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Arab League Must Act in the Absence of UN Leadership

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In 2001 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published a report that challenged the traditional concept of security as the idea of territorial defence from an external aggressor. Events in the decade prior to the report - the Bosnian massacres, genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Sierra Leone - highlighted the need for this definition to be revised and consideration given to the protection of communities and individuals from internal violence:

"There were too many occasions during the last decade when the [UN] Security Council, faced with conscience-shocking situations, failed to respond as it should have with timely authorisation and support." [The Evans Commission, 30 September 2001]

This idea developed into the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and was established as a UN initiative in 2005. It states that the UN is "prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner" should national authorities "manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity." As we limply watch while the artillery onslaught on Homs intensifies, it is clear, as it has been for a while, that the Assad regime has manifestly failed to protect the Syrian people. And now the UN has manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect them in their government's absence.

The development on Saturday of Russia and China using their veto on the Security Council to strike down a draft UN resolution condemning Mr. Assad was a diplomatic failure but not necessarily a failure of diplomacy. Moscow defended its decision by blaming the authors of the draft resolution for not wanting to "undertake an extra effort and come to a consensus." In negotiations where parties hold opposing views, reaching a consensus inevitably requires compromise. When one of those parties is so strident in their position to the point of intransigence, however, generous compromise can lead to being compromised: sometimes no resolution is preferable to any resolution.

Evan had it passed in its least watered-down version, the resolution would not have made any instant material difference: the Council was not calling for "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, as it did with Resolution 1973 on Libya in March last year. But it would have been a meaningful demonstration of international resolve condemning the brutal acts of a tyrannical regime that has lost all domestic legitimacy. It would have emboldened those groups and individuals in Syria who have thus far been left to endure relentless shelling, violent beatings from those tasked with protecting them, and the terror of sniper fire. Instead, the UN has been stained, again, by its failure to act. The Syrian National Council, the largest organised opposition group, called the decision to veto the resolution a "license for the Syrian regime to kill without being held accountable."

No further shaky mobile-phone footage capturing the smoldering carcasses of destroyed buildings, or the whistle of a deadly bullet, or the face of a wailing mother clutching the bloodied body of her daughter, is needed to demonstrate that the Syrian government has abdicated its responsibility to protect its own people. We are witnesses to a descent into civil war. If the UN does not have the political will to stem this bloodshed than the responsibility falls to others.

The Arab League, long criticised as a talking-shop of tyrants, autocrats, and vested interests, has been at the vanguard of diplomatic efforts against the Assad regime. It suspended Syria from the Arab League last November, agreed to impose economic and political sanctions, recalled its monitoring mission because of escalating violence in the country, and was the instigator of the UN resolution that got slapped down. The murderous actions of the Syrian government should affront us all but when we all can't stand united, a regional response is the next effective option. If the Arab League leads we should follow, intensifying our diplomatic and financial support; then the indifference of the Russian and Chinese governments will be increasingly immaterial.

In his address to the UN last September, prime minister David Cameron stressed the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention: "You can sign every human rights declaration in the world, but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country when you could act, then what are those signatures really worth?" As we watch the videos of Syrians pleading for help from the international community, it is clear that currently those signatures are worth nothing.