syrian government responsible for atrocities.

It is imperative that the permanent members (P5) of the Security Council reach a consensus to stop conflicts from spiralling out of control. In our inter-connected world, Syria demonstrates that atrocities guarantee that violence will spill over across borders and terrorist groups like the Islamic State will take advantage of the chaos to establish safe havens.

In order to deal with the Security Council’s paralysis over Syria, France put forward a proposal in 2013 that P5 members agree to refrain from using their veto when civilians are threatened by mass atrocity crimes. Several human rights groups are now lining up to support the French initiative. If successful, this would represent a major leap forward in the fight to protect populations from some of the world’s gravest crimes.

Canada must support this initiative and should work to bring other countries into a coalition that will stand against inaction.

Disagreements between P5 countries on preventing genocide are less ideological than they are geopolitical. This isn’t about the theoretical underpinnings of sovereignty; it’s about rules of the game in a potentially multipolar world. Ultimately, these disputes — among the most controversial today in international affairs — could be an indicator of whether this century will be one of conflict or cooperation.

Great powers are naturally concerned with their own selfish national interests. But the trajectory Syria has taken demonstrates that not one country will come out a winner if we continue down the same path of wishful thinking that the Syrian conflict will soon fizzle out. Canada should use this opportunity to re-commit to R2P and work to broker some kind of truce and political settlement, no matter how far-fetched it might appear in the short run.

If we do not dream big for the world now, we might all be faced with nightmares in the future.

Kyle Matthews is a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. Zach Paikin is a Canadian political commentator currently working at the Institute for 21st Century Questions.


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