I’ve been puzzling about international humanitarian interventions lately, in part because my daughter Bec is in the middle of a uni assignment on the subject, but mostly because as I write this Robert Mugabe continues to terrorise and impoverish his own people in Zimbabwe while the equally odious military junta in Burma sits on its collective hands while its people starve and die of rampant but readily preventable diseases in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.
Why can’t someone intervene and prevent these appalling tragedies happening before our eyes on TV? The answer is fairly clear: the modern international law embodiment in UN treaties of the pragmatic notion of national sovereignty enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia 1648 together with a lack of any sufficient immediate self-interest in intervening on the part of any capable nation or group of nations.
The Just War doctrine might already provide international legalistic cover for a humanitarian intervention in Burma, and might well do so in Zimbabwe too in due course. Once the Presidential election run-off occurs and Mugabe intimdates his way back into the Presidency the situation there will demonstrably be one of last resort (one of the necessary elements for Just War that certainly wasn’t present in the case of Bush’s Iraq intervention, even if we generously assume that it could properly be labelled “humanitarian” in the first place). However, the Just War doctrine contains a Catch 22 at its core. A war or humanitarian intervention imposed by coercion can only satisfy the Just War doctrine if it flows from a “right intention”:
Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purposecorrecting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
However, given the range of costs involved in any such intervention it’s highly unlikely that any nation would ever intervene to mitigate even the worst humanitarian tragedies (like those occurring in Zimbabwe and Burma at present) unless the action coincided at least to some extent with its own national self-interest. But that would instantly negate reliance on the Just War doctrine. The only humanitarian intervention I can think of in modern times (other than a UN-approved one) that could arguably be said to conform to the Just War doctrine was that of the NATO countries in Bosnia and then Kosovo in the 1990s, in the face of intractable and disgraceful UN inertia.
Of course, humanitarian intervention approved by the UN would successfully sidestep any such conundrum about international legality. However, UN approval for intervention in the absence of at least grudging consent by the incumbent regime in the target country (e.g. Sudan in relation to Darfur) is highly unlikely, almost however odious and democratically illegitimate that regime may happen to be. Tribal autocracies and mafia-like kleptocracies are a significant UN voting bloc, and when you add the votes of less toxic regimes of smaller countries which understandably suspect the motives of the West given its past record of cynical and self-interested behaviour towards weaker nations, and veto-wielding emergent superpowers Russia and China who resent the bullying imperialist pretensions of the US and its close allies, the prospects of ever achieving a Security Council resolution authorising any humanitarian intervention to which the incumbent regime doesn’t agree are very remote.
For a while it looked like NATO might develop into something resembling a legitimising multi-national grouping that might have had both the will and military and economic strength to undertake humanitarian interventions. However its unity was spectacularly fractured by the events leading up to Bush’s Iraq invasion. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight it was always inevitable that the diverse interests of its member nations would eventually cause a rift once the unifying impetus of the Communist threat was removed.
Similarly, both the willpower and any perceived international legitimacy that the “anglosphere” might once have possessed as a vehicle for humanitarian interventions was smashed by the duplicity and cavalier recklessness of the Bush/Blair/Howard Iraq intervention.
Is there any answer that could feasibly facilitate urgent humanitarian interventions in situations like the current crises in Zimbabwe and Burma? In the short term I can’t think of one, except perhaps the possibility of a NATO rapprochement between Europe and the US if Obama is elected President. However an old post I wrote way back in 2004 while reflecting on the aftermath of the Iraq intervention at least contains some relevant thoughts. I’ve recycled an extract over the fold:
Not before time, the zeitgeist has begun generating discussion about the future role of the United Nations, notions of national sovereignty on which the existing international order is based, and principles that might underpin future humanitarian interventions that challenge existing ideas of sovereignty. Events in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Iraq have finally caused at least some people to begin reflecting on fundamental underlying issues of principle.
Of course, much of the blogosophere discussion has been a tad superficial. For example, Hugh White opined in the SMH a couple of days ago that the solution to seemingly intractable US problems in Iraq is to cede control to the UN:
The solution: Iraq needs the power of the US and the credibility of the UN. The US must sustain its huge commitment of resources to Iraq, but put the UN unambiguously in charge of the whole operation.
Tim Blair immediately returned fire with a predictable response:
Not mentioned at all by White is a certain $10 BILLION OIL-FOR-FOOD SCANDAL. Presumably the Australian Strategic Policy Institute doesnt take into account such trifles when determining an organisations credibility.
