Despite relentless condemnation by the UN, the world seems to have failed Syria, reduced to rubble by an assortment of parties with political and sectarian motives, generally with little or no regard for the Geneva convention. 5 million refugees have poured out into neighbouring countries, more than half a million are thought to have died.
The war has demonstrated inhumanity, territorialism, oppression, tyranny, inhumanity and unbelievable cruelty – but also hope, endurance, loyalty, courage, honesty and strength. It has poured across social media in the form of personal contacts, pictures and films from citizen journalists, the immediacy of their experience outweighing anything we have experienced before. We have felt what it is to be there, and have wanted to do something, to save civilians, to call a halt. A seven year old tweeting child, a gentle schoolteacher, a white-helmetted medic were real, were like us. There but for the grace of the fortunes of war go I, and you, and you. When London falls and we are trapped in pockets of Camden and Peckham, who will come to save us?
We looked to the UN to save the day, to turn up like the headmistress on the playground, grab the protagonists by the ear and tell them if they didn’t sort themselves out their mum would get a letter from school – but the UN can only operate as a peacekeeper when there is already a peace. Expressing outrage did not help – the involved parties already knew that what they were doing was outrageous.War demonstrates the limits of cooperative discussion groups and shared goals.
The UN has two kinds of mission. It can send men in blue helmets to keep the peace – but they are doomed to stand by when ceasefires fail, as in Rwanda and in South Sudan. These are so-called Chapter 6 missions. Chapter 7 missions are those when the UN’s countries send in troops in strength, to impose a peace. These missions cost lives and have often left chaos in their wake. Peace is not easy to impose. What happens afterwards? When you depose a dictator in a country with no democratic political structure (because the dictator extinguished it) you have a vacuum. The UN’s appetite for such interventions is greatly diminished since Iraq.
It’s tough to judge the UN on its response to the war in Syria when we have no way of knowing how many other similar situations could have gone to the line. The UN is not there to step up to the line, it was formed not to have to. When you reach the line the situation has already failed.
We need the UN more than ever.
We need to set the standards that we can all aspire to when we are not using the end to justify the means. We need a way to bring perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice. The UN gives us hope that President Assad may one day face the International Criminal Court. We need the Committee Against Torture, the High Commission for Refugees, the Geneva Conventions. The UN should be committed to more than ever before. As J R R Tolkien says in the words of Sam Gamgee, “there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”