TED Conversations

Lindsay Newland Bowker


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What are the limits of sovereignty? Are we clear on international norms?

Present debate on what to do about Syrias use of chemical weapons on rebels/government opponents takes us back to the broader issue of the limits of sovereignty. It seems apparent that we don't have shared global values on a country's interior use of chemical weapons or what to do about it even though this ostensibly has been a matter of global consensus since the end of World War II. .What action is justified and is it ok for anyone nation to act alone without a global consensus on the basis of "protecting its national interests"?

(I will add links to several TED convesrations we have had in the past on global values and global governance)


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    Sep 6 2013: By its intrinsic nature the concept of sovereignty can not be limited. A state either is sovereign, or it is not and the only valid instance to decide this is any state by itself.

    On the geopolitical stage this fundamental rule may not be favored by any nation, but this is the way it is.

    In terms of 'shared global values', the current situation in Syria is actually pretty clear, as Syria neither signed nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and therefore and as a sovereign state does not violate any international agreements on this. The 'global consensus' since World War II, which you mentioned, only applies to the signing states of this Convention which legally binds only them.

    Chemical as well as biological and nuclear are weapons of mass destructions and for all three types exists international conventions. The US, for instance, and as a sovereign state signed for chemical and biological, but didn't sign for nuclear weapons. This is how the US positioned itself on this matter and it is either accepted or disapproved by other nations, but thats all other nations can do about it.

    The US didn't sign the conventions for Cluster Munitions and Antipersonnel Mines as well.

    The legal scope of those international norms and conventions only apply to the signing states and therefore does not affect the non signing states, which in case of Syria, does not legitimate any legal actions.

    Therefore it becomes argumentative difficult for the US to legitimize any military intervention, because Syria does not violate a convention it didn't sign.

    The debate about 'protecting national interests' in the given context is bizarre, as it conflicts not only with the Syrian sovereignty but also with the concept of an 'global consensus', as national interests are its opposite.
    • Sep 6 2013: While I understand what you are saying, and agree with most of it, the U.S. can defend any attack on the grounds that we have troops, citizens, and allies close enough for those chemical weapons to be used on them.That being the case, the U.S. does not need to use legal arguments against the Syrian state, but can use the fact that they are a threat to U.S. interests, safety, and soverignty. As a U.S. citizen, and former army NCO, I truly wish we wouldn't stick our noses in to other countries problems, but, we tried that in world war two, and eventually we got drug into it. We can no longer sit on the wayside and allow dictators to have this kind of control.
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        Sep 7 2013: Yet still there is a difference of being 'close' to chemical weapons to be 'used on them' and to finally being 'used on them'.

        I noticed a general shift in perception in recent years that 'preventive military interventions' are not considered anymore to be nothing but the actual aggression of a war.

        There is no 'first strike' out of defense reasons just by plain logic! Because the one who strikes first turns its opponent, even the most but just potential aggressor, into defense while taking away any alternative outcome of the former situation. Therefore it can not be a valid argument in saying to have prevented aggressive actions while anticipating them.

        So as long Syria didn't actually use any chemical weapons on US troops, citizens or close allies, there is no legitimation in any military intervention within any other sovereign country whatsoever.

        Because if you would follow this logic, there was no excuse why the US didn't already attack China for its potential thread in possessing nuclear weapons of mass destruction, or Russia and others. And any other nation could legitimize to attack the US for the nuclear weapons it posses itself.

        On this we like to stress the argument, that there is a difference in being an 'democratic' nation or an 'dictatorship', which, in itself, isn't logic as well, as it only claims for a difference it destroys itself the moment so called 'preventive' actions take place from the 'democratic' side.

        Those of us who happen to life in democratic societies may not like the concept of dictatorships, and so do I, but if we start to bomb any nation who didn't transform into democracy by now, we would nothing but devalue our system we wish other nations to transform into.

        Because of this I disagree with you saying, that the 'U.S. does not need to use legal arguments against the Syrian state'. Who if not democratic states do we democratic citizens expected to legitimize its military actions?
        • Sep 7 2013: History has proven that small dictatorships will use any weapons of mass destruction that they possess. I am not for waiting and reacting. That would be disasterous, and all the peacenicks would all of a sudden cry bloody murder for allowing that to happen.
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        Sep 7 2013: This is what makes us belief of being different from any dictatorship, to have not only some reasons or just 'gut feelings' to go for war, but to have legal arguments for it and true facts to make such decisions.