Tim might also have mentioned the UNs fairly patchy record in administering peacekeeping efforts. It didnt do too bad a job in East Timor and Cambodia, but Rwanda and Bosnia were both disgraceful fiascoes, and numerous other interventions have been dubious successes at best.
The existence of UN Security Council vetoes for the five permanent members, and the preponderance of undemocratic third world regimes in the General Assembly, all mostly pursuing the narrow self-interest of their ruling cliques most of the time, makes the UN a very imperfect vehicle (at best) for fostering international peace, security and effective protection of human rights.
On the other hand, what reasonable alternative is there than some sort of authoritative internationally-sanctioned basis for humanitarian (pre-emptive defensive) intervention? I dont accept the standard leftie view of America as the Great Satan whose every action is to be conclusively assumed to be evil. Lets put aside for a moment the dubious motivations of the neo-cons in the Bush Administration; the dodgy intelligence assessments; the apparent determination of Bush himself to invade Iraq irrespective of WOMD considerations or any connection between Iraq and September 11; the muddled progress towards reconstruction; and the appalling treatment of Iraqi prisoners. Lets assume that US intentions were predominantly benign. Even if that was true, you cant seriously deny the general proposition that the US (like any other nation) is prone to hubris, arrogance and incompetence, or that its perceived self-interest often wont coincide with the interests of others (or the world as a whole, to the extent thats a meaningful concept).
At the end of the day, abandoning attempts to develop the UN (or some other broad multi-lateral mechanism) as a viable source of international authority, and happily embracing the notion of the US as a trustworthy benevolent world governor, is stupid and short-sighted. Its simply an aspect of Lord Actons old dictum that Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That insight (or rather John Lockes earlier version of it) formed the basis of the doctrine of separation of powers that underlies the US Constitution, and its no less necessary internationally in a 21st century world where the US is arguably the only nation possessing the military and economic muscle to impose its will on other nations. Unless appropriate checks and balances are constructed, well inevitably end up with a malign despotism.
Courting Disaster is a blog Ive only recently discovered. Its apparently written by a young Australian lawyer currently undertaking post-graduate studies at Cambridge. He posted a fascinating item yesterday about international law:
You cannot have a society without it beginning to generate law, and you cannot have law without a society. International law, the law of the international community, is the law of a society that refuses to see itself as a community.
It is a society that admits its interdependence, but refuses to admit it has any social contract, that in fact sees social contract as an oxymoron. It will accept social but unenforceable aspirations (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) or contractual relations (WTO trade regimes) but remains wedded to the supposedly total freedom of state sovereignty.
Its a society that refuses to see itself (despite the UN Charter) as having a constitution or separation of powers (the International Court of Justice having basically held that it cannot review decisions of the Security Council to establish whether or not they are legal.)
Heres a simple, old idea. A true society aims at the good of all its members (Aristotle). If all states really were equal in resources, state sovereignty might be an efficient way of aiming at the common good: states are manageable units that might sensibly look after their local people. Letting such equals contract among each other might bring about a civilised and balanced world.
However, to treat as equal that which is not is a form of injustice. As states are not equal, state sovereignty (as a theory upon which to base a society), therefore, promotes injustice.
The only just form of international society would have to start from the premise of a universal society of mankind, and assume that the underlying principles of international law were its unwritten constitution. (To some extent Kants cosmopolitanism might back this, but you really need to look to early international lawyers like Suarez and Wolff.)
On such a view, states would be holding delegated power from universal society to govern individual countries on trust for all mankind.
If people actually believed this, it would be an interesting world.
Courting Disaster focuses on what I see as a critical aspect of the current dilemma facing international law, at least in its peacekeeping/creation and humanitarian aspects: namely the (arguable) impossibility of a just international order thats centrally based on the primacy of national sovereignty, and which always subordinates humanitarian principles to sovereignty.
Afterthought - It’s potentially instructive to list and rate humanitarian interventions of recent years.
Successful - Bosnia, Kosovo
Qualified success - Cambodia, East Timor
Failure - Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda
Jury still out - Darfur (early stages)
Both unqualified successes were non UN-sanctioned NATO efforts, both qualified successes were UN multilateral interventions, and 2 of the 3 abject failures were also UN-sanctioned. The interventions in Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda and Darfur occurred after at least grudging consent from their respective governments of the day, while those in Kosovo and Iraq didn’t, and Somalia didn’t actually have a government in any meaningful sense. It would be interesting to attempt an analysis of the factors pointing to success or failure from these various experiences, but that’s a subject for the future.