The New Interventionism – Promise and Reality

by David Petrasek

The news is alarming: whole families killed in the mountain villages near Lebanon and massacres in Damascus; sectarian clashes between Christian, Alawite and Sunni communities risk a descent into full-scale civil war. The French are demanding intervention, and together with the British
threatening to dispatch warships to the Syrian coast; they seek an international mandate to do so. The Russians, wary of western plans in a region where their own influence is waning, are loath to agree. Quote DavidThe Turks are anxious about the escalating violence, but ill-equipped to respond on their own.

Syria, in the summer of 2012? No, the Ottoman Syrian provinces – in 1860!

Thousands were killed in the clashes in 1860, and European newspapers printed lurid articles describing the violence against Christians. British and French objectives in the region were above all to extend their influence, lest the Russians fill the vacuum created by weakening Ottoman rule. The eventual French intervention, however, of several thousand troops, backed by the European powers, was justified in humanitarian terms – to protect innocent Christian lives. The French action is often referred to as the first modern example of a ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

There are, of course, important differences between the events of 1860 and a possible intervention to address the violence in Syria today. Recalling these events, however, reminds us that urge to intervene forcefully to protect innocents abroad is hardly new. Much is made of 24/7 news cycles, and the wonders of the Internet. But already in 1860, the public in Europe could be moved to outrage by newspaper accounts of atrocities in foreign lands.

If the impulse to intervene to protect innocents is not new, neither is the penchant to do so by invoking international law or moral arguments that appeal to the preservation of life or freedom. Just war theory is well-grounded in the law of nations. And armed interventions to seize colonies, or, more recently, to counter (or support) communist, nationalist or anti-colonial insurgency, have often invoked as rationales in their favour the overthrow of tyranny and despotism and putting and end to the suffering of innocents.

So what’s different about the debate today over a possible intervention in Syria, or indeed about NATO’s actual intervention in Libya in 2011? To some critics, not much; it’s just old wine in new bottles. They believe powerful states have invested the old interventionism with a new respectability, under the guise of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This doctrine, grounded in universal human rights, holds that when states are unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocity within their borders, the UN has a duty to step in — including as a last resort by authorising the intervention of foreign troops.[1]To its most strident critics, R2P undermines the independence of states and is a cover for NATO (or western) interventionism.

But is this fair? It is difficult to explain NATO or western interventions in Bosnia (1995), East Timor (1999), Kosovo (1999), or Sierra Leone (2000), all launched to protect civilian lives, as serving some hidden purpose of western hegemony. Moreover, all except Kosovo had the approval of the UN Security Council. Its five Permanent Members (P5), represent powerful states, but it is hardly a rubber stamp for NATO adventurism. Further, R2P was unanimously agreed to by all UN Member States when they endorsed the principle in a General Assembly resolution in 2005.

Thus, whereas the French in 1860 sought their international mandate in the agreement of the European powers alone, an R2P intervention requires UN Security Council endorsement. This, it would seem, is an important check on the ability of a contemporary power to use the suffering of innocents as a pretext for using force in the pursuit of self-interest abroad.

A second important difference is that contemporary humanitarian interventions cannot be partial as regards the civilians they seek to protect. No-one today would treat seriously a claim made by western countries of a right to intervene in Syria solely to protect Christians. This was an entirely acceptable position in 1860, and not seen by those advancing it as morally suspect. R2P, however, is triggered not by the suffering of ethnic or religious kin abroad, but by actual or apprehended mass atrocities. These are clearly defined in universal standards of human rights and humanitarian law; standards which bind all states, powerful or weak, democratic or despotic, and protect life and freedom without distinction.

In the wake of the genocidal killings in Rwanda and Bosnia in the early 1990s, precisely such distinctions led many who were wary of the old interventionism to believe that a growing respect for international law, and the increasing reach and impact of universal human rights standards, permitted a new interventionism, altruistic and internationally legitimate. This belief seemed vindicated by some of the first instances where it was invoked – in Sierra Leone, East Timor and (although more controversially) Kosovo.

