Posted on Monday, 30 September 2013 17:25

African Angles: Syria's 'red line'

Ahmedou ould-Abdallah President, Centre for strategy and security in the Sahel-Sahara. Photo©SipaReponsibility to protect has been a great achievement, but red lines don't always work, argues Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, President of the Centre for Strategy and Security in the Sahel-Sahara.

The Syrian crisis is more similar to a Cold War conflict than to most recent African wars. It is a civil conflict, but with an increasing number of foreign combatants and the direct diplomatic involvement of Russia, the United States and their allies in the Middle East.

It was thanks to a soft red line, not a yellow, that we have less political killing

A political settlement is always the best solution, but we should not be naive. If there is no threat or if the stakes are not raised, some leaders, whatever their camp, will continue to kill innocent citizens, destroy infrastructure and push millions on the road to exile in refugee camps.

In a number of countries in Africa that have suffered from civil war, there is a political or ideological unanimity – I think more by courtesy than by consensus – to reject foreign intervention. It is understandable because African countries see themselves as having been colonised and divided, though they were not the only ones.

But without foreign intervention, Mali would not have been liberated. The regional African security arrangements, such as the Economic Community of West African States, were either not able or not willing to protect Mali's integrity. This is a permanent, unfortunate contradiction in our leadership to blame something we cannot yet replace.

The principle of a 'red line' is a good one. It was thanks to a soft red line, not a yellow, that we have less political killing, not only in Africa, but the world over. A red line in favour of freedom of movement, of expression and of association is a necessity, particularly in the face of many irresponsible, unaccountable leaders.

Unfortunately, there are always double standards. There are places where you don't have the capacity to interfere. But I think one of the greatest achievements of the late 1990s and early 2000s – which is not always implemented – is 'R2P' – the responsibility to protect.

When a government kills its own people or is unable to protect its own people, it is a necessity that the international community come to help. The problem, as in Syria, is when those who say there is a red line are prevented from identifying who crossed the line, or, once identified, from going after them.

Still, the decision to intervene will rest with those who have the leverage, the weapons, the resources and also the veto to prevent a decision being made.

Many African countries have suffered from this 'soft consensus.' Take Madagascar, where a country is taken hostage by minorities and where, because the international community condemns any coup d'état, the army cannot move and the civilian leaders keep quarrelling. A revival of debate in the UN security council might be useful to push new thinking on the way to address civil conflicts. ●

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