Probably the worst violence committed in modern times has been violence by governments against their own people. What should happen when this occurs? When should those outside the country come to the aid of people who are attacked, either by their own government or by other groups that the government is unwilling or unable to constrain?
These questions are difficult because two principles, both important, come into conflict.
The first of these principles is the right of peoples, or nations, to determine their own affairs free from foreign interference or domination. This is the principle of self- determination. This principle is recognized under international law and is referred to in article 1 of the charter of the United Nations.
The second principle is the principle of human rights. Human Rights are set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The most fundamental of all human rights is the right to life and security. This is the right which is typically violated when governments slaughter their own people, or fail to prevent their slaughter.
The principle of self determination became especially highly regarded after the period of colonialism. During this period, powerful Western countries, ran the affairs of countries, especially in Asia, Africa and the Americas.
The colonizing countries often sought to justify colonial or neo-colonial rule on the basis that it was for the benefit of the people in the colonized countries. Consequently those who have been dominated by colonial rule will often be suspicious of the idea that some countries should be able to intervene in the affairs of others in order to protect people within that country from their own government. The “protection” sounds very similar to the justification that was used for colonization.
The principles of self determination were also boosted due to the military failures experienced by the USA and its allies when they intervened militarily in Vietnam (1965-1973) and the similar failure of the Soviet Union when it intervened in Afghanistan (1979-1989).
The USA argued it was intervening in Vietnam at the request of the South Vietnamese Government and the Soviet Union argued its intervention was at the request of the Afghani Government. Nevertheless, in both instances, the interventions resulted in prolonged wars and the great powers were defeated after much loss of life.
There are many governments in the world that violate the human rights of their own people. Nobody suggests that the principle of human rights should override the principle of self-determination in every single case where a government violates human rights.
The argument that intervention is justified comes more strongly to the fore when violations become so extreme that the lives of thousands of people are threatened. For example, in Rwanda in 1994 some 800,000 to 1 million people were murdered, with some 500,000 killed in the space of just 100 days. The killing was organized by the Government, with armed groups from the Hutu tribe attacking the Tutsi tribe. People were killed for no reason other than that they were ethnically Tutsi.
Nowadays those who argue in favour of humanitarian intervention in situations such as occurred in Rwanda refer to the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” (now commonly abbreviated to R2P).
The Hawke-Keating Government’s Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans was at the forefront of the development of the doctrine of R2P.
Evans founded and co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which developed the R2P doctrine. This was an ad hoc committee established under authority of the Canadian Government. It was charged with answering a question posed by then UN Secretary Kofi Annan:
“If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”
The Commission tried to find a consensus basis for humanitarian intervention. In 2005 at a World Summit, members of the United Nations unanimously adopted commitments to the effect that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity…The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability…The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means…to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the (UN) Charter…We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law.”
Evans argues that the key to establishing consensus was to reframe the debate away from external countries’ “right to intervene” to an emphasis upon the domestic government’s “responsibility to protect” its own citizens.
R2P recognizes the principle of state sovereignty. But it says that inherent to that concept is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens. If it is unwilling or unable to avert serious harm, the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community.
Under R2P, the following considerations need to be taken into account in considering whether humanitarian intervention is justified;
- Just cause: there must be large scale loss of life (or threats of such large scale loss) due to either deliberate government action or neglect or inability to act.
- Right intention: The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering.
- Last resort: Military intervention can only be justified when every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis has been explored.
- Proportional means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective.
- Reasonable prospects of success: There must be a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.
- Right authority: The intervention should preferably be authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations.
Criticism of R2P
Noam Chomsky, described by Gareth Evans as his “nemesis”, is a leading critic of the R2P doctrine.  He says almost every act of violent intervention through history tends to be justified as humanitarian by the perpetrators. In the modern period Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, Hitler’s takeover the Sudetenland and Japan’s invasion of China were all justified by the interveners on the grounds of humanitarian intervention.
