To intervene, or not intervene? That is not the question

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes: For the last two years, many people in the foreign policy community, myself included, have argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria — to no avail. We have been pilloried as warmongers and targeted, by none other than President Obama, as people who do not understand that force is not the solution to every question. A wiser course, he argued at West Point, is to use force only in defense of America’s vital interests.

Suddenly, however, in the space of a week, the administration has begun considering the use of force in Iraq, including drones, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has been occupying city after city and moving ever closer to Baghdad.

The sudden turn of events leaves people like me scratching our heads. Why is the threat of ISIS in Iraq a sufficiently vital interest, but not the rise of ISIS in Syria — and a hideous civil war that has dismembered Syria itself and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan and now Iraq?

I suspect White House officials would advance three reasons.

First, they would say, the fighters in Iraq include members of Al Qaeda. But that ignores recent history. Experts have predicted for over a year that unless we acted in Syria, ISIS would establish an Islamic state in eastern Syria and western Iraq, exactly what we are watching. So why not take them on directly in Syria, where their demise would strengthen the moderate opposition?

Because, the White House might say, of the second reason, the Iraqi government is asking for help. That makes the use of force legitimate under international law, whereas in Syria the same government that started the killing, deliberately fanned the flames of civil war, and will not allow humanitarian aid to starving and mortally ill civilians, objects to the use of force against it.

But here the law sets the interests of the Iraqi government against those of its people. It allows us to help a government that has repeatedly violated power-sharing agreements in ways that have driven Sunni support for ISIS. And from a strategic point of view, it is a government that is deeply in Iran’s pocket — to the extent, as Fareed Zakaria reported in his Washington Post column last week, that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki would not agree to a residual American force because the Iranians forbade it.

The third reason the White House would give is that America fought a decade-long war in Iraq, at a terrible cost. We overturned a stable, strong but brutal government, although far less brutal than President Bashar al-Assad’s has proved to be, and left a weak and unstable government. We cannot allow our soldiers to have fought in vain, the argument goes, so we should now prop up the government we left in place.

This is where the White House is most blind. It sees the world on two planes: the humanitarian world of individual suffering, where no matter how heart-rending the pictures and how horrific the crimes, American vital interests are not engaged because it is just people; and the strategic world of government interests, where what matters is the chess game of one leader against another, and stopping both state and nonstate actors who are able to harm the United States.

In fact, the two planes are inextricably linked. When a government begins to massacre its own citizens, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation, as Syria’s continues to do, it must be stopped. If it is not stopped, violence, displacement and fanaticism will flourish.

Deciding that the Syrian government, as bad as it is, was still better than the alternative of ISIS profoundly missed the point. As long as we allow the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda, support for ISIS will continue. As long as we choose Prime Minister Maliki over the interests of his citizens, all his citizens, his government can never be safe.

President Obama should be asking the same question in Iraq and Syria. What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people?

And in response to that question, many will pose another: what’s best for the American people?

“We can no longer be the world’s policeman” — there’s probably no more widely held view among Americans right now. The world, perpetually inclined to misbehave, can’t expect us to come along and clean up its latest mess.

The conceit and condescension embedded in this view is breathtaking.

William Saletan puts it in slightly more refined terms: “We’ll help you, but only if you clean up your act. Our help is limited, and your initiative is required.”

The world is being told to stop taking advantage of American generosity.

But the mess in Iraq is very much of America’s making. The U.S. government broke up the Baathist state with very little thought about what was going to take its place, so for American commentators to be telling Iraqis to clean up their act, shows that American hubris is still alive and well even among those who concluded the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Anne-Marie Slaughter correctly asks: “What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people?”

She advocates the immediate and limited use of military force: “Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity.”

But even if it wants to, can the U.S. retaliate against any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity? That sounds much easier said than done.

Fred Kaplan who like most American progressives these days believes U.S. foreign policy should be defined in terms of national interest, writes:

It is not in U.S. interests for a well-armed, well-funded jihadist group like the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria to fulfill its self-proclaimed destiny, i.e., to create an Islamist state that spans Iraq and Syria. The question is how to stop this from happening and what role, if any, the United States should play in the stopping.

The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, in an opinion piece headlined “Take Mosul Back,” concludes, “President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS,” but he doesn’t elaborate. “Targeted military force” — I assume that’s a finessing euphemism for smart bombs and drones. But it’s fantasy to believe that air power alone will “drive back” the ISIS fighters.

