Though it is nothing like the cause of Syria's misery, one culprit has played a major role in its perpetuation. It not only erodes the will of the West to do something. It also actually undermines the international order. That culprit is the human rights discourse that has built up since the end of the Second World War.
The development of human rights discourse has consistently broadened the world's notion of atrocity to the point where accusations of atrocity simply carry no weight. This began when Raphael Lemkin created the term 'genocide' in 1944:
By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group”.
Lemkin was inventing a concept. He wanted to transcend immediate circumstance, give his idea the majesty of a wide sweep. So he opened the door to most expansive views. No, he's saying, genocide isn't just killing people. The 'foundations of the life of national groups' is not the same as 'the survival on this earth of the members of those groups'. It almost seems as if you plan to destroy the national identity of some group, even without violence, that's genocide.
The Geneva Convention against genocide, adopted in 1948, took the potential weakness of the original definition and ran with it. It defined genocide as (*)
..any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Consider what this means. Suppose all the females of a religious sect, even one with the most repugnant practices, were sterilized. The sterilization was imposed because if you didn't submit, you were fined $100. This comes within the exact definition of genocide. So the sterilization is every bit as much a case of genocide as taking six million people and putting them to death through beatings, starvation, torture, gassing and other means.(**)
The framers of the Geneva Convention were probably didn't do this by inadvertence. They are likely to have thought: "so much the better. We want to cast our anti-genocide convention in the most expansive terms. That way, we get to outlaw more bad things than a narrow definition would permit. Hey, why stick with race? Why not add religion? Aren't all attempts to eliminate a religion terrible crimes? Any why stick with killing? Aren't nonviolent means to this end just as bad?"
Well that's the problem. No, the sterilization case is not just as bad. When you put what is very questionable in the same category as catastrophic evil, you risk desensitizing people to the difference. And as this practice has flourished over the decades, that's what has happened, and that has exacted a terrible price on Syrians. Indeed since many Syrians have themselves enthusiastically signed on to the expansionist approach to atrocity, they have been duped into complicity with their own neglect.
The expansion runs rampant through the documents of international organizations. The Fourth Geneva Convention states that
The Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.
In the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violations of privacy, freedom to marry, travel and vote are every bit as much human rights offenses as enslavement and murder. Of course this prevents no one from saying that some of these crimes were of a quite different order than others. But that isn't how it has worked out.
'Human rights violation', like 'war crime', sounds like and is in fact taken for a very serious matter, whether or not it would, but for those labels, count as an atrocity. The categories are invested with immense but largely imaginary authority. They were created in an orgy of half-sincere good wishes. Nations did not intend them to be taken seriously, which is why the documents which enshrine them never came with serious enforcement mechanisms. Yet here we allegedly have a collection of the most heinous crimes conceivable, ratified (literally or figuratively) by the most allegedly august international bodies. All this has created or at least encouraged an almost irresistible tendency not to distinguish among these heinous acts. Aren't they all just terrible? How can we diminish one by deeming it less serious than another?
The intention underlying this refusal to distinguish is exalted. It is to eliminate all war crimes, human rights violations, and crimes against humanity such as genocide. It is equivalent to a zero tolerance approach to, say, drugs, or speeding. The ambition might be thought noble were its effects not so disastrous. What presents itself as high morality is merely intense and harmful moralizing.
The harm comes from the zero tolerance attitude coupled with the fact that all nations and certainly all parties in all civil wars commit war crimes that violate human rights. Often they even adopt policies that fit the very broad notion of 'genocide' or its close relative, ethnic cleansing. So not only in Syria, but pretty much elsewhere and everywhere, all parties to the conflict are officially reprehensible. According to zero tolerance, the crimes of one are not to be compared to the crimes of the other: that would be forgetting that all violations of human rights etc. are extremely serious.
Why then is there such surprise that, despite all reports of régime atrocities in Syria, no people of no nation seem able to work up enduring outrage? Report what you like, and soon you will get the reaction inculcated in us for decades: well yes, but doesn't the other side commit terrible crimes? Won't atrocities always be with us until we learn to respect international law? Isn't it suspiciously hysterical to scream about this one offender?
Policy analysts refashion this into a mantra replete with adolescent wisdom: there are no good guys in Syria. This slides easily into: let's just back whoever we like, however much we like, for our own interests. "Our own interests" means, for US governments, what won't upset the voters. That in turn means no serious commitment in Syria, because that would entail either American deaths and great expense, or arming 'Arabs'. So already the moralizing has important effects on policy.