The main criticism of R2P is usually that rich and powerful nations, (especially the USA and Britain), will intervene in any conflict that they want to. This intervention will usually be based on the powerful nation’s view of its national interest, including its interest in resources or commercial opportunities and its rivalries with other powers. These interests are always likely to be put ahead of genuine humanitarian concerns. Critics point to the danger that R2P will be used as a cover for intervention that is really based on national interests and will contribute to a weakening of the principles of non-intervention and self-determination under international law and under the charter of the United Nations. Critics of R2P tend to the views that:
- In practice the R2P principle will only be used by strong states against weaker states or to the USA and Britain intervening more often in the affairs of other states;
- R2P will undermine rather than enhance respect for international law;
- R2P is not necessary, and it is doubtful that it would actually operate to prevent another Rwanda;
- There are still too many instances where the international community fails to intervene to prevent death due to starvation and poverty. It would be preferable to increase efforts to intervene to prevent deaths from these cause, rather than focusing on so-called humanitarian military interventions.
Evans says the claims that national interest will trump human rights concerns are misconceived. He says R2P is quite a nuanced concept. Responses need not always be military. R2P can not simply be seen as a license for powerful nations to throw their weight around. R2P sets quite a high bar for intervention- it is not a simple license for the powerful to intervene militarily.
2003 Iraq Intervention
The main justification for military intervention in Iraq was of course the alleged failure of Saddam’s regime to disarm.
Nevertheless frequent references were made to the need for intervention in Iraq based on the humanitarian argument. Tony Blair for example repeatedly stated that some 300,000 bodies lie in mass graves in Iraq, and that this alone justified the US-UK invasion.
Undoubtedly Saddam’s regimes had engaged in gross human rights violations, especially his gassing of the Kurds and his crackdown against the Marsh Arabs in the aftermath of the First Gulf War.
But the fact remains that nothing like mass atrocity killings, genocide, or ethnic cleansing was occurring by the time of the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003. That the conditions for intervention under R2P were not present in relation to the March 2003 intervention in Iraq has been acknowledged by Gareth Evans.
In March 2011 the UN Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya. The goal was to protect pro-democracy demonstrators who were the subject of a crackdown from Mummar al- Qaddafi. A massacre of citizens in Libya’s second largest city Benghazi had been predicted and R2P was cited a basis for the intervention by NATO forces to protect them.
A no –fly zone was established and bombing of Qaddafi’s forces commenced. In October 2011, rebels back by the West, took control and killed Qaddafi.
In the March-April edition of ‘Foreign Affairs’ Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas, argues that the Libyan intervention has been a debacle.
He argues that:
- At the time of the intervention the civil war was on the verge of ending at the cost of barely 1,000 lives;
- There was no evidence that Qaddafi had planned to perpetrate a mass killing campaign. He issued a number of assurances that civilians or rebels who disarmed would not be pursued;
- Qaddafi was 69 years old and in ill health and was laying the ground to transfer power to his son Saif who had declared his support for elections, and the disarming of the regime’s revolutionary committees.
- Today, as a result of the intervention, Libya is riddled with vicious militias and anti- Western terrorists. It is a failed state.
- As bad as the human rights situation was under Qaddafi, it is now worse. Roughly 400, 000 Libyans have fled their homes and a quarter have left the country altogether.
- Libya and neighbouring Mali have turned into terrorist havens. Islamic militants are making headway in their struggle to control the whole country.
- Weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenal have made their way to radical Islamists across North Africa- including in Mali, Northern Nigeria and Niger. These include up to 15,000 “MANPAD” missiles that are capable of shooting down aircraft.
- Qaddafi had voluntarily halted his nuclear and chemical weapons programs. Getting rid of him has greatly complicated non-proliferation- North Korea has cited the example of Libya as a reason for not disarming itself.
- Intervention in Libya may have fostered increased violence in neighbouring Syria. Certainly the rate of killing in Syria increased from about 100 a week at the time of the Libyan intervention to about 1,500 as rebels in Syria hoped to attract a similar intervention to that which occurred in Libya.
- At the diplomatic level, the results of the Libyan intervention have antagonized Russia. Putin argues credibly that the NATO intervention went beyond the authority of the Security Council resolution. This has rendered peace efforts in Syria, where Russia has heavy interests, even more difficult.
