This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: With the Syrian situation changing almost by the hour, students at Clayton High School had the chance Thursday morning to get valuable perspective on global relations from a man who has helped shape international law and human rights.
Not surprisingly, the issues are more complex than they may seem at first.
Isaak Dore, a professor at the Saint Louis University law school who has worked as a consultant at the United Nations, visited Paul Hoelscher’s juniors and seniors during their study of globalism. He shared firsthand knowledge of the kinds of intricate calculations that can go into the handling of delicate international crises.
Given the rapid shifts in the debate over the past few days, Hoelscher said before the class began that Dore’s talk would be particularly valuable.
“Diplomacy is fluid,” he said. “It’s constantly changing, and I think that’s a good lesson for these kids.”
Hoelscher said he makes sure that his students follow the latest news developments, so they can see that the broader questions they study in class can have real-life consequences.
“Abstract ideas are extremely important,” he said, “but you can’t beat curiosity.”
Referring to himself as a former “Peace Corps kid,” Hoelscher said that the students who choose to take his class have a natural fascination about other countries, and living in Clayton often gives them the opportunity to make that interest come alive.
“A lot of the kids have traveled,” he said. “They’re enough to be able to do that.”
The role of the U.N.
To bolster his talk, Dore brought in copies of part of the U.N. charter, concentrating on the powers, procedures and functions of the Security Council. He compared the 15-member body to the offices in the United States that enforce the rules and noted that it has worldwide jurisdiction, governing international behavior, whether it is governed by formal treaties or longstanding custom.
“If you have bad guys who are breaking the law,” he said, “the Security Council is the body who can stop them.”
Comparing the smaller council to the overall membership of the U.N., Dore added:
“It’s a lot easier for 15 people to agree than 230, right?”
He cited the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq -- an event that took place years before the students he was talking to had been born -- as a good example of how the U.N. works. The Security Council passed a resolution against it, and the U.S.-led coalition moved in to enforce it.
On the chemical weapons that have been the focus in Syria, he said, many treaties are involved, but he cited the Geneva Protocol of 1925 as the most influential, coming right after the war to end all wars where poison gas was common.
“After the first world war,” Dore said, “countries got together and said we’ve got a problem. Let’s try to make warfare more humane and eliminate the use of these nasty weapons.”
Syria, he noted, did not sign the protocol until 1968.
Dore also emphasized the provision of the Security Council rules that has often stymied international efforts – the veto by the five permanent members, the U.S., Russia, England, France and China. Because of that provision, he said, “until now it has been impossible to do anything about Syria” as the crisis there has escalated.
As Barack Obama talked about Syria crossing the “red line” of using chemical weapons and went about trying to line up countries to back the U.S. in the event of military action, Dore noted that such an approach could still be considered “vigilante justice,” outside the U.N., without approval from the Security Council.
But as events have shifted from talk of air strikes to talk of diplomacy, Dore noted that the U.N. role is likely to become a more common one – monitoring whatever chemical weapons Syria is willing to turn over to international control. Even on the day he was speaking to the class, he pointed out, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Geneva talking with his Russian counterpart to help cement the deal.
Once U.N. inspectors get involved, Dore said, “they’re going to be risking their lives to find out” what weapons Syria has and how they might have been used.
If Syria doesn’t live up to whatever agreement is reached, he told the students, any enforcement action the U.S. decides on will have to win cooperation from Russia and China. “It will be a test to see if this arrangement can work out,” he said.
“It would be a terrific example of international diplomacy being successful.”
In the longer term, Dore concluded, the Syrian situation could be a preview of other crises in an area that has undergone a lot of changes in recent years. He said the students' lives are likely to be affected.
“The whole region is unstable,” he said. “We’ve got to do something to stop this humanitarian disaster unfolding before our very eyes.
“This is a very exciting time for you to be studying this.”
Students who stuck around after class to talk about Dore’s lecture agreed.
“This class is really great because you get to hear a variety of perspectives,” said Luke Auffenberg, a senior who said hopes to have a career in diplomacy.
Carly Beard, a senior whose main focus is theology, added that she likes to hear the educated opinions that she encounters in the class.
Senior Liam Dougan noted that with the Syrian situation in such flux, the class and visiting lecturers like Dore help make the changes understandable.
He noted how last week it seemed like a U.S. attack on Syria was imminent, but those prospects seemed to shift almost overnight to a focus on diplomacy.
Carly said she uses alerts sent to her phone by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to keep her updated even during the school day.
Luke added that discussing the ongoing crisis in class helps him appreciate the nuances of the Syrian situation.
“This class complicates things,” he said. “It would be easy to just read an article and think this is what we should do in Syria. Learning more is a good thing. It’s not good to get too set in your ways.
“The issue in many ways becomes more philosophical, not what the solution should be but why it should be that way and what it says about how the world operates.”
Syria: CIA World Factbook
Tense U.S.-Russian talks on chemical deals – BBC
As the debate continues about what other countries can do, the conflict continues. To see what is happening, refer to Interactive: Mapping Syria's rebellion from Al Jazeera.
The Washington Institute has looked at many facets of the situation in Syria, including "Beyond the Redline: U.S. Opportunities with Syria's Armed Opposition." And NPR tried to answer "Who are the Syrian rebels?"