There is another, equally damaging effect: the almost universally accepted convention that when it comes to atrocity, we don't need to know the details. It's all criminal, isn't it? Why wallow in sadism and cruelty? This is why, for instance, the Caesar archive of photos, widely distributed, has had no impact - and why so many see no reason to view them. They are supposed to force people to confront Syria's realities but the fact is, they don't. They are supposed to present details but the fact is, they do no such thing. We see emaciated corpses, some with injuries. That doesn't tell us how these people died, and zero tolerance tells us: "well, aren't people dying all over in this terrible conflict? Don't people die terrible deaths worldwide? Why then should these pictures tell us anything about what should happen in Syria.? After all, isn't it just a question of backing one bad guy rather than another? After all, why should Americans die to clean up a mess created by a bunch of bad guys running around killing each other? Can we really change the sort of society that generates these crimes? Is it really our job to do so?"
The very same people who cannot believe that the world just throws up its hands over Syria belong to those who enable that reaction. They cry out about human rights and war crimes, legitimating ridiculously broad categories that level out all choices into exercises in futility. Human rights discourse sets you up to say, there are no good options. And that indeed is how people react.
Well, what's wrong with that? Drop the refusal to compare and the problem becomes apparent. The situation in Syria presents far more than a choice between alleged evils. Comparison would show the crucial fact whose neglect affects all the West's reactions and policy decisions about Syria: that Assad represents an evil orders of magnitude greater than what is normally encountered in this world.
Imagine that people did actually examine and compare the record of the various parties to the Syrian conflict. They might find reasons why it is not only morally permissible but morally obligatory, at times, to give full military support to people who commit war crimes and violate human rights. That realization can occur only when people stop saying it's all the same and really look at the details of atrocities.
The worst atrocities are almost never reported. Incredibly, the latest Amnesty International account of torture in Syrian jails specifies the details of only of cases which are mild by Assad's standards. Perhaps here again, to report worse is thought merely prurient by an agency known for its 'even-handedness', that is, its refusal to compare.
But the details say something otherwise impossible to convey: that the Assad régime, even in the face of all the other horrible régimes around the world, introduces a level of barbarism scarcely conceivable. How typical for the world to focus on Assad's bombing, as if this was his worst, as if some fancy American fighter jets could do some flyovers and make all well. There are two reasons this won't do.
First, the focus won't overcome the refusal to compare: think how many will say, "but doesn't the West bomb civilians too? Didn't the US and Britain do this, deliberately, in the Second World War? Isn't bombing civilians, whether or not it is fully expected 'collateral damage', a terrible thing? What, are we going to compare atrocities now?" Second, the focus on barrel bombs is oblivious to Syria's realities. For Assad, barrel bombs are a mere convenience. Before the barrel bombs, his forces didn't kill children from the sky. They took knives and slit the throats of babies and toddlers. There are photographs and well-confirmed reports of this for anyone who takes the trouble to find them.
The refusal to compare and its consequent avoidance of details conceals uncomfortable facts. ISIS' beheadings that so shock the world take moments; they are humane compared to the slow deaths Assad's torturers have inflicted on victims as young as 11. Bombing hospitals is indeed terrible: before the bombings, régime troops invaded the hospitals on foot and tortured people in their hospital beds. And the tortures of Abu Ghraib are love pats compared to what Assad inflicts on human flesh.
To these qualitative comparisons must be added quantitative ones. Assad murders and tortures many times more people than any other participant in the conflict. To first preach about the awfulness of atrocities, and then assign no weight to how many human beings suffer them, is nothing short of bizarre.
It's hardly a surprise that honest comparisons are avoided: the conclusions they compel are so unwelcome. But they loom large because they point to a crossroads of morality and political realism. The fact - it is a fact - is that ISIS, which conducts massacres, beheads people, blows up civilians, executes by burning alive and throws homosexuals off buildings - is, according to all reports on the scale and nature of the atrocities, much less brutal than the Syrian government. That is not a world it is in anyone's interest to legitimate and therefore to perpetuate. Before Assad we already lived with fine declarations masking pathetically low real standards governing how we treat one another. To let Assad remain in power - or his entire régime minus the man himself - is to lower standards even more. The fact that many prefer ISIS' horrible rule to his own is clear evidence what dangers lie in the refusal to compare.
(*) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2.(**) Even less questionable cases fit definition of genocide. Suppose a religious sect is found to mistreat all its children in significant ways. These children are (forcibly) taken away and placed with a similar religious sect which does children no harm.