That’s right, because the U.S. can’t very well launch so-called surgical strikes against a largely invisible enemy.

The U.S. intelligence Panopticon is stumbling right now. Its ability to see everywhere isn’t matched by its ability to see one place in particular. White House officials are trying to figure out “how to gather useful intelligence about the militants.”

Mass collection and storage of largely useless cellphone metadata turns out to be much easier than tracking the most powerful terrorist organization in the world — even though ISIS has helpfully been publishing annual reports and it has not been shy about using the internet to further its aims as its small army carves up national boundaries.

It’s easy to conclude that since the U.S. had a major hand in creating this mess, since it lacks much influence on the ground, and since through ill-conceived military operations could easily make the situation worse, the only way of doing no harm is to do nothing at all.

The problem is that inaction also has effects.

Over the last three years, Bashar al-Assad has carefully tested the United States and through an empirical process and with Iranian support, created a model of effective tyrannical leadership.

In a gruesome way, his experiment has turned out to be surprisingly successful and thus must now be an appealing option for Nouri al-Maliki to follow. For the Iraqi leader, the fact that his country already got ripped apart by American and British forces, will make it all the more easy to try and use military force to solve his political problems.

Yet as the UN now warns, the Middle East is on the brink of a sectarian war that threatens to suck in the whole region. Such a war will have an impact on the whole world.

Sectarianism is a political disease. It reduces all people to immutable identities that become the basis for political affiliations.

If all that counts is whether you are Shia or Sunni it no longer matters what you think.

Political leaders no longer have to work to win arguments; all they have to do is rally their kin. Everyone is then governed by the politics of us and them.

The Middle East may currently be the epicenter of sectarian division, but we are all at risk of moving down the same politically regressive path.

The only alternative to worsening division is dialogue. A sectarian war is a war that no one can win.

The two powers who most urgently need to talk to each other are Saudi Arabia and Iran and yet each is adopting a tougher position.

The most constructive way in which the U.S. might now intervene would be by bringing together the region’s arch enemies.

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Russia says it will veto UN resolution on Syria

The Associated Press reports: Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said his country will veto a U.N. Security Council resolution to refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court, calling it a “publicity stunt” and warning that it will harm efforts to end the violence by political means.

The conflict is now into its fourth year, and tense peace talks have gone so poorly that the joint U.N.-Arab league envoy who tried to broker them has announced he will resign.

Dozens of countries are urging the Security Council to refer the Syria crisis to the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal so it can investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by all sides.

France has called for a vote on the resolution Thursday. But permanent council member Russia has vetoed three previous resolutions on Syria, and Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters his country would do the same with this one. Moscow is Syria’s closest ally. [Continue reading...]

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U.N. docs expose Assad’s starvation campaign in Syria

Foreign Policy reports: Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled areas of Syria. But the documents also point to a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in part because the dictator is the only reliable source of life-sustaining food.

The documents obtained by Foreign Policy track the success of the U.N.’s World Food Program in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Assad provide immediate access for relief workers. The new data shows that the years-old U.N. effort has made some recent progress, with food supplies reaching a total of almost 415,000 people in hard-to-reach areas since the resolution was approved in February. In the country as a whole, WFP was able to reach 4.1 million persons in need in March, up from 3.7 million in February. However, in a country where 9.3 million people are in need of steady humanitarian assistance, that means that many more remain outside the U.N.’s reach.

More distressingly, the documents show that Assad’s campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas is succeeding. [Continue reading...]

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World Bank wants water privatized, despite risks

Anna Lappé writes: Humans can survive weeks without food, but only days without water — in some conditions, only hours. It may sound clichéd, but it’s no hyperbole: Water is life. So what happens when private companies control the spigot? Evidence from water privatization projects around the world paints a pretty clear picture — public health is at stake.

In the run-up to its annual spring meeting this month, the World Bank Group, which offers loans, advice and other resources to developing countries, held four days of dialogues in Washington, D.C. Civil society groups from around the world and World Bank Group staff convened to discuss many topics. Water was high on the list.

It’s hard to think of a more important topic. We face a global water crisis, made worse by the warming temperatures of climate change. A quarter of the world’s people don’t have sufficient access to clean drinking water, and more people die every year from waterborne illnesses — such as cholera and typhoid fever — than from all forms of violence, including war, combined. Every hour, the United Nations estimates, 240 babies die from unsafe water.

