The last weeks have seen outrageous breaches of international law by a dictator in Syria who has allegedly killed more than 300 people in a chemical weapons attack; and by Egyptian generals who toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The leaders ordered military action to break up camps of protesters allied to the Muslim Brotherhood resulting in the massacre of at least 600, by the most conservative estimates. Mr. Morsi, is now in custody, charged with murder and terrorism related crimes.
What not long ago appeared to be undeniable popular uprisings as part of the “Arab Spring” in these two countries seeking democratic governance through rebellion against their oppressive regimes have turned into tragedies. In Syria, a 2-year-old civil war that, by U.N. estimates, has already killed more than 100,000.00, and in Egypt, the death of thousands of people, including those killed during protests brought on by the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.
The casualties resulting from the conflicts in Egypt and Syria are not limited to those who have been killed. The casualties include the refugees created by the armed struggle, and those who have to endure living in the middle of a war zone not knowing whether they will live the next day or be killed by a bomb, by crossfire, or by a chemical weapons attack. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Saturday that in addition to the 355 people who died after the chemical weapons attack in Syria, three hospitals it supports in the area had treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” early on Wednesday morning. And just last week, one million children refugees left Syria, which to get an idea of the magnitude, would be like removing each and every one of the children in the cities of Boston, Chicago and Miami, combined.
The international community is split to the point where the UN Security Council cannot agree on what to do about these obvious international crimes and the continued loss of innocent lives. The United States, Britain and France are among around 35 countries that called for chief UN investigator Ake Sellstrom and his team in Syria to investigate the chemical attack incident as soon as possible. However, the UN Security Council stopped short of explicitly demanding a UN investigation after opposition from Russia and China.
As to Egypt, after violence resulting from the recent toppling of the elected president, the Security Council urged all parties to end the violence and exercise maximum restraint. However, Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil explained during a U.N. Security Council debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict that the situation in Egypt was not an armed conflict and “does not threaten international peace nor security.” “It is an internal matter that would be resolved only through an Egyptian-led political process that includes all Egyptian political factions that reject violence and extremism,” he said.
Today, facing pressure and threats of armed intervention, the Syrian government has agreed to allow UN inspectors to investigate allegations of the chemical weapon attack near Damascus. Russia, a key ally of Syria, has accepted the decision to allow the inspectors in but has warned the West against pre-empting the results. The team is to begin work on Monday.
The questions remain: Are these conflicts “internal matters” where the international community should not intervene? Or, is the international community morally obligated to intervene to protect those in peril, and to prosecute those who breach international law? Is democracy the best form of government for all peoples?