Syria and the Meaning of “Self”

Before the Jewish New Year, I got the following message from a friend:

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written… On Yom Kippur, it is sealed. May it be written and may it be sealed that you and all your loved ones have a new year that brings fulfillment and happiness, peace and prosperity. Have a Happy, Healthy New Year, – L’Shana Tova!

It was a lovely message of well wishes. I thanked her and took the message to heart. For Jews, this is a time of the year for reflections. Following tradition, I did a personal accounting of my own doings and undoings, and since I am not religious, the sealing was my own. I have found myself to be far from perfect but I was ok to my family and friends, and for the most part did what I am “supposed” to do (the perspectives of family and friends notwithstanding :(), with the knowledge that any aspirations for  “perfection” are unrealistic. My mind drifted to my role as a member of humanity, and not surprisingly, considering my background, my mind drifted to Syria.

I make my living teaching, writing and doing research on the dangers and challenges of climate change. This blog is one of my outlets. I stirred up a great deal of commotion by using every forum that I had at my disposal to compare climate change with the Holocaust. The comparison was based on defining climate change as a “self inflicted genocide” – a collective suicide.

Here is what I wrote in my May 14, 2012 blog to justify the comparison:

Many thoughtful comments on this blog (thanks!!) have focused on my so-called “dragging” the Holocaust into the climate change debate.  The claims were that I am “cheapening” the Holocaust, that I am not able to distinguish between deniers and skeptics and/or that I am accusing climate change deniers of using “Nazi methods” simply by using the term deniers in the context of climate change. First of all, I could not and would not “cheapen” a genocide that killed most of my family and deprived me of my childhood between the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen.  I was born three months before the start of this genocide in which we were targeted for annihilation because we belonged to a group that the Germans did not think had a right to exist. But, of course, I am using the term “denier” to make a point.  In 1933, very few people believed that Hitler would seriously try to accomplish what he preached and almost no one could imagine the consequences of his deadly reign.  Although there was evidence available – Hitler was clear about what he wanted to do in Mein Kampf – why did people not pay attention?  These “deniers” might as well have been called skeptics in their day.

My definition of climate change as “self inflicted genocide” was anchored on the dictionary definition of genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of racial, political or cultural groups” (See my first post on April 22, 2012). Climate change is not a documented genocide like the Holocaust; it is a projected genocide. Any phenomenon projected for a distant future is uncertain. The call for action to prevent climate change is based on the premise that it can be prevented or at least minimized. Past genocides are unchangeable – history cannot be prevented after the fact.

Now we have Syria.

By almost every account, there is a genocide taking place in Syria. The over two years of conflict have resulted in more than 100,000 dead and countless wounded. More than 2 million of Syria’s 23 million residents have left the country as refugees, while another 4 million were displaced from their homes. A United Nations commission of inquiry presented a report with the following quote:

Bolstered by weapons and money from regional and global powers waging a proxy war, Syria’s government and rebel forces have committed murder, torture, rape and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, without fear of future punishment.

 On August 21st the atrocities breached an important threshold (red line?): poison gas was used in large scale on a suburb of Damascus that was under the control of the government opposition forces. Photographs of the innocent victims that were killed in their sleep circulated throughout the world. In an assertion supported by the Russian government, the Assad regime has claimed that it was the opposition forces that released the gas, as a call for the outside world to intervene. Almost everybody else has blamed the government, arguing that the opposition doesn’t have the means to carry out such an attack.

It is clear who the victims of this genocide are: the Syrian people – but who are the perpetrators?  In the absence of better identification, we have to say that the Syrian people are also playing that role. This is a self inflicted genocide taking place now –one which could be stopped by outside intervention. It is obvious here that the “self” does not include every individual. Most of the people are the victims. It is a cruel civil war. Of course, all wars are cruel, but I have come to believe that most civil wars are better characterized as self inflicted genocides. The distinction between such wars and the possible consequences of climate change by the end of the century is that in most civil wars, there is an outside world. The outside world can intervene and try to stop the collective suicides. In the case of a planetary conflict with our physical environment, there is no outside world.

For two years, nobody has lifted a finger to try to stop the Syrian conflict, and the UN was paralyzed. President Obama has declared the use of poison gas a red line and after it was crossed he called for the use of American power to hit Syria and deter the government from further use of poison gas. While most of the American public and the rest of the world didn’t want to have anything to do with any direct involvement, the threat was enough to lure the Russians to join in an effort to at least eliminate the very real danger that the Syrian government might again make use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the brutal civil war continues.

