It rained every day on the Bosporus as we ferried  back and forth across Istanbul’s grand waterway to discuss current and impending conflicts in the globe. Inside the windowless room, sitting in a large square facing each other, former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and a former NATO commander toured the world in words and debate to find paths to end these conflicts, to encourage the opening up of political systems and to keep those systems, their leaders and others from killing their citizens. Reports from seasoned, on-the-ground researchers informed the discussion of the board of the International Crisis Group.

Outside the meeting room, the Middle East continued in a state of foment. Its citizens had taken by surprise many of the experts in the room. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s regimes had fallen through nonviolent resistance comprised of strikes and mass protests by its citizens.  However, Libya’s President Gaddafi was attacking and threatening to slaughter his dissenting citizens and had sent that country into civil war. Syria and Bahrain, slightly more restrained, had also killed hundreds of  protesting citizenry.

The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was a focus of the debate. At what point does the international community have a responsibility to intervene when a government not only doesn’t protect its citizens but attacks them? Can the international community prevent such actions so that there will never again be another Rwanda or Srebrenica? Does the responsibility to protect inevitably lead to military intervention as it has in Libya? How does the U.N. and NATO unwind its commitment? Can it? Should it? And what about the simultaneous bloodshed in the Ivory Coast? Why were nations not invoking the Responsibility to Protect there?

These questions unfurled and swirled with no definitive answers. Rather, the answers were iterative, inching towards solutions. Even with some of the brightest minds around the table, foreign policy and diplomacy is not so much an art or a science; it is more like a grand bazaar, a trading of perceptions and perceptions of national interests.

In the forums on the Bosporus I was able to offer only a small window on civil society, on citizens who do not sit at such tables but have been willing to go to jail and even die because they have written or spoken their protests for freedom. I was more of a deputy sheriff in the gathering, without a global answer but with a reminder not to forget to open the stable door if the barn was being set on fire.

The freedom to tolerate without imprisoning or killing and the freedom to be tolerated without constraint is a rare and essentially modern concept in the world. When thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions rise up insisting on this freedom, it is a fearsome and transformative sight.  Freedom itself is a concept still developing. Is there a point when my freedom depends on your captivity?

No easy answers, but I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comment forum below.

5 Comments

  1. Mark Swinney on April 29, 2011 at 9:35 am

    “What about the simultaneous bloodshed in the Ivory Coast? Why were nations not invoking the Responsibility to Protect there?”

    You’re right, there are no easy answers to those questions, yet, they require the attention and a response from everyone, not just from the people from a few neighboring African countries.

  2. Elizabeth Starcevic on May 1, 2011 at 10:34 am

    There are so many clouds in so many places. 
    –Elizabeth Starcevic

  3. Fred Hunter on May 1, 2011 at 10:35 am

    “Terrible dilemmas!  We haven’t the resources to be everyone’s policeman.  And terrible as the repression in Syria has been – and it has been terrible! – the possibility that regime change could snuff out the rights of Syria’s many minorities is very real and can hardly be deemed progressive.  Complicated world!”
    –Fred Hunter

  4. Greta Pennington Rana on May 5, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Joanne,
    I really have to think about all this. there are so many issues that touch on the right to tolerate and be tolerated as people move from place to place. I think the last 40 years has seen the phenomenon of people resettling for economic reasons and then thinking established democratic societies should change for them and their worldviews. The problem with tolerating is that it lays you wide open for those you tolerate to be intolerant towards you. Some see tolerance as weakness. I don’t know what the answer is, but I bet improved education systems and exposure to what the world has to offer help more than improved incomes; and perhaps that’s the problem with economic migration-then we get into the problem of rich governments exploiting cheap labour. It’s never ending, but thanks for prodding us all.
    Greta

  5. sally howell on May 28, 2011 at 2:58 am

    The parallels between last month’s post regarding jury duty with this one on the International Crisis Group seem inescapable – different interests attempting to unite for a common purpose. I am sure that your ability to listen and thoughtfully respond supported progress in both situations. It reminds us of “… the connectedness of all our lives….”

    Thank you for these two thoughtful posts.

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