A World on its Knees

Conflict, genocide, and crimes against humanity

Tag: Syria

Isn’t That Over Already?

Back in 2004, when I was in graduate school, Washington, DC was peppered with signs reading, “Save Darfur.*”  The Secretary of State talked about it.  It was the Kony 2012 of 2004.

Well, the LRA is still operating around Central Africa, and Darfur remains unsaved.  It is far from over.  In fact, in recent days and weeks, mass atrocities have been gathering steam in Darfur (and the Nuba, and anywhere else Omar al-Bashir has decided to terrorize in “his” country).

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  International energy and attention has waned for Darfur in part because the international community refuses to address underlying problems that fuel crimes against humanity and genocide.  There are many, many reasons for this.  Here are just a few.

  • Those who benefit from impunity are those who are in power.

There is no impunity for ordinary people.  A man who goes on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan is arrested almost immediately.  Black boys who play in parks and Black men who sell cigarettes are summarily executed, apparently for existing in public, and those who kill them are almost never imprisoned.  But world leaders are reluctant to put other world leaders in prison or take any other measures against them, in part from fear that such measures could be used against them as well and in part from a misguided concern for sovereignty.  Ultimately, world leaders know that criminal justice is not just (whatever they may say in public) and take measures to avoid any possibility of being called to account.

  • There is a lack of empathy for, and thus a lack of political will to help, people who differ visibly from oneself.

Should the US bar all Muslims from entering, as Donald Trump suggests?  The idea has certainly caught on, just like the idea of building (another) wall between the US and Mexico has.  Humans often look at people who differ from themselves as potential risks, rather than thinking of the real human suffering behind the movement of children out of Central America (the US Government is now giving the Mexican Government money to stop them before they reach American shores) or of large numbers of refugees out of Syria into Europe.  People feel insecure about their own lives and are happy not to have to deal with another person’s suffering.  It’s much easier not to.  It’s much easier to vilify political leaders when they show empathy than to sacrifice tax dollars or other resources to help.

That goes triple for a mainly Muslim Black African population.

  • Strategies to end mass atrocities can also destabilize regions.

Omar al-Bashir is everyone’s favourite kind of villain: an absolute dictator who has been in power for almost 30 years.  Because he has been in power so long, arresting him will necessarily cause a power vacuum in Sudan.  Sudan has had violent conflict more or less constantly from the time of its independence in 1956.  Dislodging al-Bashir would bring an escalation in the conflict and also further destabilize South Sudan, Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, and possibly Uganda.  It would disrupt trade and development in these areas at a bare minimum.  However, Chad is already dealing with Sudanese refugees.  South Sudan is in a state of civil war, and Egypt is not terribly far from it.  Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to struggle with each other and Ethiopia faces internal unrest.  The main effect is likely to be on the power elites within Sudan itself.  War is terrible and destructive, but is targeting civilian populations truly a lesser evil?  Something is wrong with a calculation that says that we must continue to tolerate systematic atrocities because what follows may be open war and political uncertainty.


Omar al-Bashir is an indicted criminal.  It is long past time for him to come to justice.  The US gives more than any other country to humanitarian aid toward Darfur.  It is not enough.  We must be willing to demand that Sudan be suspended from the WTO, the UN, and other intergovernmental organizations until al-Bashir is arrested.  He must not be allowed to travel internationally.

Most importantly, on a human level, we must work to foster empathy in ourselves and to fight the impulse to push others to the margins of humanity.

*Save Darfur website here.


Slava Ukraini?

There is so much going on right now.

Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Mali have ongoing complex situations, including genocide and mutilation of cultural monuments.  Syria and CAR have been having sporadic, not very successful peace talks (just a note: peace talks are never, ever, ever successful at creating the kind of peace you want to see; they work piecemeal, and hope to move things forward a little at a time).

And Russia invaded Ukraine.

