“We Syrians are human beings of this world, and the world must stop the Assad regime from killing us. Now.” With these words, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer and activist, ended his appeal to the United States Congress to authorize a military strike against the Assad regime (Op-Ed, “A Syrian’s Cry for Help,” New York Times, September 9, 2013).
Mr. Al-Haj Saleh’s theory of collective responsibility which transcends political boundaries succinctly summarizes one of the foundations of the “sovereignty as trusteeship” concept: human beings precede the state system. Hence, states may not turn their backs on peoples massacred by their own governments only because the massacred are foreigners. States have an obligation, based on the principle of common humanity, to use their resources, including their military capabilities, to protect not only the lives of their citizens, but also, when necessary, to save the lives of others.
President Obama made a similar argument when he announced his decision to seek authorization for military action to stop the Assad’s regime use of chemical weapons. In addition to considerations of national security, Obama pointed out the Congress’s obligation to consider the plight of others:
We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations.
In international legal discourse in recent years, concepts such as “humanitarian intervention” or “the responsibility to protect” have been invoked to delineate the rights and obligations that foreign states have toward people threatened by their own government. Focusing on the “when” and the “how,” these debates never fully explained why other states had a responsibility to intervene in another state’s territory. The UK government’s position regarding military intervention in Syria following the chemical weapons attack also focused on the “when” – outlining the conditions justifying the attack, but does not explain “why,” namely what justifies a military action by any state against a fellow state. That the fellow regime is rogue does not in and of itself justifies others’ intervention. The missing explanation is provided by President Obama, by Mr. Yassin al-Haj Saleh in his op-ed, and more elaborately by the “sovereignty as trusteeship” concept.
President Obama’s turn to Congress and the subsequent global debate that ensued as a consequence demonstrates the value of open deliberations, even if they take place formally within one national parliament rather than in a global forum. In fact, the national venue has turned into a global one, in which foreign stakeholders like Mr. Saleh, and even Mr. Assad took active part if only indirectly. In the shadow of this debate, options short of military strike have emerged. This experience demonstrates the efficacy of the emphasis on processes of policy formation rather than only on policies: the trusteeship-based obligation on the state to open up its decision-making processes to others and to consider the effects of its national policies on others carries the promise of expanding the set of possible choices.