Collective moral failure
When I was 25 I went to Bosnia. Over the course of the next eight years, both for the UK government and the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, I was involved in the multinational effort to put an end to impunity and ensure accountability for gross violations of International Humanitarian Law. I spoke to the victims of torture, imprisonment and cruel and degrading treatment. I got to know families of the deceased, yearning for justice, and the families of perpetrators from all sides of the conflict. It was a highly formative experience and I vowed that in the event I was a witness at the start of another civil conflict, I would do everything to ensure these events would not repeat themselves.
When the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, my team and I sought to help in any way we could. Above all else, we sought protection for civilians, and accountability for all those involved in gross violations of human rights. Evidence was collected, interviews conducted and information shared. The legacy of the Iraq intervention was clear however – meaningful action to prevent civilian atrocities in Syria was not going to be forthcoming, under any circumstances. In Iraq the propensity for action was perceived to have caused more harm than good, so on this occasion the prevailing approach was to be inaction. But into that void stepped other more purposeful actors in Russia and Iran, and out flowed the refugees in their millions. History will confirm that it was the fears stoked by these refugee flows that contributed to Brexit and the rampant xenophobia that today threatens the social fabric of many European states.
'So-called' Islamic State is now widely seen, despite its territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, as the greatest terrorist threat the world faces. It is not however the product of an ideological predisposition of the Syrian or Iraqi people. It was forged by conflict, a symptom of the failure of the social contract in Iraq and Syria. It is opportunistic, feeding on suffering, the absence of the state, displacement and fears of marginalisation amongst suffering, predominantly Sunni Muslim, populations.
The binary classification of ‘pro-Government’ or ‘pro-Opposition’ in Syria seems redundant now. Everyone has lost. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and millions of refugees have been displaced. At the same time, the Syria conflict has eroded the norms of international justice, normalised chemical weapons use, and created the grievance narrative that will undoubtedly spawn the next terrorist group. Inaction has its consequences too, and watching the last gasps of the Syrian conflict, it is very hard to conclude it has been anything other than a collective moral failure.