A Right To The World: On Syria and an Idea of International Public Order

6 Jan

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A guest post from Amy Niang on the contours of ‘international community’, following previous interventions from Siba Grovogui in relation to Libya, Robbie on provinciality in International Relations and John M. Hobson et al. on Eurocentrism in international political theory. Amy teaches international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and she is affiliated with the Centre of Africa’s International Relations (CAIR). She gained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2011. She has taught International Relations, political theory and African history in South Africa, Scotland and Japan. Her research interests are in the history of state formation, political theory and Africa’s international relations, and she has commented regularly on democracy, civil society and Western intervention in Africa.


The Syria crisis has sparked many debates in scholarly and media circles, not least around the way in which the ‘international community’ should exercise its responsibility to Syrians and to the protection of human rights, particularly in the aftermath of the alleged use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. The lack of consensus on the most appropriate response, within the limits of international law, raised a number of questions.

There were times when we were told that a military attack was imminent, others when cautious voices against a military campaign seemed to have the moral upper hand. In the days following the discovery of the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. made public its position on the question, based on the conviction that the Syrian government was responsible. In the general uproar that that ensued, the recent examples of Afghanistan and Iraq guided many deliberations on the wisdom of another humanitarian intervention. Like Barack Obama, many commentators believe in the existence of a red line that delineates the contours of a hypothetical morality, its alleged violation by Syria warranted punishment if the red line was to be pushed back. Many others however warned against acting on an impulse of outrage, Libya is a vivid example of how an ill-conceived intervention can be more damaging than the situation it originally sought to fix.

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From the polarized debates, two declarations in particular piqued my interest. The first one was Barack Obama’s Address to the Nation of September 10th, 2013. The second one was the Declaration of the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government (the Africa Forum) on September 5th, 2013. The first one was as usual widely followed in America and beyond. The second went unnoticed partly because it was of little news worthiness for commentators of world affairs, partly because no one expected Africans to formulate any coherent view on the Syrian question. The first was delivered as an authoritative pronouncement on how a putative ‘we’ (i.e. the international community) should interpret international law and what shape its moral responsibility – here merely one embodiment of the West – should be engaged. It maintained that the world demanded punishment against Syria for crossing the red line that was delimited by conventions and treaties even though it was OK for these could be applied differently to different categories of states. The second declaration was a word of caution from a forum of wise men, a rebuttal against the morality of the global community that formed around the first reactions of outrage by Western governments at the discovery of the chemical attack. The first was to reiterate the contours of a hypothetical global order that needed to be restored; the second questioned the very legitimacy of the authority, self-appointed in this instance as in many others, to represent collective will.

Needless to say, the positions taken in the two declarations are very different. They are different in their references to power, to history, to the commons, to political will, and ultimately to international morality. And this is a very healthy thing. For one thing, these African leaders seem to want to take a more generous, more tolerant view of the world outside a blanket hero/villain narrative which the West (here represented by Obama) is very skilled at deploying, where Obama’s liberal empire assigns narrative roles to ‘allies’, ‘enemies’, ‘friends’ and a host of ‘others’. In Obama’s enumeration of those ‘friends and allies’ that should join in a robust response to Syria, there was no mention of Africa. Not that this is particularly surprising given the fact that Obama as a president has shown little consideration or care for Africa. At any rate, in the past, the West’s tendency to fabricate enemies and “bad guys” has often been mobilized to combat cumbersome figures; in our collective consciousness, names such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Charles Taylor are nicknames for the greatest enemies of human rights even though they were at some point in their career very decent ‘allies’ to hang out with.

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The contrast in the two declarations is very interesting. More interesting to me is the fact that the Africa Forum felt the need to publicly state its views on Syria in the firmest terms. Many find it entirely normal that Africa and Africans generally have no specified views on world affairs. As a very common story goes, Africa has always been a ‘consumer’ and rarely a ‘producer’ of norms and cannot therefore be expected to sketch an intelligible alternative reading or understanding of international order. This is a rather simplistic discourse that obfuscates two things: first, that Africa is recognized a voice in world politics only when expressing empathy and acquiescence to western reason; and, second, the fact that America and the West in general have been very skilful when it comes to appropriating ‘progressive’ norms as their own, and instrumentalising them for ulterior motives. In Libya, The U.S., France and allies pushed for a responsibility to protect (R2P) mission whereas in Bahrain, despite reported widespread state repression of political opponents, the U.S. was committed to a constitutional framework and a negotiated path to resolution between government and opposition.

There is a bigger issue here which has to do with the use and misuse of international law which emerged in Europe as a means of conquest, expansion and subordination of others. International law was always therefore an instrument of Western power. Its language, however, was ambiguous enough in its appeal to human rights, emancipation and equality and Africans fell for it so to speak. But this subscription to international law was never naïve and unconditional for Africans , who subscribed to it with a logic of reform: once formerly silenced voices entered the fray, the law had to be fundamentally reformed to reflect an ideal of emancipation for all.

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International Law has therefore always held a very different meaning for Africans. It held the promise of reform, self-determination and a safeguard for the rights of minorities and weaker states. But as a colleague of mine likes to say, ‘western attitude toward international law has always been this: if you are our enemy, we will apply the law without nuance but if you are our friend, we will interpret the law to your satisfaction’. Recent African political memory is deeply scarred by significant moments of crisis, including the Congo Crisis, the institution of Apartheid, the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars to name a few. African generosity if any therefore has to be read both as deontology and ethics, a principle that maintains that international law should be applied equally to everybody without malice and without a political agenda.

Africa occupies a very curious place in the world, a mixture of embarrassment, subordination, even dubious membership in the ‘international community’, in short, a place from which there is little to be expected. But this common perception should not equate to a view that Africa and Africans are not interested in global affairs. What is missing in discussions of Africa’s marginalization in the conduct of international politics is an account of the effects of the silencing of contrarian voices. In fact, Africa’s calls to adhere to a line of intervention that is in accord with international law and the UN Charter have often been ignored. Indeed, the AU’s roadmap for a negotiated peace in Libya was squarely disregarded. The marginalization argument merely serves to support the justification, for others, to speak and act on behalf of Africa for its own good, and to impress the idea, ultimately, that the world has very little to expect from an eternal under-performer.

An-Other Idea of the International

The African declaration essentially fleshes out two main problems with the current international order: (1) the fact that it tends to be overdetermined by the narrow vision of imperial reason; and (2) the formidable but misleading feat of liberal humanitarianism to preach concern for the plight of the oppressed whilst giving justification for oppressive practices, including surgical and drone attacks, illegal renditions, illegal surveillance, the curtailing of individual freedoms, the intrusion into, and the destruction of the lives and cultures of communities that have been subjected to humanitarian interventions.

Africa is a continent that has found itself at the receiving end of violence, from liberal capitalism, liberal imperialism, and liberal humanitarianism. Yet, Africans have found creative ways of integrating psychological damage and trauma caused by state violence, in fact all sorts of violence for they were not only able to recover from imperialism, colonialism and apartheid, they also extended a hand of solidarity and friendship to others, including former oppressors. For reasons germane to a moral leaning, partly spurred by collective historical experience, partly to do with a growing unease towards prevalent approaches to ‘disorder’ as formulated by the West, the need to air these ideas, to release them for circulation in the global public domain alongside other ideas invested into the fulfilment of particular rights become a matter of international duty.

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In their declaration, African leaders did not miss an opportunity to revisit the atrocious historical context that motivated, and gave birth to the establishment of multilateral institutions, starting with the UN, whose mission was to ensure that the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime should never again be a marker of modernity. This is a history lesson the Forum was keen to reiterate: ”all those who would be statesperson players on the global stage, today, must understand what motivated the statespersons of the day, at the end of the Second World War, to insist on the establishment of international institutions, processes and law to help ensure the peaceful resolution of conflicts within and between countries.” Consequently, the UN Charter was to become “a fundamental and inalienable part of contemporary international law”, in other words, a means to engrave human rights principles in the constitutive make-up of the international order.

The Forum members continued:

We, on our part, as Africans, are directly interested in a law-governed rather than an arbitrary system of international relations, imposed on the world by those who exercise military and other might.

