Giving peace a chance proves an uphill battle in world of tyrants

Paul Letters argues that, sometimes, the use of force is justified

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 9:42pm

Have you heard today's worldwide call for peace? No? Neither have the Syrians. September 21 is International Peace Day and, this year, British non-governmental organisation Peace One Day estimates at least 600 million people will "be aware" of it. A variety of Hong Kong schools are commemorating the day, as are internationally minded schools in mainland China and beyond.

Western leaders have rarely been less certain about whether aggression is best combatted with peace or violence. On military intervention in Syria, the fire in French President Francois Hollande's battle rhetoric has been dampened by polls suggesting almost two-thirds of French people oppose intervention. British government hawks have been forced to ground by a flock of doves in parliament. The US president and congressional leaders of both the Republicans and Democrats seemed close to an agreement in favour of intervention, which, it transpires, swims against the tide of public opinion and, quite probably, Congress as a whole.

Force, or at least the threat of it, must be used to deter states … from future transgressions

But is a peaceful course of action always the best response to conflict? George W. Bush's "war on terror" has caused more problems than it solved. However, an entirely peaceful response to terrorism would allow al-Qaeda's capabilities to burgeon. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, ordered his own disastrous intervention in Somalia.

Yet, for every Iraq and Somalia, there's a Kosovo and a Sierra Leone (in both, lives were undeniably saved by outside intervention), and a Rwanda and a Darfur, where international prevarication - that is, non-intervention - allowed genocidal killing to continue for far too long. A "one size fits all" peaceful reaction to aggression by the international community is irresponsible.

A mere finger-wagging to Syria's use of chemical weapons would have been shameful. If the international community did not threaten force in response to chemical attacks, the result would be a green light for crimes against humanity without fear of deterrent.

If either the threat or reality of military strikes helps to steer Assad - and tyrants worldwide - away from using or creating the most heinous of weapons, it would not only be an exercise in damage limitation but an advancement for world peace.

US President Barack Obama is correct to lead a global stand against the use of chemical weapons. Of course, holding that line may conflict with peace. Force, or at least the threat of it, must be used to deter states - including North Korea, believed to hold an arsenal of chemical weapons larger than Syria's - from future transgressions.

What we do with peace - even if it is only for one day - is crucial. Since 2007, International Peace Day ceasefire agreements by parties to the conflict in Afghanistan have allowed for the immunisation against polio of 4.5 million children in areas unreachable on the other 364 days of the year.

Syrians face the worst refugee crisis since Rwandans in 1994, with over six million displaced civilians across Syria and in neighbouring countries. Calls for a truce to allow aid groups to reach people in need have been frustrated both by government forces and the rebels.

It is feasible that the Russian-brokered agreement concerning chemical weapons could be a step towards a broader peace in Syria. But, hell-bent on destroying their opponents, the largest anti-government force, the Free Syrian Army, unashamedly rejects it.

If the goal is to encourage all of Syria's factions towards a negotiated peace, an additional international military threat may soon be required - this time, against rebel groups: an armed hotchpotch of conflicting interests and dubious intentions if ever there was one.

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer. For his forthcoming second world war novel, Providence, see