verb: [no object] s
noun: a sp
This month’s Ranter is Kurt Mills
When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees released its annual report on refugee global trends earlier this year, it noted that one out of every 113 people in the world is forcibly displaced. The global forcibly displaced population is about the same as the population of the UK or France. Syria, which has produced 5.5 million refugees and 6.3 million internally displaced persons, accounts for 18 percent of the total global displaced population. One country. More than one-sixth of the world’s displaced population.
And what has been the response to Syria? Anaemic, duplicitous and self-serving. Hard issues have been avoided, fake and meaningless red lines have been set and crossed without adequate response, and it has been turned into a conflict about us in the West rather than those most greatly affected on the ground. Islamic State (IS) is portrayed as a fundamental threat to the Western way of life. And while I do not want to in any way minimise what has occurred in Paris, Brussels, London, and elsewhere, to make this about us is to fundamentally misunderstand who is most affected by what is going in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, and indeed who holds primary responsibility.
IS is the enemy du jour, just the latest in a long list of ‘enemies’ which we use to justify military action against people who we do not understand in situations we fundamentally misapprehend. IS has replaced Al Qaeda as public enemy number one. Further, terms such as ‘death cult’ do little to provide analytical leverage, but provide us with yet another dehumanising framing for yet another enemy.
People are not only dying in Paris and Brussels and Orlando and London, although we act as though this is the case, and this dramatically and harmfully skews how we think about the situation. We are more concerned when the tentacles of the multiple conflicts in Syria and beyond reach our shores, whether in Paris or London or via the refugees in the Mediterranean. We should of course recognise the horrific attacks committed by IS and its supporters, as the UN has when it said IS was committing genocide against the Yazidi.
But focusing on IS shifts the focus from where it should be – the conditions under which groups like IS flourish. Maybe we would not have groups such as IS if we did not go around invading countries such as Iraq on messianic missions to reshape the world by force, and more directly addressed the conflicts which give rise to terrorist groups.
The larger point is that by focusing on IS, we allow the Assad regime to continue its murderous reign and do little to actually protect people affected by the conflict. Many more people have been killed as a result of the broader conflict in Syria, and by Assad’s forces in particular, than by IS. But we set that aside to focus on the current bogeyman – Islamic extremism. And by doing so, we set up a self-reinforcing situation where the conditions for extremism are allowed to fester. By not directly addressing conflicts head-on in the early stages, conflicts are allowed to spiral out of control again and again and again – and it is civilians who inevitably suffer. You would think we would have learned this lesson by now.
IS is not the core of the conflict. Just to remind ourselves, it was Assad’s brutal response to peaceful demonstrations for change in the context of the so-called Arab Spring – a fomenting of dissent across the region which the West cheered on – which led to the current situation which IS was able to take advantage of. The response to that by the UK and other countries was grossly incompetent and immoral. We saw a periodic focus on humanitarian response – which frequently acts as a palliative band aid – but little appetite for actually protecting people.
The so-called ‘red line’ – when Assad used chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,400 people – ignored the more than 100,000 people killed in the conflict up to that point. In the same way, by focusing on IS, we ignore most of the perhaps 480,000 people killed during the conflict in Syria to date, the largest single category being civilians. But at least the chemical weapons red line was tied into the much bigger threat to civilians, and to international peace and security more generally: the Assad regime. IS allows us to ignore the broader context and elides difficult questions about underlying causes of conflict.
Perhaps we should think about the UK’s broader obligations in these situations. First, the responsibility to protect. The UK has been a big supporter of the idea behind this norm which says that if states fail to protect their people – or engage in widespread human rights violations against them – the international community has a responsibility to step in and protect those people. Yet, when it comes down to it, the UK, like other countries, frequently abandons this responsibility. While some action against IS may be required in order to fulfil this responsibility, it can only be one part of a much broader strategy. And the intent of that action must be tied directly to that goal. Focusing on defeating IS as part the broader global war on terror is a losing proposition and just as likely to engender more resentment against the West.
If, on the other hand, the subject of concern and action turned to civilians caught in the middle of the conflict, fighting against IS is put into a broader moral frame, with concomitant changes in action. We could think about no fly zones, safe zones, and other ways to stop civilians from being killed – not only by IS, but by Assad and other forces. This is by no means easy. It requires a significant commitment of resources for a long time, and entails addressing significant political and diplomatic issues. But so has the war on terror (I note the $5.6 trillion spent by the US on post-9/11 wars), and it seems to have resulted in little more than constant, never-ending war against new and evolving enemies.
Second, and related, the UK is a party to the Refugee Convention and is supposedly committed to protecting the most vulnerable when they appear at its door. And one could also easily argue that providing asylum and other types of immediate protection to refugees is part of its obligations under the responsibility to protect, too. Instead, however, because our focus of moral concern is not the most vulnerable fleeing from conflict, but rather the perceived enemy of the day, we utterly fail in these responsibilities too (and potentially commit international crimes in the process). We set up barriers to asylum. We agree to accept a paltry 20,000 refugees over five years, cherry-picking them at our leisure from refugee camps overseas, while there are thousands who have come to our shores who are in immediate need of protection; other countries in Europe host tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees whilst the countries next to Syria host millions.
We sign an illegal and immoral agreement with Turkey (itself currently hosting 2.9 million refugees) to send the most vulnerable to a country which is not particularly safe. We use military resources to prevent refugees from crossing the Mediterranean rather than deploying those resources to actually protect them (thus contributing to the slave markets in Libya which have recently come to light). Indeed, a core objective of the government is to ‘forestall further migratory flows towards Europe’ – and the government’s recent humanitarian strategy has little mention of the UK’s responsibilities to accept refugees.
Instead, we scapegoat them, putting all of society’s ills on their shoulders. And we are in the process of withdrawing from and undermining one of the most important international institutions (the European Union) – and our own national interest – partly because of the fear-mongering around refugees fleeing from a conflict we have failed to adequately address, and a dangerous situation for which we have abdicated our responsibility to protect.
By divorcing IS from broader concerns, we demonstrate a catastrophic failure of moral imagination. Our moral responsibilities to protect the most vulnerable are set aside in a quixotic campaign to eliminate that which cannot be eliminated by traditional military means. Recent revelations about the civilian toll of US bombing in Iraq reveal the burden placed on the most vulnerable as the focus shifts from protecting civilians to killing terrorists. A more enlightened, self-interested approach would dictate that protecting the vulnerable should be our highest priority. Addressing the threats to the vulnerable – including IS but also the bigger threats, including the Assad regime – should guide strategy.
Kurt Mills is Professor of International Relations and Human Rights at the University of Dundee and Vice-Chair of the Academic Council on the United Nations System. He is the author of two books – International Responses to Mass Atrocities in Africa: Responsibility to Protect, Prosecute, and Palliate and Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty? – and co-editor of two others – Human Rights Protection in Global Politics: Responsibilities of States and Non-State Actors and Moral Victories: The Ethics of Winning Wars.