04/11/2014 12:04 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 05:59 GMT

ISIS, Its Victims, Our Obligation to Intervene

We can't intervene everywhere. We have challenges at home. Our resources are limited; so, too, our ability to affect outcomes. Good intentions do not suffice. Sometimes trying to do the right thing can make things worse. So when an atrocity unfolds, how do we decide when to intervene?

In the mid-1990s, the United States and Europe intervened in Bosnia to end the slaughter of Slavic-Muslims. Americans and Europeans agreed that such barbarism could not take place in NATO's backyard. The legal justification for intervention? Bosnia-Herzegovina had become a recognised legal state and Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia was guilty of transborder aggression, a clear violation of the United Nation Charter.

In the late 1990s, we were back again, this time to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. This time, though, the legal justification was hazier; Kosovo was part of Serbia and, had we sought their consent, both Russia and China were ready to exercise their veto at the United Nations Security Council.

To help clarify some of this, in 2002 Canada sponsored something called the International Commission on Intervention and Sovereignty, which promoted the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The Commission placed responsibility on states to protect their citizens, but concluded that when states fail to do so, the international community has an obligation to step in. An important new book titled Human Dignity and Global Institutions, edited by Mark P. Lagon and Anthony Arendt of Georgetown University, advances the details of this debate.

But meanwhile, reality challenges theory and races ahead of the diplomatic-scholarly discussion.

The latest news from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- aka ISIS -- is that this maniacal blood thirsty group is in the process of wiping out members of the Albu Nimr tribe. The Sunni clan had fought hard against ISIS fighters as they moved across Western Iraq from Syria until the Albu Nimr began running out of weapons. It may be too late to save them.

In Kobani near the Turkish border a chiefly Kurdish population is hanging on. The Americans and Turks -- Washington through airstrikes, Ankara by permitting the passage of Kurdish forces -- have been offering just enough assistance to offer a glimmer of hope. But clearly not enough to repel the Islamic State.

Then there's the ISIS campaign against the ethno-religious group known as the Yazidis. According to UN figures, an estimated 500,000 Yazidis have been forced since August from their homes into the Sinjar mountains and Kurdish-held areas in northern Iraq. ISIS leaves no doubt: the Yazidis will be destroyed as a group because of their religious beliefs. Some 2,500 Yazidi women have been captured by Islamic State fighters. Many have been subjected to systematic rape and slavery. Women and young girls have are turning up in markets in Mosul and in Raqqa, Syria, displayed with price tags. ISIS claims "enslaving the families of ... infidels and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law." An ISIS video shows Islamic state members laughing as they discuss how to divvy up young Yazidi girls. "If she is 15 years old, I have to check her teeth," says one.

So we talk about R2P. We speak about the lessons of Rwanda. We have something called the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Article One of the convention obligates all parties -- the Americans and European are signatories -- "to prevent and punish" genocide as "a crime under international law; genocide being defined as the "killing" intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

It's not clear what all this adds up to. President Obama's UN Ambassador Samantha Power has called Syria "the most appalling humanitarian catastrophe of our era." The UN estimates that some 191,000 have already perished. Yet we have not lifted a finger.

If we can't intervene everywhere, does it mean we don't intervene anywhere?

If the Albu Nimr are now massacred, the people of Kobani are cleansed, and the Yazidis are enslaved and exterminated, what will be left of our principles and power?