Friday, February 17, 2012

Syria and the UN General Assembly Vote

It's hard to know what to write about over the last few days, since so much relating to social justice and human rights has been in the news. One thing that stuck out, though, was the new UN vote that took place just yesterday, condemning the violence in Syria . This vote--which was taken in the General Assembly instead of the Security Council, where the last bill failed--passed by a strong majority, but has no real legal power.

With the violence in Syria reaching new levels, it's small wonder that there is movement to try to condemn the situation and push for change. Yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian government of likely committing crimes against humanity, and there has been a groundswell of support for people affected by the violence, with one example being Britain recently deciding to send a good deal of food rations. Where there have been such crimes, as appears very likely from the news we have been getting across a variety of media sources, we cannot ethically do nothing. Having said that, though, who is "we" and what would constitute the proper "something" to do?

It seems quite clear that the violence needs a response from the international community. But what kind of response? When the UN Secretary General accuses a government of crimes against humanity against its own people, those are charges of serious violations of human rights being laid, and he is using language that brings up the "Responsibility to Protect" UN initiative. Furthermore, we know from past experience that violence such as we are seeing on our news screens today sows seeds of  more violence down the road (even when they can be argued to be 'necessary' or 'unavoidable', is there ever really a winner in a civil war?), potential mass poverty due to infrastructure collapse, and years of inter-generational trauma. We have seen many civil wars and much mass poverty in the last several hundred years, but we are just now beginning to understand the real impact of mass trauma and the problems it compounds. And we, the collective international community, are increasingly aware of all the damage this causes not only in the countries where such crime have occurred but also around the globe. Displaced refugees flood in from nations undergoing violence while other countries struggle to come to terms with what to do with all the refugees while still dealing with their own struggling economy. Anti-immigrant extremist groups or individuals sometimes seize on this and promote or even undertake more violence, as we saw earlier with the gunman in Norway who bizarrely claimed he was protecting his nation from multiculturalism and Islam.

So it seems to me that there is a bigger question even aside from the extremely important question of how to respond to this specific violence in Syria, and that is how do we, as an international community, deal with intense trauma? How do we heal it? Once the immediate threat of ongoing violence has been confronted and diffused, what do we do next? Aside from whatever the UN and countries on their own decide to do in response to the Syrian government's current actions, that, I think, is where the response from the international community will eventually be most needed--and not just in Syria, but in all areas that have experienced trauma to the level that we label it "crimes against humanity". If the trauma remains unhealed, then it continues to affect generation after generation, passing on more seeds for violence and further trauma with all it entails. So my question for today is, could we consider "healing from trauma" in widespread cases like where "crimes against humanity" have taken place to be, if not a human right, at least a human mandate? And if so, how do we care for people in such situations? How does one orchestrate real communal healing?


  1. That's a big question. Maybe the first thing to ask is if it's even possible to orchestrate communal healing.

    Violence in Iraq hasn't ended but it is at a much lower level now than a few years ago. This is not because much communal healing took place. It's because programs of ethnic cleansing are largely complete. U.S. forces were powerless to stop that. It was the regime in power that kept those social fault lines from widening in the first place.

    If we intervene in Syria as we did in Libya, and expect to be able to help heal the trauma there, it may be the case that the larger trauma is not the crimes against humanity that cause our intervention in the first place but rather the civil war that ensues in the power vacuum. Does anything but time ever heal such wounds?

  2. "On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." Revelation 22:2

    There is something other than time then. At least if we trust this source.

    1. Now, if only we could find that tree...

      But seriously, that passage I always took to mean a metaphor for time anyway. Time is the great healer and probably truly the best, but other things can help as well. Witness the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commision (, a model that has been adopted in various other countries, including Australia for working toward healing between white and indigenous Australians.

    2. Time is no doubt involved. I would clarify though and say that healing TAKES time. We are not healed BY time. It is always something else, working in time, that is doing the healing, whether it is the prescriptions of a physician, our own immune system, or the leaves from the tree of life.

      That said, I was watching a nature special last night on ocean mammals. Grey whales in their ancestral breeding grounds once did ferocious battle with the whalers who would come there. They even earned the name "devil fish" because they fought so hard against their human hunters. But then, some time after whaling was prohibited, although still within the same generation of whales that were hunted, the whales became extremely gentle and open toward their human 'visitors'. They would come up by the boats, look people in the eye, and invite contact with them and their babies. Is was quite a moving display in the show, watching people hug and kiss these great beasts. Watching these great beasts revel in the bonds of kinship that no amount of violence could ever fully destroy.

      It led me (and the investigators) to wonder, was it because the whales are stupid and forgot? Was it time that eventually healed their wounds? Was it an act of perfect forgiveness on the part of the whales?

      Perhaps what we see here is that an important step toward healing is the initiation by the wounded to enter into a new relationship with the ones who did the wounding. The whales truly turned the other cheek. But here is the thing: This is a step that takes no time at all, even if it takes us a long time to take it.

      Finally, my thinking would be that the same applies elsewhere. We need to stop the violence, but after that it is a matter of waiting for those that we have wounded to make the first move. To poke their heads above the surface and initiate a new relationship of trust and mutual prosperity with us. We can't make that move for them and without that move any future relationship would be tainted by the past.

      (If only more people were like the whales!)

  3. Daryl, it's a good question you raise--can we ever orchestrate communal healing? I think we can (ever the optimist there, I suppose...) though I admit it's a lot easier to do in small groups than in large ones. Healing the people of a Nation after terrible trauma is a pretty tall order. Time does seem to have an important role to play, but it seems to me that time without added healing work doesn't answer the need. Without the healing work, there is a vacuum, as you mentioned, and that "vacuum" often draws incitement to more violence, or hatred instead of healing. Perhaps Triple Dash's example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an example of time + communal healing work that has had some good fruit?

    And speaking of fruit, Jared, the image of the healing tree you bring up from Revelations is beautiful, but in the context of approaching concrete problems-in-the-world, I always find such images need to be "fleshed out". What are those leaves in concrete terms? Perhaps indeed *who* are those leaves? Maybe I've been reading too much Dr. Seuss lately, having got out my copy of the Lorax again, (though I could recite the book from memory as a child) but if we were to (both reverently and irreverently) reflect on the image of the tree from Revelations and imagine it for a moment as a Truffula tree, then the understanding the old Once-ler comes to at the end of the book has a great deal of illumination on our subject of discussion: "'But now,' said the Once-ler,/ 'Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear./ UNLESS someone like you/ cares a whole awful lot,/ nothing is going to get better./ It's not."

    Hopefully we are not all Once-ler's who hide up in their derelict buildings and throw seeds out to random passers-by, telling others do the work we ourselves should be doing. And (still ever the optimist...) I don't think we all are such beings. So perhaps Triple Dash's Truth and Reconciliation Commission example is an example of a leaf off that tree you mentioned. And perhaps you are too, and me.

    Truffula fruit for thought, anyway...

    1. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an excellent example of an excellent process, but I'd point out that we think of it precisely because it is so exceptional. It certainly shows a way forward where conditions allow it. I'm just not confident that many conditions, particularly the worst ones, would allow it.

      I think it's darn close to the truth that time itself does most of the healing, through individual and collective forgetfulness. Perhaps the way to facillitate healing is to provide assistance that will allow time to do its work. I'm thinking mainly of security, institution building, and economic support. The problem with these is that they can be seen as foreign impositions even if they aren't. The first job, I think, is for those nations who would assist other nations in their healing to do what is necessary to gain credibility and trust.

      Not sure whether that counts as being leaves or planting seeds...