Marc Lynch

Arab leaders shouldn’t kill their people?

The Arab League is today considering the demand by the Syrian National Council, human rights organizations and a wide array of other actors that it freeze Syria’s membership over its killing of civilians. Few expect that the Arab League will seriously affect the Assad regime’s behavior.  But the very fact that it is even considering ...


The Arab League is today considering the demand by the Syrian National Council, human rights organizations and a wide array of other actors that it freeze Syria’s membership over its killing of civilians. Few expect that the Arab League will seriously affect the Assad regime’s behavior.  But the very fact that it is even considering such a move is frankly astonishing.  Since when do Arab leaders agree that a regime’s legitimacy can be forfeit if it kills too many of its own people?

The rapid spread of a new norm against Arab regimes killing their own people is a frankly astonishing, but largely unremarked, change in the regional game.  Since the Arab League backed the UN intervention in Libya in March, the idea that regimes might be sanctioned for their domestic brutality has become a normal part of the Arab political debate and enshrined in official Arab League resolutions. Both the GCC’s political transition plan for Yemen and this month’s Arab League peace plan for Syria condemned regimes for their violence and called for far reaching political changes.  They haven’t stopped the violence.  But the idea that they should is something genuinely new — and has major implications beyond the immediate outcome in either country.

Let’s recall how odd it is that Arab leaders would agree with even an empty principle that regimes which kill their own people should forfeit their legitimacy. Almost every regime in the Arab world has been doing exactly that for decades. Jordan’s King Hussein kept his throne in 1970 when his troops massacred Palestinians in the infamous Black September. Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad didn’t forfeit his Arab legitimacy when his forces leveled Hama in 1982. Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein suffered no great normative sanctions for his genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s.  Arabs responded tepidly to the Sudanese brutality in Darfur in the 2000s. There was certainly great public concern over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or the suffering of Iraqis under international sanctions in the 1990s, but those were framed as the abuse of Arabs by hostile foreign powers rather than as a condemnation of Arab leaders for their repressive ways. For decades, then, rejection of any external standards for regime legitimacy lay at the very core of Arab norms of state sovereignty. 

What’s more, it’s not like those leaders can now look back smugly on their past moral blindness from a safe distance. Almost every Arab leader is either currently repressing protestors or knows that within weeks it could be them in the docket.  The Saudis endorsed the intervention in Libya at the exact same moment that they sent troops into Bahrain and supported a crushing, blanket repression which violated a wide range of international human rights norms.  If Amman, Rabat or Algiers decided to send in the military against unarmed protestors, could they really be certain that they would not be held accountable to the same standards they have endorsed for Damascus, Sanaa and Tripoli?  Most likely, these leaders did not believe that they were creating a precedent when they moved against Qaddafi. But they did. 

What explains the embrace of this new norm, then? I doubt that the Arab leaders thought they were setting a precedent which might be used against them.  I wouldn’t doubt that the Saudis and Qataris were just motivated by personal animosity towards the Libyan leader, or hoping to pursue their regional ambitions at Libya’s expense.  It’s possible that many Arab leaders simply hoped to distract Western attention from their own repression by pointing the international community towards North Africa. They may have been confident that such norms would only be wielded against those outside of the West’s alliance structure — Libya and Syria, sure, but not Saudi Arabia or Jordan.  But whatever their intent, the Libyan intervention has established a new normative framework and language of political contestation in Arab politics which is driving the regional agenda. Its use now in Syria suggests that this will not be easily controlled or set aside. 

The new norm has traction at multiple levels.  Arab public sphere is filled with complaints at various levels against the repressive acts of almost every sitting government, any of which could in principle be taken up by concerned outsiders. NGOs, youth activists, and activist media from independent websites and newspapers to al-Jazeera have all for many years devoted their energies to shining a harsh spotlight on human rights abuses. International organizations and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have been empowered to demand the consistent application of the norms used. The relentless barrage of graphic videos documenting the brutality, circulated over the internet and routinely broadcast on al-Jazeera, makes the violence visceral and undeniable.  Now, any one of these leaders who signed on to the revocation of legitimacy from Qaddafi, Assad or Saleh can be called to account if he unleashes military force on his own people. 

That makes it all the more remarkable that these leaders have now largely accepted the normative principle that regime legitimacy can be forfeited at a certain level of internal violence. Nobody would say that the Arab League has acted effectively to defend this new norm — the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, the decimated civil society of Bahrain, and the grim stalemate in Yemen attest all too clearly that they have not.  But they now speak almost all speak the language of international norms against impunity. Norms do not need perfect behavioral compliance for them to be significant in international relations.  The simple fact that both popular and official Arab political discourse now begins from the premise that domestically violent regimes should be sanctioned or even removed from power has already significantly changed the game of Arab politics. 

Obviously this has not deterred Assad or Saleh from unleashing the hounds of war.  But it has fundamentally and undeniably changed the regional and international response to those decisions — raising the political costs, shaping media coverage, giving meaning to the public’s revulsion, guiding the strategy of opposition movements.  It has introduced into the strategic equation the potential (though of course not certainty) of novel responses such as International Criminal Court indictments, UN-backed sanctions, the freezing of Arab League membership, or even military intervention. The possibility that calls by the Syrian National Council or by Yemeni human rights activists for Arab and international protection might just be answered changes everyone’s strategic calculations. 

Beyond the specifically Arab dynamics, the Libya intervention, the Obama administration’s rhetoric, and the new international discourse on the Responsibility to Protect clearly also matter.  UN Resolution 1973 gave a clear international mandate for the NATO intervention in Libya, even if many complain that it was then stretched to include regime change and military support operations not found in the original mandate.  That mandate was rooted in the controversial but increasingly robust discourse of the Responsibility to Protect. This remains the subject of bitter debate, of course, with many critics complaining that RTP represents thinly veiled imperialism or that it actually encourages more civil conflict.  

This perspective would place the demonstration effects and the strengthening of global norms against impunity as a core component of the strategic and normative logic of the Libya intervention.  Beyond the immediate, and worthy, goal of saving Libyan lives, the architects of the intervention likely hoped to deepen and strengthen the global norm against impunity. That means taking the lesson of Libya and applying it broadly to other cases in the region and around the world. Thus Obama’s statement that Assad, like Qaddafi before him, had lost legitimacy could not force the Syrian President from power but did reinforce this evolving norm.

This shouldn’t be seen as a happy ending, of course. The fact is that these international norms continue to be flouted.  The body count in Syria is growing every day.  The Yemeni stalemate shows no signs of breaking.  Bahrain is mostly out of the news.  The Arab League, the UN, and all other international actors are struggling to find any effective course of action. But nor should this be seen as a simple failure.  It matters that both Arab publics and Arab leaders now work from the shared rhetorical principle that regimes which kill too many of their own people should forfeit their legitimacy.  That unheralded normative evolution should be recognized and applauded. It should be strengthened by taking serious steps to enforce it, and by applying it in an even-handed fashion. 

Building this norm won’t be easy, will be rife with hypocrisies and double standards, and like virtually all international norms will be honored more in the breach than in practice. But we’ve come a long way in the space of one year we have gone from an Arab regional order which rejected any limits on state sovereignty to one where both Arab public opinion and the Arab League could agree that leaders should have their assets frozen, be forced from power or be brought to the ICC because they brutalized their people.

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola