Listen carefully to world leaders talk about the violence in Syria and one word keeps coming up: conscience. How many killings of protesters will it take, these leaders ask, to rouse the world’s conscience into action?
Conscience, of course, is individual, not collective. That’s what makes it so inviolable and powerful. But with Syria’s regime defiant toward a UN cease-fire effort and the massacres continuing, something like a mass conscience may now be developing.
A global appeal to conscience was certainly evoked a year ago in the case of Libya. President Obama justified the air attacks on Muammar Qaddafi’s regime as necessary to prevent a massacre that would have “stained the conscience of the world.” The UN Security Council had adopted a unanimous resolution against Mr. Qaddafi in response to cries for safety from Libyans.
This year, the council was also unanimous in backing a cease-fire effort in Syria led by former UN chief Kofi Annan. Achieving that consensus was made possible after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Syria’s “horrific campaign of violence” had “shocked the conscience of the world.” France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, was even more direct by appealing to Russia and China to note the “world conscience” and not veto the resolution.
Nations ruled by authoritarian leaders often don’t seem to have much of a conscience. They pursue hard interests, such as Russia’s desire to retain access to a naval port in Syria. China, which claims it has no self-interests in Syria, has at least given $2 million to the International Committee for the Red Cross for humanitarian aid in Syria.
Russia and China do want to be accepted by other nations, especially non-Western ones. Cries for conscience by Ms. Clinton and others may be aimed at winning over those nations, especially the dozens of nations that have joined the Friends of Syria group.
Syria’s neighbor Turkey, for example, has turned sharply against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Last month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “moral intervention” in Syria. “We must ensure our consciences prevail. No other concerns, no other interests must interfere,” he told a Friends of the Syria conference last month.
As world empathy toward Syrian protesters grows, more actions are made possible. The United States is sending communication equipment to rebels, while Gulf Arab states will pay salaries to Syrian soldiers who defect. Turkey has welcomed Syrian refugees, an action that evoked Syrian soldiers to shoot into Turkish territory on Monday.
Mr. Annan’s diplomacy may have likely failed for now. If so, Mr. Erdogan wants tougher action from the United Nations. “We need to have our conscience speak,” he says.
If Russia or China now veto an even tougher resolution, it could force a crisis. As Annan said himself in 1999, “If the collective conscience of humanity ... cannot find in the United Nations its greatest tribune, there is a grave danger it will look elsewhere.”
Conscience-shocking violence in the world, such as what occurred in Srebrenica, sometimes happens too fast for the UN or others to act. But that’s not the case in Syria. With each day of violence by the regime, more individuals – and the world – find it easier to work together to end that violence.