Ever since President Barack Obama announced in 2013 that he would not let the Syrian government use chemical weapons without a response because such act would be an unacceptable crossing of a “red line”, the expression became a political mainstay. Though, finally, the American president did not issue a response to the crossing of that line. Nonetheless, the new English, French and American leaders, used the expression again in 2018, but this time it was in a credible manner. Syria was bombed for using chlorine against its own people.
A “red line” sets a limit that the international community will not allow one of its members to cross without a response.
However, it is undoubtedly necessary to go back to the origin of the expression. Its source originates precisely in that region during the negotiation between the world’s biggest oil companies in 1928 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: given their lack of clear knowledge of the borders of the region, they relied on lines that were precipitously drawn with a red pencil on a map by one of them, Calouste Gulbenkian—hence, the name of their agreement: “the red line agreement”. Ironically, this agreement is not unrelated to the situation in Syria today. In fact, one of the major causes of the geopolitical situation of the region and the innumerable wars that have since unfolded is the desire to control oil reserves, and it undoubtedly stems from this agreement.
The expression, “the red line”, was later used in the negotiations for the creation of the United Nations. Then, from its usage as a “frontier”, it evolved and took the sense of a “limit”, imposing itself everywhere in the world: a “red line” is a limit not to cross. And the expression is used in this sense everywhere in the world, except in France, where we generally speak of a “yellow line”, except when discussing something prohibited by diplomacy, in which case the “red” has also imposed itself.
The use of chemical weapons is horrific and especially when it is used, as in Syria, against a country’s own people. And all of the international rules have forbidden it for over a century. It was understandable to use this expression in this regard.
But, after all, are there not many other “red lines” that deserve to be prevented from being crossed?
Should we not consider, for example, that it is just as intolerable for the government not to issue a response to women being raped and killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Similarly, isn’t a red line also crossed when the army in Myanmar slaughters the Rohingya minority? Or when a State (and there are so many!) tortures its citizens, slaughters its journalists and orders the killing of its opponents?
Could we not hope that the international community solemnly tells the leaders of these countries that, if they do not stop these acts, or tolerate these human rights violations, the international community will intervene with as much force as the United States, Great Britain and France did in Syria?
Unless the red line only concerns threats of external aggression, which would then not be covered by the Syrian case.
Could we then clearly define what deserves to be considered as a red line by democracies?
No one dares to do so. And undoubtedly, if we do not it, it is only because in reality; there are really no “red lines” because nobody wants, nor can, universalize the principle of intervention. There are only tactical coalitions that do what they can, on matters within their reach, in a world that is becoming less and less civilized and more and more anarchic.
This is not a reason to give up. And, for that, we must start by not contenting ourselves with mere words.