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Heather Roff Headshot

Who Is Responsible for Syrian Refugees?

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Recently, there has been much discussion about establishing a "safe haven" within Syria's borders to protect the growing number of refugees fleeing the country's civil war. In fact, Turkey recently pleaded before the U.N. Security Council to support such a move; unfortunately it received little backing.

Even most Western powers were cautious, citing "considerable difficulties" with any such plan. Yet the sad fact remains that Turkey and other neighbouring countries are shouldering a heavy burden. Already 80,000 refugees have poured into Turkey's refugee camps, with an estimated 4,000 arriving daily and 10,000 more still waiting along the frontier. The question becomes, though, what happens when the neighboring countries reach an unsustainable capacity?

Turkey claims that it can only handle 100,000 total refugees, while neighboring Jordan has estimated that 81,000 refugees have already crossed into its borders. Can we hold that these states have a duty to accept more fleeing Syrians? This is a tough call, as the international community is not helping the situation in any certain terms.

If we look to, say, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and his arguments about the necessary requirements for peaceful relations amongst states, we see that one of the prerequisites for such peace is what he terms "a universal right of hospitality." What does this mean? Well, generally it means that all persons have a right to visit various countries and associate with other people. But Kant's caveat is this: you cannot turn a person away if it means his certain destruction. In other words, refugees that face death in their own country have a right -- a moral right -- to go elsewhere.

It is not clear whether Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have fulfilled their duties by allowing the Syrian people refuge within their borders. What does seem clear, at least in the moral term, is that the international community is manifestly failing in fulfilling its duty to uphold the Syrian people's universal right of hospitality. The U.N. Security Council's continued obstinacy in undertaking any concrete action only further erodes the moral, as well as the very weak legal, rights that the Syrian people have.

But the Security Council is not the only obstacle to protecting the Syrian people. The new UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has now publicly stated that military "interference" is not an "available option." We might read Brahimi's statement one of two ways: either that he would not endorse a military intervention or that the Security Council will never pass a resolution authorizing intervention. I tend to believe he intended it the first way, and if that is the case, this presents further problems for protecting the Syrian people. Either way, though, Kofi Annan's successor is reifying the UN's position as an impotent international organization.

Yet the UN is not the only problem. We have another -- the continued reticence of many liberal politicians and pundits to do much more than wag their fingers at Assad. I myself have written that intervention in Syria would not happen the way it did in Libya, but that is not to say that something shouldn't be done. Many are too quick to dismiss enforcing no fly zones or creating safe havens, claiming that "humanitarian pretexts" cannot hide what amount to ineffectual power plays.

Undoubtedly no-fly zones and safe havens require military power, boots on the ground and sorties in the sky. The question is not whether military might is required, but when or how to deploy it. If we are going to claim that people have human rights, and that the international community is governed by norms, rules or laws, then those laws and rights must have the correlative enforcement mechanism to ensure that they are upheld. Without it, the international legal regime is nothing more than a phantom, and the politicians and pundits who vacillate on the enforcement of such rights perpetuate the illusion of international law and morality.

Until we recognize that "a community widely prevails among the Earth's peoples, [and] a transgression of the rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere" international law and what Kant terms "cosmopolitan right" is merely "fantastic and exaggerated."