The United Nations has decided to suspend its observer mission to Syria. Because of increased violence and threats to the observers themselves, the monitors will remain in safe areas within the country but make no attempt to bear witness to the continue violence and increasing massacres. The observers had been sent as part of a six-point peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan as special envoy of the U.N. and the Arab League.
While many commentators are announcing the failure of the Annan plan, a more profound failure is taking place. The United Nations was established to help maintain international peace and security as well as guarantee a minimum of human rights. Beyond the declarations of intended objectives was the notion of something called the international community. That community was supposed to represent a collective will, a collective sharing of aims and values if not minimally shared interests. As opposed to a coalition of the willing which assumes insiders and outsiders within and beyond states, the international community is a general term that was created to capture larger, recognized commonalities. Although it is perhaps best represented within international organizations such as the United Nations, the international community is a more encompassing term including civic society in all its manifestations. It is such a huge tent indeed that often when used it is difficult to imagine anything outside the tent.
In a wonderful article written some years ago, Virginia Held asked the question, "Can a random collection of individuals be morally responsible?". Her example was a mugger entering a New York subway and the reaction of the random passengers to rebuff the mugger collectively or not.
The international community (which is not random) has not yet coalesced around what is happening in Syria. We know there are massacres. We know that women and children are being slaughtered. But, the fictitious international community has not been able to form a collective response because of differing opinions of what is going on and what should be done about it.
The example of Syria is a flagrant case study of a supposed international community being collectively incapable of reacting. Suspending the observer mission is not only a failure of the Annan plan; it is a tragic failure of the very concept of an international community. And we will see if the results of the Rio + 20 meeting will be another case study along the same lines.