The accusation is hardly veiled. The argument that the temporary suspension of multilateralism is a necessary remedial resort against a global ‘leadership deficit’ merely seeks to justify the peddling of a global order that is global only in its manifestations. In fact, Obama’s address further confirms a flaw of univocality and narrow perspective raised by the Forum: “…after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”

Speaking Against Imperial Reason

The Forum’s criticism is both generically and specifically directed at a liberal empire that creates its own artificial realities and engages the world on the basis of unilateral injunctions. The instability of the very concept of international community in US foreign policy is quite striking; it thrives in strategic exclusions of significant actors to advance particular lines of settlement. This is evident in the manners in which Africa was sidelined during the Libyan crisis at the behest of the US (UN Resolution 1973) and Obama omission of Africa as a possible region concerned with global affairs in his September 2013 speech on Syria. The U.S. and allies in fact selected the League of Arab States instead of Africa as primary stakeholder in the Libyan Conflict, despite and perhaps because of Gaddafi’s close connections to the continent. This is what transpires in the following paragraph of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, sponsored by the US and its European and Arab Allies:

Recognizing the important role of the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region, and bearing in mind Chapter VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, the Council requests the Member States of the League of Arab States to cooperate with other Member States in the implementation of paragraph 4.

Equally on Syria, there was no reference to Africa in Obama’s speech on the resolution of the conflict:

We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies from Europe to the Americas — from Asia to the Middle East — who agree on the need for action.

Given the tarnished virtue of the self-appointed leaders of the international community, the Forum’s declaration has to be understood as also a comment on values and morality. It is four-pronged.

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Firstly, that Africa has to be able to take position in matters that are of interest to, and have great implications for the nature of the global order and the kind of humanity they seek to cultivate: an implication would be that American or French outrage at presumed breaches of human rights should not be assigned a special quality of superiority.

Secondly, therefore, that what happens in Syria cannot leave Africans indifferent. The declaration reasserts Africans’ stake in the world, and that they intend to exercise this right within the space provided by a multilateralism informed by the UN Charter. The Forum thus declared:

we strongly support the view that, in the main, international law prohibits that any State should intervene in any other to encourage the violent overthrow of the Government of the day. This international law also regulates all such interventions as would be said to discharge the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ peoples subjected to unacceptable human rights violations by their own Governments.

The test of credibility they impose on the ‘reason’ of the West’s version of humanitarianism is deeply linked to a denunciation of representations of the global public and ‘international will’ in unilateral Western pronouncements. They are thus reiterating the fact that the creation of the global commons was not the responsibility of a restricted ‘international community’ – in Obama’s understanding, America and allies – but truly a co-produced process. In short, the commons are larger than the West and international morality is larger than American and Western desires.

Thirdly, when the powerful violate and trample international law, there has to be voices of reason, no matter how thin, for the requirement of moral equivalencies is such that the input of UN member states, big and small, be taken into account in matters that affect people’s capacity to live dignified lives.

Fourthly, the Africa Forum denounces the unidirectional nature of America’s belligerent practices in the age of reinvigorated regional community structures as common platforms of engagement in the resolution of conflicts. America’s bullying methods preclude the possibility for marginal ‘allies’ to participate meaningfully in global governance. The chaotic NATO intervention in Libya and the ICC question are particularly two major irritants between the AU and Western countries. During the Libyan crisis, the AU’s carefully charted roadmap amounted to no more than a fanciful declaration for American and French governments, intent as they were to get rid of a cumbersome former ally.

Premise of New Global Morality?

In all this, what’s at stake, as has often been the case in the past, is not so much the common implications of power inequalities and imbalances than a clash of moralities. There is the common argument that Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Global South in general has failed to get its views translated into a coherent framework that is able to provide a sound basis for a reconfigured global order. What the former heads of state and governments are pointing to is the possibility for a different kind of morality to inform a reformed order even though neither the AU nor the Africa Forum seem to have a good grasp of the nature of this new order. However, there have been recent signals coming out of Brazil, India and China amongst others and which are pointing to a future global order that is more in accord with changing global configurations.

Obviously, the forum’s representativeness of an African view has to be relativised; theirs should rather be read as the moral intervention of an elite that has presumably been more closely exposed to the contradictions of American foreign policy; their arguments therefore are not insignificant. At the least, this moral intervention is to reiterate the requirement for ethics in the conduct of international relations. That ‘we’ was therefore also meant to (re)establish at once the responsibility of authority whilst denouncing the irresponsibility of blind unilateralism. Some of the names on the list of ‘former heads of state and government’ are presumably not brands of exemplary democracy during the time in office of their bearers. One could rightly argue that Moi Kibaki, Jerry Rawlings and Sir Dauda Diawara were not the most democratic leaders but that would be beside the point. Obama’s exclusion of Africa from his list of friends and allies is a denial of the latter’s legitimate aspiration for global democracy.

