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Something can be done

06 June 2014

A PRESIDENT, democratically re-elected, combats terrorists in his country. A court passes sentence on a woman in accordance with its long-established penal code. A police force investigates a regrettable murder in one of its cities. All perfectly acceptable, except that the President is Bashar al Assad; the woman is Meriam Ibrahim, condemned to death for supposedly converting to Christianity in Sudan; and the murder is the so-called honour killing of Farzana Paveen in Lahore, Pakistan. Each case has provoked an understandable revulsion, leading to the view that "something" must be done.

In Bloxham last weekend, several speakers at the Church Times's Festival of Faith and Literature wrestled with the dilemma of intervention, among them Lord Hurd, a distinguished former Foreign Secretary, and Major General Tim Cross, who led the international force KFOR in Kosovo, and was involved in post-war planning in Iraq. Cross is an advocate of early intervention, as long as the objective is clear. An unfocused and protracted war in, say, Syria would most likely compound the suffering of the population. Even incursions into another country's sovereign territory, as appear to be taking place in Crimea, are blurred by considerations of ethnicity and the wishes of a majority of the population. The injustices listed above are less clear even than this; and yet they, too, demand a response. If this cannot be found within the country, the responsibility falls to the international community.

One of Lord Hurd's stipulations, "Try everything else first," is sound. The non-military arsenal is potentially very strong, but the punitive element requires a concerted will that has been lacking of late, as Russia and the US exercise their vetoes. There is, however, a range of measures that require less international agreement, and could even be bilateral. These might involve offering strategic funding, providing a peace-keeping force - as the French have done in the Central African Republic, or the British did in Sierra Leone in May 2000, even bribing a brutal leader to step down. Such actions are immeasurably cheaper than conducting a war; cheaper, too, than dealing with the humanitarian fallout from a failing state. The only option cheaper than this is to do nothing, which is the preference of politicians whose electorate repeatedly tells them not to spend money overseas. Down this route is another Rwanda.

Any contemplation of this subject quickly turns into a lamentation over the ineffectiveness of the United Nations. For the time being, it must be circumvented for, in a political crisis, speed is often of the essence. One way forward would be to model a response on the way the international community acts whenever there is a natural disaster. Here we see a willingness to act quickly and generously. And, unlike an earthquake, most political crises can be seen coming. Early intervention would limit suffering, and save the world money.

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