Syria at Geneva: Let's define justice

Syria at Geneva: Let's define justice
Comment: The chasm between the rhetoric of justice and acting out of justice leaves the people of the Middle East surrounded by violence, writes Laith Saud.
6 min read
30 Jan, 2016
The Arab world is accustomed to global powers invoking 'justice' to interfere [AFP]

As Syrian peace talks kick off, can we take a moment to define justice

A satisfactory definition evades us as much as its implementation: We find ourselves going in circles - "justice" is fairness or equitableness. Perhaps justice is like beauty or love, one knows it when they see it or feel it; US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously applied this criterion to pornography. 

If justice is known when seen, then I suppose the same could be said of injustice.

But we still rely on words to institutionalise the justice we see or do not see: Civilian, war crime, siege, violation, law, rights. Today, with our increasing ability to see things happening all over the world, it seems these words mean very little. 

Notwithstanding that fact, it remains difficult to erase the injustice seen before our eyes. So long as that is the case, the desire to "take justice into one's own hands" will increase; so will sectarianism, militancy, terrorism and chaos. 

We have words for this type of behaviour - war crimes

Instances of (in)justice

A situation which exemplifies injustice is the conflict in Syria: an embattled president, with tanks, planes, bombs and the support of major powers has continued to kill thousands of civilians. 

We have words for this type of behaviour - war crimes.  And people in our region are accustomed to world powers invoking justice to interfere in the business of their country. 

In 2001, following the attacks on New York City and Washington DC, US President George W Bush asserted "whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done". This type of "justice" involved the illegal invasion of Iraq - a state whose government or people had nothing to do with the attacks - resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. 

Saddam Hussein was arrested by the prevailing US forces, tried and executed for crimes against humanity; the implicating incident was the arrest and detention of 143 people from Dujail in 1982. 

Saddam was executed for causing the deaths of 143 people, which seems appropriate; but how do I reconcile that with the fact Bashar al-Assad is considered "part of the solution" or foreseen as remaining in power for the near future, when he has killed hunfdreds of thousands of people?

Hillary Clinton, one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency bragged that during her time as Secretary of State they killed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. 

"We came, we saw, he died," she famously laughed. And perhaps the intervention in Libya was completely justified - in front of the world, Gaddafi threatened Libyan protesters with imminent punishment and destruction.

These people were of course innocent, and the surprised Gaddafi bemused the international community with his "zenga, zenga" outcry. I was in Egypt at the time. We all wanted to see Gaddafi fall, as Mubarak had in Cairo. Trucks packing pillows and blankets were being sent to Libya.

When some people brought up the need for foreign intervention, I protested "nothing good will come from western intervention". I argued, but how could I look people in the eye and academically "protest" against intervention when thousands of people were on the verge of being slaughtered? 

Within a month, NATO was mobilised and the regime was overthrown. The language at the UN stressed the importance of protecting civilian life. 

Meanwhile, when it comes to Assad, a new language complicates his killing. Contextualisation is so excessive it renders the moral imperative superfluous; understanding Assad's crimes requires one to be more "sober" or to privilege a "political solution" - over a moral solution, I suppose. 

For people familiar with the region, it seems the only thing that makes Iraqi and Libyan lives worth "saving" and Syrians not is the presence of oil.

Rendering justice superfluous

Not only have imperial or supposedly anti-imperial actors obscured the realities of justice through spin and speech; lesser politicians, journalists and think-tank analysts have sustained the much-preferred moral neutrality of the political. 

As Ibrahim Halawi observes, in discussing Syria, we watch from afar, enjoying infographs and sound bites about IS beheadings; but Syria has been reduced to three abstract types - Regime, Anti-Regime, IS - where did all the people go? 

Infographs and headlines ensure events become "perceived as exclusively military, and consequently the only civilian dimension is in its numerical humanitarian implications: death toll". But even death tolls do little to sway international action, as we see in the inconsistencies listed above; it is more like a scorecard in an international military game, which again condescends to moral language.

Yes, it is difficult to define justice, but I know an injustice when I see one. So does everyone else

Halawai rightly insists that Obama's "red line" proves the point: "The US saw a need for action when Assad allegedly used chemical weapons in killing. So, it is not the act of killing civilians that required a metaphorical red line. It is the weaponry used. The military event is what mattered, not the people."

Finally, when the people have been folded up into military or national categories their actual presence becomes a burden.  Syrian refugees are still in the news, discussed as a problem, not as people.

Yes, it is difficult to define justice, but I know an injustice when I see one. So does everyone else and it is the obvious nature of injustice - still too often imposed by imperial powers in the Middle East - that has rendered many in the region cynical. 

When we speak of justice, we create expectations and hopes. The Syrian today, watching Russian planes bombing their homeland waits for justice; they have nothing to do with this international nihilism. 

They look up to the sky and say "We don’t make planes and bombs". They simply wait for the people who do make such things to do something. What else could they do? 

And when nothing is done, they are forced to migrate, where they are met with ridicule, distrust and often turned back, more evident nihilism and cynicism. So long as the way we talk about justice remains dissonant with the way we act about justice, people in the region will continue to be surrounded by the nihilistic forces of terrorism, sectarianism and dictatorship.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.