The World Bank Group pushes privatization as a key solution to the water crisis. It is the largest funder of water management in the developing world, with loans and financing channeled through the group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Since the 1980s, the IFC has been promoting these water projects as part of a broader set of privatization policies, with loans and financing tied to enacting austerity measures designed to shrink the state, from the telecom industry to water utilities.

But international advocacy and civil society groups point to the pockmarked record of private-sector water projects and are calling on the World Bank Group to end support for private water. [Continue reading...]

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The UN climate report: What you need to know

Mashable reports: On Sunday, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final installment of a massive report laying out just how feasible it is for the global community to limit manmade global warming to below dangerous levels.

Like the previous two installments, published in September of last year and March, this report contains extremely dense, technical material.

Yet its contents are hugely important for the public and policymakers. It lays out the case for why drastic emissions cuts are needed, starting within the next decade, in order to have a decent chance of limiting the amount — and the pace — of global warming.

First, here’s the good news from the report. Meeting the target of keeping global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels can be done — if we take action now.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the latest report’s most important findings.

The window of opportunity to avert a “dangerous” amount of global warming is rapidly closing: We have just about a decade left to bend the upward curve of greenhouse gas emissions. Attempts to reduce emissions significantly so far have not succeeded. [Continue reading...]

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Ukraine asks for UN peacekeepers in restive east

The Associated Press reports: Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Monday called for the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops in the east of the country, where pro-Russian insurgents have occupied buildings in nearly 10 cities.

In a telephone conversation with Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Turchynov suggested that an “anti-terrorist operation” could be conducted jointly by Ukrainian security forces and U.N. peacekeepers, according to the presidential web site.

Peacekeepers would have to be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, in which Russia holds a veto.

The request comes from a government that has proved powerless to reign in separatists in the Russian-speaking east of the country, where insurgents have been occupying government offices in cities for the past week. A deadline for the insurgents to give up weapons and vacate the brigands, set by Turchynov, passed Monday morning without any visible action.

Instead, violence continued. A pro-Russian mob stormed a police station in yet another city near the Russian border, while gun men took control over a military airport in the ear.

The Kiev government and Western officials accuse Russia of instigating the unrest and of deploying armed Russian agents to carry them out.

During the storming of a police station in the city of Horlivka earlier Monday, one man identified himself as a lieutenant colonel of the Russian army. [Continue reading...]

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U.N. has to cut Syria food rations for lack of donor funds

Reuters reports: The United Nations has been forced to cut the size of food parcels for those left hungry by Syria’s civil war by a fifth because of a shortage of funds from donors, a senior official said on Monday.

Nevertheless, the United Nations’ World Food Programme managed to get food to a record 4.1 million people inside Syria last month, WFP deputy executive director Amir Abdulla told a news conference, just short of its target of 4.2 million.

As the humanitarian crisis within Syria intensifies, its neighbors are also groaning under the strain of an exodus of refugees that now totals around 3 million, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

“We know that this tragedy, together with the tragedy of the people displaced inside the country, 6.5 million, now shows that almost half of the Syrian population is displaced.”

Donor countries pledged $2.3 billion for aid agencies helping Syria at a conference in Kuwait in January, but only $1.1 billion has been received so far, including $250 million handed over by Kuwait on Monday, U.N. officials said. [Continue reading...]

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Palestinians defy their neocolonial overlords by pursuing international rights

New York Times reporters sounding more like editorialists, write:

Defying the United States and Israel, the Palestinian leadership formally submitted applications on Wednesday to join 15 international agencies, leaving the troubled Middle East talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry on the verge of breakdown.

Who could have expected the downtrodden Palestinians to be so disobedient and engage in such a troubling act of defiance?

Reuters offers a less biased account:

A surprise decision by President Mahmoud Abbas to sign more than a dozen international conventions giving Palestinians greater leverage against Israel left the United States struggling on Wednesday to put peace talks back on track.

The documents Abbas signed, officials said, included the Geneva Conventions – the key text of international law on the conduct of war and occupation.

Palestinians hope it will give them a stronger basis to appeal to the International Criminal Court and eventually lodge formal complaints against Israel for its continued occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war that they want for their state.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been piecing together a complex three-way deal to push the faltering negotiations into 2015, cancelled a visit to the de facto Palestinian capital, Ramallah, planned for Wednesday after Abbas’s dramatic move late on Tuesday.

“We urge both sides to show restraint while we work with them,” Kerry told reporters in Brussels, where he was attending a ministerial meeting of NATO.