President Obama declared the use of poison gas as a red line because it violates the Chemical Weapons treaty – an international norm that prohibits the use of chemical weapons. However, America’s threats to use force in deterring Syria from further usage also speaks to the violation of an international law – one which allows the use of force between sovereign countries only under explicit authorization by the United Nations Security council or for self defense. Neither condition was satisfied here. Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons treaty (it has now offered to join under some conditions as a part of the Russian initiative to solve the issue without the use of force). So now we have reached a situation where one brutal violation of international law is being addressed by the threat to violate another international law.

The United States doesn’t have great credibility in ratifying international agreements. The table below lists the status of some of the most important international laws, as of 10 years ago:

Updated July, 2003

Convention on Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Signed July 17, 1980, never ratified The US remains one of a handful of countries, including Iran and Sudan, not to ratify CEDAW. Although Bush has called the treaty “generally favorable,” the treaty faces resistance from US conservatives.
Convention on the Rights of the Child Signed Feb. 16, 1995, never ratified At the UN, only the United States and Somalia, which has no functional government, have not ratified the Convention. Conservatives who favor the death penalty for minors strongly oppose the treaty.
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) Signed Oct. 5, 1977, never ratified The US maintains that economic, social and cultural rights are “aspirational,” not inalienable or enforceable. 142 countries have already ratified the Covenant.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Control (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol Ratified UNFCCC Oct. 15, 1992 Signed Kyoto Protocol Nov. 12, 1998, never ratified Although President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, mandating a reduction in carbon emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012, a 2001 State Department memo rejected the protocol on the basis that it would harm the US economy and exempt developing countries from reduction requirements. Of industrialized states, only the US, Australia and Israel haven’t ratified the protocol. The US did ratify the UNFCCC, but has not complied.
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Signed Sep. 24, 1996, never ratified The US Senate voted in 1999 to reject ratification of the test ban treaty. Taking another step away from the agreement, the White House released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in early 2002 hinting at a return to testing and reserving the right to use nuclear weapons in a first-strike attack. The NPR also states that arms reductions can be reversed.
Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty Signed and ratified Summer 1972, US unilateral withdrawal Dec. 13, 2001 The US became the first major power to unilaterally withdraw from a nuclear arms control treaty. Citing “terror threats,” the Bush administration will pursue an enormously costly missile defense program, even though its scientific feasibility remains dubious.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and Draft Proposal Signed April 10, 1972, ratified March 23, 1975, rejected Draft Proposal in June, 2001 After the BWC was drafted in 1972, its 144 state parties agreed that the convention’s enforcement mechanisms were inadequate. An “Ad Hoc Group” formed in 1994 to negotiate changes. When the group presented its draft proposal in 2001, the US rejected it and refused to return to negotiations, effectively derailing the treaty.
Chemical Weapons Convention Signed Jan. 13, 1993, ratified Apr. 25, 1997 The US ratified the Convention, but set extensive limitations on how it could be applied in the US, essentially gutting its provisions. The US specifies that material cannot be transferred outside the country for testing, limits which facilities can be tested, and gives the president the right to refuse inspection on the grounds of “national security.”
Mine Ban Treaty Never signed The US remains the only member of NATO besides Turkey, and the only state in the Western Hemisphere besides Cuba, not to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. The US used anti-personnel land mines in the first Gulf War, and claims that land mines are essential to protect US soldiers in heavily armed places like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Signed Dec. 31, 2000, unsigned June 6, 2002 In 2002, the US made the unprecedented move to “unsign” the treaty establishing the ICC. Since then, the US has systematically undermined the ICC by signing bilateral agreements with states to exempt US military and government personnel from the court’s jurisdiction.

I subscribe to the notion that our collective governance on any level requires that we care for each other.  The collective includes everyone –from immediate family, to local community, to sovereign states – all the way up to the entire human race. That is one of our distinctive features as compared to other living organisms – we are “our brother’s keepers” and we have the means to be. We have decently effective enforcing mechanisms for collective governance up to the level of sovereign states. International treaties are agreements between sovereign states, but it is up to the states to abide by them and enforce them.

What Syria demonstrates now, and climate change will demonstrate in the future, is that individual sovereign states are almost powerless to confront issues of global concern such as genocides, whether man-to-man or resulting from man destroying the physical environment that serves all of us.

Global issues cannot be addressed by local authorities. By definition, such authority lacks jurisdiction over some of the terrain. I have argued before against the “citizen of the world” concept (August 6 blog) that would abolish the authority of sovereign states, but the planet is getting too small for all of us and it is high time to start a collective thinking that will effectively govern issues on a planetary scale. The veto-prone UN Security Council is no longer (if it ever was) a sufficiently effective tool. We need to find alternatives and put them into operation as soon as possible.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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1 Response to Syria and the Meaning of “Self”

  1. the problem is not so much with individual countries as to selective support by international organizations. NATO and other bodies are controlled and dominated by super powers which results in conflicts of interest and therefore renders such organization as toothless bulldogs

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