Zimbabwe and Burma – international salvation?

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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13 years ago

Surely it would be instructive then to examine the differences between how the successful NATO operations were run, and the unsuccessful UN operations were run. Which countries provided the bulk of the military force in both cases? Who was leading them? Is it really a big enough dataset to conclude “NATO good / UN bad”?

Jack Jones
Jack Jones
13 years ago

Typical self-satified liberal interventionist crap

Let’s get a few things straight

– despite all the cheating, etc, it’s clear that Mugabe still got 40% of the vote in Zimbabwe. What gives you the right to so high-handedly declare that a military intervention by the west has even a skerrick of legitimite argument in favour of
it? To what purpose? Do you think an interventionist force would be greeted with joy by grateful negroes? Or might they encounter just a smidgeon of opposition to another western invasion of Africa?

– Bosnia and Kosovo, yeah what a great success. In Kosovo, 3,000 deaths in the five years before bombing, and 10,000 in the weeks following the bombing. Same in Bosnia. Western game playing and positioning produced these crises.

– You sad intevention junkies staggering around, looking for the next place to project your virtues. Why not accept that people have to liberate themselves and that ‘intervention’ is more about your own superiority, rather than any genuine humanitarian concern

13 years ago

“Why cant someone intervene and prevent these appalling tragedies happening before our eyes on TV?”

Therein lies another topic, why we choose to entertain ourselves with news 24/7. Once rare occurrences, like baby snatching, become everyday occurrences via constant media attention.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Ken, I was very impressed, with the passage you quoted from Courting Disaster, but clicking through I got this:

This blog is open to invited readers only

It doesn’t look like you have been invited to read this blog. If you think this is a mistake, you might want to contact the blog author and request an invitation.

You’re signed in as ngruen@gmail.com – Sign in with a different account

Tim Quilty
Tim Quilty
13 years ago

If you can’t bring yourself to give even a thread of sanction to the whole Iraq thing, you show your whole article to be so much masturbation. How could any invasion of Burma or Zimbabwe be more legitimate? Maybe if it was by Americans under a democrat government? You throw up Bosnia (dubious) and then Kosovo – not a dot more justified then Iraq. But Clinton, so OK.

Now, I’m not arguing in favour of the Iraq war, but surely you’re in bad faith with this whole post. You could see the problem – call for intervention, perhaps justify Iraq, – but couldn’t negotiate around it. That’s because it can’t be avoided.

Either there is a right to interfere in nations we don’t agree with or there isn’t. If there is, shut up about America’s stupid, empire derailing war in Iraq. If there isn’t, forget about the hellholes perpetrating atrocities – we don’t have a right to intervene. And for fuck sake, don’t quote Kosovo in favour of anything. Or at least not so unambiguously.

Really, this is the lowest watt post I’ve ever seen from you.

13 years ago

There are, of course, ways other than military intervention to skin this particular cat. Funding and support for liberation groups, support for public institutions, whether in the country of concern or outside, creating mechanisms to assist people under threat to get out of a country. You might send in a small squad to take out a leadership or you might engage with the leadership in an area in which you have some common interest to build a level of trust and respect that can translate into wider influence. Of course all of these options are new eh?

13 years ago

Tim Quilty says:

“Either there is a right to interfere in nations we dont agree with or there isnt. If there is, shut up about Americas stupid, empire derailing war in Iraq.”

You’re not one for nuance I take it. Obviously each case has to be assessed on its own merits. As to Iraq, you can agree that intervention was desirable while believing the execution of the intervention was abysmal.

Unfortunately both Zimbabwe and Burma are ethnically divided and any intervention could result in messy intercommunal strife like that between Kurds, Arab Sunni and Shia in Iraq. Mugabe bumped off up to 60,000 Ndebeles in the 1980s, for example, so revenge might be on the minds of those affected. http://www.slate.com/id/81386/

There is no point in intervening unless you have contingency plans for worst case scenarios like intercommunal “ethnic cleansing”. In short, intervention can be horrendously complicated but that doesn’t mean you should never do it.

Tim Quilty
Tim Quilty
13 years ago

Well, that’s what I said, Mel, only I had more vodka on board at the time. (hey we were celebrating May 9 Victory day…)

The Neo-cons had a dream, to recreate the world as a liberal democracy, where everyone lived happily ever after, had a trust fund and went to an elite private school. It was nice, but a little unrealistic. The real tragedy of Iraq isn’t the BusHitler, HoWARd murder of 73 million Iragi babies to fund the profits of Haliburton, it’s that no-one will try it again any time soon, with a set of more modest, achievable objectives.

What they should have done is grab the top twenty regieme leaders, hung them from the top of whatever prominent public buildings were available, and installed some slightly less tainted general to run things, with a committee of advisors, and a warning that if we didn’t see a steady improvement in freedom and human rights that he’d be swinging up on the building. There are always more generals willing to become president. Maybe bring in democratic local governments and a long term timetable for regional and national democracy, with a bit of symbolic stuff so people were getting the idea.

And they could then repeat as necessary in Burma, Zimb, N. Korea… I bet they would only have had to roll two or three regiemes (say one every 6 months), and leak a list of their top twenty targets, and all that reform would start to happen by itself.

None of that is new. But I’m just not going to take people who condemmed the Iraq war as immoral calling for armed intervention somewhere else. Especially not in the same post. Iraq was stupid, incompetent even, but not immoral. Except obviously in the way of Governments using money stolen from the people to fund gigantic government programmes that inevitably go wrong and fail to provide value. But that’s a different argument.

And Kosovo? Go tell all the ethnically cleansed serbs and the now “liberated” general population what a shining sucess that war was. If we really wanted to help the people who live in those crappy mountain parts of the Balkans, we’d offer immigration to anyone who wanted to leave, then let the rest fight it out in there centuries long pointless feuds. Oh, wait, I think that already happened.


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