Palestinian officials signaled the new crisis could be short-lived if Israel made good on its pledge to release more than two dozen long-serving Palestinian prisoners. Israel has said it first wants the Palestinians to agree to extend the talks beyond an April 29 deadline.

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IPCC report: climate change felt ‘on all continents and across the oceans’

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: Climate change has already left its mark “on all continents and across the oceans”, damaging food crops, spreading disease, and melting glaciers, according to the leaked text of a blockbuster UN climate science report due out on Monday.

Government officials and scientists are gathered in Yokohama this week to wrangle over every line of a summary of the report before the final wording is released on Monday – the first update in seven years.

Nearly 500 people must sign off on the exact wording of the summary, including the 66 expert authors, 271 officials from 115 countries, and 57 observers.

But governments have already signed off on the critical finding that climate change is already having an effect, and that even a small amount of warming in the future could lead to “abrupt and irreversible changes”, according to documents seen by the Guardian. [Continue reading...]

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UN brands polio outbreak in Syria and Iraq ‘most challenging in history’

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: A UN agency has described the eruption of polio in Syria as perhaps “the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication” after the number of cases in the war-ravaged country reached 38 and the first case was confirmed in neighbouring Iraq.

According to the World Health organisation (WHO), the Iraqi case – found in a six-month-old unvaccinated child in Baghdad – is related to the outbreak in Syria, fuelling fears that the virus is spreading around the Middle East.

“The current polio outbreak in Syria – now with one confirmed case in Iraq – is arguably the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication,” said a spokesman for the UN relief and works agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

“Seriously damaged health infrastructure, poor health access and utilisation because of insecurity inside Syria, and massive movements of vulnerable and at-risk populations in and out of Syria – all make controlling the outbreak and rendering health protection to Palestine refugees in Syria and across the region very challenging.” [Continue reading...]

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UN slams U.S. for torture, NSA spying

n13-iconAl Jazeera reports: A wide-ranging United Nations report released Thursday strongly criticizes the United States for a host of human rights concerns — from jailing the homeless and sentencing juveniles to life sentences, to drone warfare and spying by the National Security Agency.

While the U.N. praised some steps the U.S. government has taken, like curbing human trafficking and a 2009 ban on Central Intelligence Agency torture and secret detention, the report’s authors found the U.S. wanting on 25 human rights issues.

“The U.S. is adept at demanding human rights change from other governments, while failing to meet international standards itself,” said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International representative at the United Nations.

Diaz welcomed the U.N.’s recommendations on torture transparency and calls for ending the death penalty nationwide, as well as limiting the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. [Continue reading...]

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U.N. refugee chief warns world powers not to forget Syria conflict

n13-iconn13-iconReuters reports: The head of the United Nation’s refugee agency said on Tuesday it must be ready in case Ukraine’s crisis causes refugees to flee Crimea, but his biggest worry is that “a total disaster” could occur if the international community diverts its attention away from Syria’s conflict.

Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an interview that little progress was being made in efforts by the United States and Russia, now at loggerheads over Ukraine, to bring Syria’s warring sides together after the collapse of talks in Geneva last month.

“In the moment in which we need the most relevant countries in the world to be able to come together to narrow their differences and to try to find a way to move into peace for Syria, this tension around Ukraine will obviously not help,” Guterres told Reuters while visiting Washington to discuss Syria’s refugee crisis.

“I hope that those that have the most important responsibility in world affairs will be able to understand that forgetting Syria will be a total disaster,” he said. [Continue reading...]

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Assad taking advantage of U.S.-Russia split over Ukraine, observers say

a13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.

The collapse last month of peace talks in Geneva, jointly sponsored by Russia and the United States, had already eroded the slim prospects that a negotiated settlement to the Syrian war might be possible. With backers of the peace process now at odds over the outcome of the popular uprising in Ukraine, Assad feels newly confident that his efforts to restore his government’s authority won’t be met soon with any significant challenge from the international community, according to analysts and people familiar with the thinking of the regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defiant response to the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has further reinforced Assad’s conviction that he can continue to count on Russia’s unwavering support against the armed rebellion challenging his rule, said Salem Zahran, a Damascus-based journalist and analyst with close ties to the Syrian regime.

“The regime believes the Russians now have a new and stronger reason to keep Assad in power and support him, especially after the experience of Libya, and now Ukraine,” he said. “In addition, the regime believes that any conflict in the world which distracts the attention of the Americans is a factor which eases pressure on Syria.” [Continue reading...]

