Arab leaders shouldn’t kill their people- An Astonishing New Norm
The Arab League is today considering the demand by the Syrian National Council, human rights organizations and a wide array of other actors that it freeze Syria’s membership over its killing of civilians. Few expect that the Arab League will seriously affect the Assad regime’s behavior. But the very fact that it is even considering such a move is frankly astonishing. Since when do Arab leaders agree that a regime’s legitimacy can be forfeit if it kills too many of its own people?
The rapid spread of a new norm against Arab regimes killing their own people is a frankly astonishing, but largely unremarked, change in the regional game. Since the Arab League backed the UN intervention in Libya in March, the idea that regimes might be sanctioned for their domestic brutality has become a normal part of the Arab political debate and enshrined in official Arab League resolutions. Both the GCC’s political transition plan for Yemen and this month’s Arab League peace plan for Syria condemned regimes for their violence and called for far reaching political changes. They haven’t stopped the violence. But the idea that they should is something genuinely new — and has major implications beyond the immediate outcome in either country.
Let’s recall how odd it is that Arab leaders would agree with even an empty principle that regimes which kill their own people should forfeit their legitimacy. Almost every regime in the Arab world has been doing exactly that for decades. Jordan’s King Hussein kept his throne in 1970 when his troops massacred Palestinians in the infamous Black September. Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad didn’t forfeit his Arab legitimacy when his forces leveled Hama in 1982. Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein suffered no great normative sanctions for his genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s. Arabs responded tepidly to the Sudanese brutality in Darfur in the 2000s. There was certainly great public concern over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or the suffering of Iraqis under international sanctions in the 1990s, but those were framed as the abuse of Arabs by hostile foreign powers rather than as a condemnation of Arab leaders for their repressive ways. For decades, then, rejection of any external standards for regime legitimacy lay at the very core of Arab norms of state sovereignty.
What’s more, it’s not like those leaders can now look back smugly on their past moral blindness from a safe distance. Almost every Arab leader is either currently repressing protestors or knows that within weeks it could be them in the docket. The Saudis endorsed the intervention in Libya at the exact same moment that they sent troops into Bahrain and supported a crushing, blanket repression which violated a wide range of international human rights norms. If Amman, Rabat or Algiers decided to send in the military against unarmed protestors, could they really be certain that they would not be held accountable to the same standards they have endorsed for Damascus, Sanaa and Tripoli? Most likely, these leaders did not believe