Kuperman is in general a supporter of R2P. But he says it needs to be reserved for clearer cases such as Rwanda. He insists that there were better options that armed intervention in Libya.
Evans claims that the application of R2P in Libya was very successful. He does acknowledge that the Libyan intervention became “controversial” because the intervening powers did not stop at humanitarian protection but went on to achieve regime change.
But that NATO exceeded that authority of the Security Council resolution would come as no surprise to critics of R2P. Critics regard the “international community” as a synonym for NATO and believe that the West will always put what it regards as its geo-political strategic interests ahead of strict adherence to R2P principles. There is not much point suggesting that “controversy” results from the failure to strictly adhere to pure R2P principles if those responsible for implementing the doctrine can rarely or never be be relied upon to strictly adhere to the doctrine’s principles.
Evans has also acknowledged atrocity claims on both sides of the war in Syria. He acknowledges this is a challenge for R2P, especially as the Security Council has been paralysed.
Nevertheless he insists that despite this, and despite the results in Libya, the R2P doctrine has a future. He says that if we can it can get past the terrible situation in Syria- it will continue to be a means of responding to mass atrocity crimes. Nobody wants to go back to the days of inaction in situations such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.
The mass killings under Pol Pot are often used by supporters of R2P as an example of a situation in which the doctrine might have been be used to justify intervention by the international community to restrain or remove a government that was slaughtering its own people.
But how real is this notion?
Between 1975 and 1979 Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime engaged in mass slaughter of an estimated 1.7 million of its own citizens. This included an ethnic cleansing campaign against local people of Vietnamese origin. It also made a number of provocative border incursions against Vietnam, possibly hoping that a war with Vietnam might mobilize support for the regime amongst the people.
On 25 December 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia. This ushered in an occupation that lasted nearly thirteen years and cost the lives of an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese troops. There was little initial resistance and the capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Vietnamese within weeks.
After three years of state terror by the Pol Pot regime it seems that many Cambodians welcomed the Vietnamese as liberators. The Vietnamese Government sought to justify the intervention on humanitarian grounds. But it also may be the case that Vietnam, which had often exercised historical domination over Cambodia, was seeking leadership of the South East Asian communist movement. Intentions are often multi-dimensional. In any event, the Vietnamese Government seemingly did not expect a negative reaction to its intervention from the international community. In this it miscalculated.
The geopolitics of the time were such that, apart from the Soviet bloc, Vietnam’s invasion was condemned by the international community. The Sino-Soviet split had deepened and the USA had moved closer to to China. Seven non-aligned members of the Security Council submitted a draft resoltion calling for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Cambodia. This was endorsed by China, France, Norway, Portugal, the USA and the UK. The USA and China together with Thailand (to where much of the Pol Pot regime’s leadership fled) began supporting armed resistance. Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge was a key factor in the insurgency. US military aid was ostensibly to non-communist groups, but in practice much of it also ended up with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces.
Led by the USA the international community imposed economic sanctions and cut aid to the Vietnamese. In February 1979 China invaded Vietnam, withdrawing one month later, claiming it had taught Hanoi a lesson. In fact Vietnamese forces had inflicted considerable punishment on the Chinese forces.
Evans is surely correct that the world should not return to the days of inaction in clear cut situations such as Cambodia and Rwanda.
But criticisms that national self interest and geo-political considerations potentially jeopardise strict adherence to R2P principles also appear to be well founded.
Moreover, even absent national self interest and geo-politics, there will be many instances in which even genuine attempts to strictly apply R2P principles will be problematic.
Whether there is “just cause” will often be contested ground, especially where attempts are made to make out the case for intervention on the basis of a threat or prediction of mass killing, rather than mass killing that is already underway. On the other hand, there will always be strong arguments that intervention after mass killing has commenced comes too late to maximise saving lives.
It is not clear that right intention, as opposed to consequences, should be a key criterion for intervention. For example, is the possiblity that the Vietnamese might have been motivated to seek to control the communist movement in South East Asia as important as the fact that their intervention removed a murderous regime? Moreover, in international politics, as in most areas of life, intentions are often mixed and can be even harder to discern that potential consequences.