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Syria aid still stalled after U.N. resolution

syria-starvation

Reuters reports: World powers have passed a landmark Security Council resolution demanding an end to restrictions on humanitarian operations in Syria, but aid workers doubt it has the punch to make Damascus grant access and let stuck convoys deliver vital supplies.

President Bashar al-Assad’s administration and to a lesser extent rebels fighting to overthrow him have been accused of preventing food and medical care from reaching a quarter of a million people in besieged areas.

Russia, Assad’s ally on the Security Council, and China have vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned him or threatened sanctions since Syrian forces cracked down on a pro-democracy uprising in 2011 that has since turned into a civil war. More than 140,000 have been killed in the fighting, which has forced half the population to flee from their homes.

Saturday’s resolution threatened unspecified “further steps” if Damascus does not comply. [Continue reading...]

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Russia sees humanitarian aid as a threat to Syria’s sovereignty

a13-iconNick Bryant reports: In a conflict where 140,000 people have been killed, including more than 7,000 children, while 250,000 civilians are still trapped in besieged communities, it must beggar belief to those unused to the geopolitics of the United Nations that a proposed resolution boosting humanitarian relief should be a matter of angry contention.

The draft resolution put before the UN Security Council in New York has the potential to be a game-changer on the ground.

It demands a lifting of the sieges, condemns starvation as a strategy of war, singles out the barbarity of the barrel bombs dropped on civilian populations by the Assad regime and, most crucially of all perhaps, calls for aid convoys to be allowed to cross the Syrian border from neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iraq.

It also criticises opposition forces that have besieged areas, though on a smaller scale, and expresses concern about the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups in Syria.

However, it is by no means certain that the draft will ever emerge from the Security Council.

The resolution, which was drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, has exposed the longstanding division within the Security Council. Three of its permanent members, France, Britain and the US, are pushing hard for its passage because of the alarming deterioration in recent months of Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

Russia, which has stymied efforts in the past to boost humanitarian aid and vetoed three previous UN resolutions on Syria, has again been resistant. [Continue reading...]

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Why it’s a good time to be a dictator like Kim Jong-un

o13-iconJonathan Freedland writes: In the early 1990s, when I was in my infancy as a reporter, the dominant international story was the war in the Balkans. Several of my peers made their names covering that war and were deeply affected by it. What motivated at least a few of them was not the desire simply to be on the front page or lead the evening news, but a passionate urge to let the world know what was happening. Several believed that, if only the world could see what they could see in Bosnia, then it would act.

Perhaps the authors of the latest UN report into human rights in North Korea felt a similar motivation. They can be satisfied that, thanks to their 372-page study, no one now can claim to be ignorant of the horrors committed in that place. They are laid out in stomach-turning detail: the torture, the deliberate starvation, the executions committed in a network of secret prison camps. The individual cases break the heart: the seven-year-old girl beaten to death over a few extra grains of food; the boy whose finger was chopped off for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the factory where he was forced to work; and, most shocking of all, the mother forced to drown her just-born baby in a bowl of water.

The report’s lead author, like those old journalistic colleagues of mine, clearly hopes that now that the evidence is laid out, action will follow. “Now the international community does know,” says retired Australian judge Michael Kirby. “There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

But how confident can Kirby be that action will follow? Any UN plan – even a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court – would hit the immediate obstacle of a Chinese veto in the security council. (China, after all, is implicated in North Korea’s horrors: when people somehow manage to escape across the border, China’s policy is to hand them straight back.)

It’s a similar story in Syria. Less than a month has passed since a report laid out comprehensive evidence of the suffering of detainees at the hands of the Assad regime. That report, like the latest one on North Korea, detailed murder through starvation, beatings and torture – complete with photographs of emaciated bodies. Then, as now, the authors noted chilling echoes of the Nazi crimes of the 1940s. Yet did that report spark a worldwide demand for action, with demonstrations outside parliaments and presidential palaces? It did not. Perhaps mindful that any call for UN action would be blocked by a Russian veto, the chief response was a global shrug. [Continue reading...]

A global shrug, or more specifically a Western shrug?

The intervention in the Balkans had perhaps more to do with the fact that the atrocities were taking place inside Europe, than it was a product of the “responsibility to protect”. There was an enormous reluctance to intervene but the tipping point came when Europe appeared to be witnessing what it had pledged it would never witness again: scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. And even at such a juncture, Europe wasn’t willing to act without the U.S. taking the lead.

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