Well, Russia was going to invade Ukraine.  Nationalist rhetoric has been building in Russia for a very long time, but it’s accelerated in the past two years.  The Olympic Games were a good chance to simultaneously crack down even harder on dissent, look good to the world, and fuel the average Russian’s nationalism.  While the games were going on, Vladimir Putin was treating Ukraine as a puppet state, leading to the deaths of nearly a hundred Ukrainians (mainly protestors, but police as well).  Now he has very skillfully let it be known that the government in Kyiv was put in place by fascist sympathizers who are committing atrocities against Russian speakers.  He reminds people that the Maidan cry, “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine!) has been used by fascists in the past.  This is true, and it lends a lot of credibility to what he is saying in the eyes of the Western press.

Luckily, there is someone in Ukraine with the standing to contradict these statements outright.  A group of Jewish leaders and thinkers in Ukraine has written an open letter to Vladimir Putin.  Read it.  It’s seldom I get to talk about good news here.  This is very good news.  It seems that, after all, we can say ,”Slava Ukraini!”

Syria: We Must Intervene, and We Can’t

One of my aims in writing this blog is to present the world we actually live in, rather than the one we wish we had.  Here is a fact of the world we actually live in: the Western European and North American nations must intervene in Syria, and they can’t. 

Some kind of intervention is imperative.  Civilian deaths are mounting.  The region is being destabilized.  Refugees from Syria have already created a permanent crisis in Jordan.  Refugee camps are not built to be sturdy – they’re not built to last – but they are becoming sprawling (and lawless) cities.  The vast majority of Syrian refugees are women and children, and the children are often alone.  They are subjected to exploitation and abuse outside Syria, and immense danger within the country.  The economies of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are under immense pressure, and the social and political structures are in trouble.  All three countries were maintaining a delicate political and social balance before the refugee crisis.  The Lebanese system, always on the brink, was beginning to crumble, and Lebanon’s relationship with Syria has always been problematic. 

This crisis is clearly not limited to Syria, and the community of nations (such as it is) has a responsibility to protect the civilians within the country and the interests of the whole region. 

However, almost any kind of intervention will make the situation worse.  The popular understanding of the bloody conflict tearing Syria apart goes something like this: Assad is a dictator who tramples on human rights, and the people have risen up to overthrow him and establish a Real Government on Democratic Principles, thus granting Freedom to all Syrians.  This is about as close to the truth as the Walt Disney movie Pocahontas is to American history.  Like the movie, it sometimes gets the names right.

Assad is a dictator.  Assad has been guilty of repressions and human rights violations.  Assad targets civilians.  There are a number of rebel groups involved.  They do not share the same goals.  They have also been guilty of repression and human rights violations in the areas they control.  And they target civilians.  Indeed, one or more rebel groups may be using chemical weapons.  Freedom lovers, democracy and freedom are not the same.  Democracy is not synonymous with liberal Western values, such as freedom of religion.  Some of the rebels in Syria have deliberately targeted and killed religious and ethnic minorities.  Russia will not counter Assad in part because Syrian rebel groups are intent on religious purification, a euphemism for the wholesale destruction of Orthodox Christian communities.  The religious purification agenda is bad news for the West, and bad news for Lebanon and Jordan, both of which have mixed populations notably including Muslim non-conformists, who are also targets.

So what would the goal of intervention be?  Who should be targeted?  Assad?  Rebels?  Which rebels?  It is about as easy to get complete, reliable information out of Syria right now as it is to get independent opinions out of North Korea.  There is no good intervention strategy on the table.

The one country that could lead a strong, common-sense intervention is the one that can’t: Israel.  Israel has the military capability and an immediate interest in stability in the region.  Israel is well-placed to get better information out of Syria.  And Israel cannot make a move in the region without causing trouble.  Syria, in particular, has a history of territorial disputes with Israel, so any move Israel makes will be seen as a way of gaining territory at the expense of other nations.

So before we criticize France for wanting to intervene, the U.S. for promising to do something without saying what, or the U.K. for holding back, we should consider the real-world bind that these countries find themselves in.  They need to protect allies in the region.  They have an interest in protecting civilian lives and minority rights, stemming the flow of refugees, and protecting the global economy.  And both action and inaction will make things worse.