Today however, against the backdrop of an actual intervention in Libya and the debate over a threatened one in Syria, these distinctions are wearing thin. Partiality as regards which civilian suffering gains attention, and a loose regard for international legality are evident again. So much so in fact, that those who – for the best of motives – champion R2P as a triumph for human rights, need to seriously consider the risks that its continued misuse might do more harm than good.

Protecting (some) civilians

It is not only in Syria where thousands of civilians have been killed over the past year (estimates of casualties range as high as 15,000, but that figure includes combatants). Certainly, the violence in Syria is shocking and the regime’s criminal culpability beyond doubt. But look elsewhere in the region. In Yemen at least 2,000 people were killed in the protests in 2011-12 that led eventually to the forced resignation of President Abdullah Ali Saleh. At no point did powerful western states contemplate intervention. One might argue that this is because it wasn’t needed – President Saleh was pressured by his US and Saudi allies to resign (although only after 12 months of violence). How to explain, however, the international indifference to the Shi’a (or “Houthi”) rebellion in the northwest of Yemen? This has raged since 2004, and especially vigorously in 2009-10, leaving over 300,000 displaced and thousands dead – accurate figures are hard to come by as the region is mostly closed to the press and humanitarian agencies. Civilians have been killed in indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment, including by Saudi warplanes that came to the aid of their Yemeni Sunni allies to put down the Shi’a uprising.

Even in neighbouring Iraq, there were over 4,000 civilians killed in ongoing violence in 2011, and over 2,000 in 2012 up till the end of June. Not only has there been no recent talk of foreign intervention to protect civilians in Iraq (for obvious reasons!), it was precisely in the midst of such violence that the US withdrew its remaining forces from the country. Indeed, in June 2012 almost 500 civilians were killed in Iraq.

Beyond the Middle East, there are other current human rights crises that impact tens of thousands of civilians but invoke no calls for intervention. Just in the past weeks, these include mass violence and repression, including widespread torture, against the Rohingya Muslim minority of western Burma, with hundreds dead, and tens of thousands displaced. In eastern DRC, the Rwanda-backed “M23” revolt of General Bosco Ntaganda has displaced 200,000 people since March 2012 yet no western country is facing calls to consider sending troops to bolster the under-resourced UN peacekeepers in the region. Further back, intervention to protect civilians was never considered seriously in the final phase of the Sri Lanka army’s war against the Tamil Tigers, where war crimes were committed by both sides and where at least 10,000 civilians (likely many more) were killed in 5 months in the spring of 2009.

Of course, the UN and human rights groups draw attention to these abuses, and in some cases official bodies issue condemnations. Other actions, including targeted sanctions and international criminal prosecutions, are launched or considered. But comparable violence in Libya and Syria provokes actual or threatened intervention. Clearly, it is not the fact and scale of civilian suffering alone that brings particular countries under the spotlight of intervention.

Dubious legality

NATO’s air war over Libya was authorised by the UN Security Council and therefore legal. However, the UN resolution mandated the protection of civilians, not the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime. When this became the obvious purpose of NATO air strikes many were troubled, but with 3 NATO countries among the P5, there was no prospect to rein in the action. Neither was there much discussion of the fact that when NATO ended its mission in Libya at the end of October 2012, just days after Qaddafi was killed, civilians and prisoners were still at risk (several hundred have been killed since), and crimes against humanity were ongoing.

With Syria the situation is different. Russia and China are blocking meaningful action by the Security Council, including targeted sanctions or referring the case to the International Criminal Court. There is no likelihood they will permit the Council to authorise the use of force. This has not, however, ended calls for outside powers to intervene. Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, until only recently a senior official in the Obama administration, has persistently called for the use of force to protect civilians inSyria even in the absence of Security Council approval, arguing international legitimacy could be found in the backing of a broad coalition of states. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, while not directly calling for military intervention in Syria has refused to rule it out saying “we have to look at all options” and pointedly not making it conditional on Security Council approval, saying only that an intervention “…would have to enjoy broad international support”.

Who would provide this support? Slaughter and others point to, among others, the Arab League, whose call for a no-fly zone over Libya was crucial in persuading the Security Council to authorize the NATO action. Yet the League includes states that are openly hostile to Assad’s regime, and not because of its human rights record. Indeed, the Saudis and others, in favour of an intervention in Syria to oust Assad, are simultaneously assisting in the suppression of peaceful protest and rebellion in other Arab states!

How much has really changed? Is the new interventionism so distinct from its discredited predecessors? Senator John McCain has argued repeatedly in favour of a US-backed intervention in Syria. Being a straight talker, he made it crystal clear why the US should act: “We should do so not simply for humanitarian reasons, but because it is in our national security interest… the fall of Assad would be the biggest blow to Iran in 25 years”.

Principle and pragmatism

It is easy to dismiss Senator McCain’s blurring of humanitarianism and self-interest. After all, despite the fiery rhetoric there is no overt attempt (yet) to ignore the UN and use force in Syria, and many leaders are against it. Further, proponents of R2P would argue, pragmatically, that despite the risks of its selectivity application, it is better to have it in place than not – to provide some credible threat to those who would resort to atrocity to maintain or seize power. Aware that calculations of self-interest can never be wholly eliminated, the challenge, in this view, is to minimize the risks of misuse.

This argument has merit. It is certainly more appealing than retreating into a knee-jerk defence of sovereignty – surely that is the lesson of Rwanda and Srebrenica. If the principle of responding to atrocity has been accepted, but its unbiased application will take time, so be it – let’s save who we can, when we can. Viewing R2P in this way, as a principled response to anguished appeals to halt atrocity, and its endorsement as a sign of the growing impact of the human rights movement, allows one to accept its imperfect application for the present, in the expectation that it will improve over time.

But what if this narrative were wrong? Though surprising to some, the human rights case for military intervention to halt atrocity is of recent origin. There is no basis for it in any international human rights treaties, or in those treaties governing the conduct of war. Even the Convention against Genocide makes no explicit mention of the option (never mind the duty) of resorting to force to stop this most heinous of crimes. In fact, the historical development of both international human rights law and advocacy is more closely linked to peace and non-violence. The UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed a “right to peace” two decades before R2P. It is wrong to see the new interventionism simply as a response to long articulated human rights demands; many international human rights NGOs remain deeply ambivalent about foreign interventions (none, for example, is endorsing an intervention in Syria). Rather, support for a new interventionism grounded in universal human rights was as much of a state-led project as it was a legitimate demand of those defending threatened populations.

Why is this of interest? History tells us that intervention is helped when expressed in moral terms, and it is filled with examples of the intervenor’s misuse of good ideas for nefarious purposes. Is the new interventionism – at least as practised and discussed in the Middle East over the past year – an indication that the principled R2P doctrine is now firmly in the grip of those whose acceptance of the principle has always been conditional? To be used for some civilians, and only in situations they and their allies deem appropriate? Viewed this way, the selective application of the doctrine is much more problematic – because it is not a temporary aberration on the road to universal justice but a permanent feature of the new interventionism.

Just war doctrine has an ancient pedigree. We imagine, Pygmalion-like, that we can give it new life. Take the coarse and self-interested interventionism of old, subject it to the civilizing influence of international law and a human rights sensitive politesse, and that it will emerge refined and respectful, as something entirely new – an unambiguous force for good. But reality intrudes, the dream becomes a nightmare and rather than Eliza Doolittle our creation more closely resembles Frankenstein. An exaggeration? How other than monstrous to describe a situation where today liberal interventionists, realpolitic Republicans, and near-feudal despots like the Saudis can come together to promote the overthrow of Assad wrapped in the unassailable language of human rights?


[1] As endorsed by the General Assembly, the R2P doctrine includes the idea of taking a variety of non-military steps to respond to atrocity, and includes too the idea of prevention; but this piece concentrates on the use of force.

David Petrasek: Formerly Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, has worked extensively on human rights, humanitarian and conflict resolution issues, including for Amnesty International (1990-96), for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-98), for the International Council on Human Rights Policy (1998-02), and as Director of Policy at the HD Centre (2003-07). He has taught international human rights and/or humanitarian law courses at the Osgoode Hall Law School, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute at Lund University, Sweden, and at Oxford University.

To leave a comment, please see the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.

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