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At work in Obama’s speech is a common dismissal procedure that contends that authoritarian and ‘corrupt’ leaders should not have a say in global morality. In Obama’s narrowly defined ideological world only dwell allies and aspiring allies. Africans merely operate outside, if not at the edges of his western dialogue. He does not have the capacity to hear their contrarian voices because he does not hear them at all. For whatever dissonance is coming out of places like Africa will eventually be smoothed out and they will come to share Obama’s (Western) values and viewpoint through the power of his oratory eloquence. Obama’s speech betrays a specious commitment to global consensus that only exists in rhetoric. The consensus in question is liberal consensus: it is founded on the fictitious belief that all societies and states aspire to a single ideal of democracy, and that they share the same concerns, at all times, with regards to rights and freedoms. It is not clear however that Syrians would welcome a rescue campaign from Assad through another adventure that is bound to cause ever more deaths and destruction. The instrumentalisation of crisis situation has become a way for powerful voices to inscribe their will against the majority view. The general will, however, is ontological, not contingent.

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6 Responses to “A Right To The World: On Syria and an Idea of International Public Order”

  1. Oren Stark January 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on Oren Stark.

  2. worriedteacher January 8, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Reblogged this on confessions of a worried teacher and commented:
    This thoughtful and thought provoking piece can be seen as an invitation to those of us across academia to reflect carefully upon how our little worlds (our disciplinary and pedagogical concerns, our research and writing plans, our personal and organisational ambitions) relate to larger socio-political movements. In particular I feel it invites us to de-parochaliase our concerns, and to understand the intimate interconnected nature of the world – that my preparations for teaching on Monday afternoon has some connection to the framing of ‘international concern’ over Syria, over Africa. The challenge for me is to figure out how that realisation can be manifest in my daily practice as an academic. Read and enjoy.

  3. john-mark January 15, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    Great read!

  4. Doug M. February 6, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    Note that both declarations were promulgated five months ago, when military intervention briefly seemed a possible outcome. In retrospect, it looks like the Obama administration’s public dalliance with intervention was a feint for reasons of domestic politics. But that was less obvious at the time.

    I agree with you that the West is inconsistent in its application of international law. But the AU’s record is not a model of perfect consistency either. For instance, just a year after opposing the Libya intervention, the AU was calling upon the UN Security Council to endorse a military intervention in Mali. Which it promptly did, passing UNSC Resolution 2085, which explicitly allowed military action to be taken in Mali.

    To be fair, Resolution 2085 visualized a regional force (AFISMA) rather than massive armed intervention by a Security Council member. But within a month of 2085′s passage, France had acted, citing a provision that urged member states to “provide assistance” to AFISMA — the assistance, in this case, consisting of intervening before AFISMA had even quite gotten off the ground. Thus was Operation Serval legalized through a loophole. And when the French struck, the AU was pretty clearly divided, with some members (including the Chairman, Thomas Boni Yayi) supporting France’s action while others opposed it; if the AU as a whole ever came out with a formal position opposing the intervention, I’m not aware of it.

    Doug Muir

  5. auntyuta March 27, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    ” . . . . a principle that maintains that international law should be applied equally to everybody without malice and without a political agenda.”

    ” . . . . international law prohibits that any State should intervene in any other to encourage the violent overthrow of the Government of the day. This international law also regulates all such interventions as would be said to discharge the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ peoples subjected to unacceptable human rights violations by their own Governments.”

    You talk about ‘a clash of moralities’ and ‘the requirement for ethics in the conduct of international relations.’

    I am not from academia but I have concerns for world peace. I would like to see the UN have more power than at present. But the way nations interact in the real world I cannot see how it can be made possible for the UN to be relevant at all times.

    It seems to me that so called international law is a law that hardly any state is willing to abide by.

    I agree that moralities and ethics should be of concern to all of us. :-)

  6. LFC March 28, 2014 at 8:08 pm #

    From the Africa Forum statement:

    “As Africans we remain acutely conscious of the elaborate disinformation campaigns in which major powers engaged …to propagate falsehoods to justify their
    armed interventions in Iraq and Libya.”

    This equating of the Iraq invasion and the Libya intervention, which were different in a number of ways (including from the standpoint of int’l law), strikes me as rather absurd.

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