The R2P doctrine is itself a somewhat strange mixture of deontological and utilitarian ethical approaches. The doctrine itself refers to the “duty” to protect. The notion of duties is normally associated with deontological approaches which unlike utilitarianism values intention over consequences. Human rights too, are regarded as inalienable and are therefore also usually regarded as being founded in deontology. Yet apart from “right intention” and “right authority”, most of the triggers for R2P involve cost- benefit analysis- in other words, a utilitarian assessment of consequences, proportionality etc. This mixture of deontological and utilitarian principles with the R2P doctrine is not particularly a criticism- just an observation.
As Libya demonstrates, accurately assessing the prospect of success is very often problematic, as will assessing whether military intervention really is a “last resort”.
Although Cambodia is cited as an example of a situation where R2P (had it existed) might have been invoked to justify action against a regime that had committed mass atrocities, the geopolitics of the time suggest that, in the absence of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, nothing substantial would have occurred. The geopolitics meant there was little prospect of “right authority”- Security Council authorisation, or widespread international support, to remove the Pol Pot regime. The major geopolitical factor at play was the rapproachment between the USA and China (which supported Pol Pot’s regime) in an effort to isolate the Soviet Union (which supported Vietnam).
Further, it should come as no surprise that the difficulty in applying R2P principles increases with the complexity of the political and human rights context in which the principles must be considered. Syria, for example, is an immensely complex situation in both a geo-political and human rights sense. It is a multi-sided contest for power rife with religious, sectarian and external interests all at play and where human rights abuses are perpetrated by all sides.
R2P has been cited by Evans as justification for the intervention against the Islamic State (IS). And indeed it is not hard to make a case that IS has engaged in widespread atrocities and that it needs to be contained. But now there are also allegations that allies in the fight against IS, the Shiite’ militias supported by the Iraqi and Iranian governments, are killing Sunni’s with impunity.
R2P is likely to remain as an international security and human rights norm for the foreseeable future. And it is preferable that, when considering intervention on humanitarian grounds, there should at least be an attempt to apply consistent principles, rather than having no recourse to any principle at all, apart perhaps from the notion that, based upon the principle of self-determination, a state has a right to commit whatever atrocities it wants upon its own citizens.
The greatest weakness in Chomsky’s criticism of R2P is not his thesis that R2P is susecptible to interference by geo-political considerations. Undoubtedly it is. Rather it is the implicit notion that we might be better off without any recourse to R2P principles, as if somehow the absence of any principles might lessen the likelihood of inappropriate military interventions. Of course it would not. The fact is that the geopolitics remain, whether or not the R2P doctrine is in place.
The left should not cease emphasising disparities in global power, the application of double standards and the possiblity that so-called humanitarian intervention can potentially be used as a cover for national self interest and imperialistic designs. But recourse to R2P principles, and the call for their proper application, can also be called upon in aid of these arguments. Had the R2P principles been in place at the time they might, for example, have been used to negate the so-called humanitarian argument made in favour of the intervention in Iraq in 2003. This would not have prevented the intervention because of the pre-eminence given to the WMD argument and, more importantly, because of the power and determination of the US neo-Cons, aided by Tony Blair. But there would at least have been a set of principles to which recourse could have been made, to negate the so-called humanitarian argument in favour of the intervention.
If the actual R2P principles need refinement, certainly these arguments should be developed. But in the face of the unanimous support for R2P comittments from all UN member states, suggesting that R2P principles do nothing more than assist the cause of Western imperialist military intervention, seems like a one way ticket to irrelevance.
R2P should at least prove useful in preventing mass atrocities where the case in favour of humanitarian intervention is fairly clear- Rwanda seemingly being the clearest cases of all. However strict application of R2P principles, free of national and geopolitical interests, in situations such as the political quagmire of the Middle East, is likely to continue to prove more problematic and controversial. Libya in particular gives cause for great caution in assessing the prospects of success of military interventions based upon R2P. The ever present possibility, even liklihood, that military intervention can make a bad situation worse, always needs to be given full weight.