        But if we just do what we like and because of what we think what may happen just because 'we can', we won't do any better than any dictatorship gone wild.

        One of the highest achievement we are proud of, is the legal system in our democracies, to separate us from any arbitrariness of dictatorships. But this legal system doesn't end at our borders, as we are responsible of our actions on international levels as well. If law and order is what we stand for, we have to life up to it even in risky situations.

        I also think we shouldn't keep on practicing our double-standards with dictatorships in general, in which we tend to 'tolerate' them the moment they are profitable or useful to us, yet condemn or even bomb them the moment they turn their back on us.

        Same goes for China. We keep having this feeling of our moral superiority towards them, suppressing their people, yet if we talk business, who cares for those details? This our active international behavior is what we are measured against by other nations and political systems and not against our lip-service.

        And as long as we act differently of what we claim, we are not only loosing our credibility but being the cause that other nations may feel threatened by us, instead of being the reason to rethink their own system.

        I always wondered why the US operates approximately 1000 military bases worldwide of which many of them are located within areas of scarce resources, especially within the middle east. I don't know how you see it in the US, yet the latest military conflicts you had in those areas didn't improve the overall opinion other nations formed about your country and made people think about the true intentions of this involvement.

        In this light Syria just seems a threshold to Iranian resources ...
        • Sep 7 2013: We stood by and watched Britain almost bombed into the stone age, and did nothing. Same goes for China. It took us being attacked to get us to look at what happened. I am not saying I agree with reasons for attacking one dictatorship and not another, especially if monetary gain is afoot. But, the U.S. and it's allies have made it their business to step in and protect innocent civilians before, and I am sure will do it again. Again, I am not defending only going after regimes that we stand to lose resources, and not going after those that are considered allies, but we have become, like it or not, the worlds police. Most of these so called credibility losses actually started out asking for help, until they got into a position of power then they wanted us out so that they could oppress the people. Personally, I wish our congress would vote to stop giving aide to the world, but that isn't going to happen, because the corporations who are truly in charge won't allow it.
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          Sep 7 2013: Lehan & Timothy ,

          What you have each said is right at the heart of it and as Timothy invites us to dom we have to consider past applications of intervenetion, or non-intervention and the reasons for it.( My mother was a survivor of the London Blitz..when itwasn't clear the U/S. would help out so I grew up with stories of how war terrified inncocents. Ladies knitting in subway bomb shelters where they stayed for days some times couldn't undersrand why the rest of the world didn't care and wasn't helping)

          Western Nations, U.S. at the center ho have taken up the job of "world police" ( we'll talk to the U.N. but if you don't agree we'll do what we want to do any way) have to revisit what they are policing and what the aim of that policing are. More and more of "we the people" aren't happy with the old paradigm that still governs in situations like the present one with Syria.

          We can't just "oppose" and resist. We have to offer solutions through specific changes in law and policy in our own nations.
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        Sep 7 2013: I truly hope I am mistaken on this last 'interpretation'!!!
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        Sep 7 2013: History has also proven that any weapon of mass destruction was used by any political system.

        History has also proven that the German nation is violent to its core. We didn't only stop the violently expanding Roman empire in those days, we seem to like to expand our own territory from time to time. WWI, WWII and we do not even shied away on genocides. So if history is your teacher, and change no option, it would from a preventive standpoint make more sense to wipe us out, before we change back our minds. Given the fact, that we already regained the economical lead in Europe coming from ashes, our newest military restraints may just be part of a bigger plan ...

        I don't see Syria and Iran to have such a record ...

        It seems our points of view keep flipping on opposite sites, because the involvement of the USA during WWII and against my very country is to me the best military intervention your nation ever did. And it ended ever since in my eyes in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

        If its just was 'your' and 'your' allies business to 'protect innocent civilians', I would not have written a single word here. But I can not remain silent, if humanitarian reasons are misused over and over again, because if that was what it is about, where have we been in Rwanda? What is the humanitarian difference to die of gas or by a bullet, shrapnel, blast-wave, land mine, etc, etc, etc ...

        Can mass destruction only be reduced to the number of strokes it takes? I don't think so!

        Humanity is no matter of the 'form on the day'. Yet if its practiced this way, it isn't honest. It is that simple and my nation not better than yours on this.

        A 'world police' without a binding adjudicative authority is de facto a police state, which is nothing but a relative to dictatorship.

        Democracy deserves better than that if this is what we stand for!

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