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Fragile states

The R2P controversy

by Ramesh Thakur, Mary Ellen O'Connell
 Skulls at the genocide memorial in Kigali

Skulls at the genocide memorial in Kigali

In 2005, the UN included the Responsibility to Protect concept (R2P) in the World Summit’s outcome. R2P holds that force may be used to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity. In practice, however, such intervention remains controversial. Advocates of R2P argue that the international community must not tolerate terrible crimes, while skeptics say that R2P is promoting a new militarism by promoting war for supposedly worthy reasons. Ramesh Thakur adheres to the first line of thought, Mary Ellen O’Connell to the second. [ By Ramesh Thakur and Mary Ellen O’Connell ]

Ramesh Thakur: International humanitarian law is about protecting people. The UN was designed to create and enforce international law – and it did so with some success. World War III did not happen. Nonetheless, there were many armed conflicts after World War II. Their number increased until the early 1990s, and has somewhat declined since.

International law abolishes inter-state wars except in self-defence against armed attack. But today, wars tend to rage within the borders of countries. Some governments abuse sovereignty as a licence to kill. In other cases, statehood is too weak to protect people from the violence of non-governmental militias.

In today’s internal armed conflicts, up to 90 % of casualties are civilian. Masses suffer from displacement and disease. The collapse – or abuse – of statehood means murder and genocide at the hand of irregular forces and government troops. Therefore, the UN’s primary mandate of maintaining international security translates in practice into the goal of protecting civilians. Otherwise we will continue to witness civilian killings on a huge scale.

According to the conventional idea of sovereignty, however, international law only sees states as holders of rights and duties, regardless of how they treat their people. It must be recognised that individual persons have rights. There are global norms against atrocity crimes that empower the international community to act in the defence of civilians at risk of grave harm.

The philosophy of human rights is of European origin, but it is not an expression of Western triumphalism – though many people in developing countries tend to think so. In truth, human-rights language is an expression of guilt. It responds to the dark side of the human condition, and that violent side is quite evident in European history. Humanity needs universal values, and human rights are such values. The UN is the multilateral body that defines when the use of military force is legal. That is the case when a state acts in self-defence or if there is a mandate from the Security Council. R2P means that in addition, the UN can and must sanction the use of military force to protect people.

Globalisation offers many opportunities in terms of higher productivity, growth and fighting poverty. However, it also has destructive aspects, making weapons and dangerous drugs more easily available. It is becoming increasingly difficult for some states to maintain and enforce a monopoly of coercive power. In many respects, sovereignty as it was known since the Westphalian Peace is eroding.

Nation states are interdependent. Sovereignty cannot be absolute – and in practice never was. It is important to understand that sovereignty is instrumental. Essentially, it is about human security. Therefore, the abuse of sovereignty at the expense of human security must not be tolerated. Domestic practice must conform to international standards.

Protection of people and the prosecution of criminals are related matters. Until the 1990s, tyrants could feel safe. They knew they would not be held accountable. That has changed. Courts of all countries can pass judgements in cases of crimes against humanity, and rightly so. The UN Charter was not designed to grant impunity to state criminals. The idea was always to protect people and their rights.

After World War II, the tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo dispensed victor’s justice, no doubt. But those were serious courts of law, not lynch mobs, and they enriched international criminal law. Today, there is the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC). While R2P protects victims of atrocities, the ICC can punish the perpetrators.

Mary Ellen O’Connell: What we need more than R2P in the sense just mentioned is R2P understood as Responsibility to Peace. Peace is the greatest human right, upon which all others depend, and it is being challenged by a new militarism.

Ideas matter, and the idea of implementing peace is quite young. That non-violence should rule in international affairs is something philosophers always envisioned. But only 200 years ago did political leaders began to think in those terms. In 1907 they decided that it was illegal to wage war with the intention of collecting debts. Before, the right to wage war had been mostly considered an untouchable sovereign prerogative.

The disaster of World War II shocked governments into forming the UN. The use of force in international relations was declared illegal with the two exceptions of self-defence and when authorised by the Security Council.

In the USA, it has become common to consider the UN an anachronistic failure. That notion is wrong. The UN did establish a successful norm against conquest. And the first Bush Administration appreciated that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991. The international community unanimously rejected his use of force, and Kuwait was liberated by a worldwide coalition.

At the time, it was hoped that the UN might develop into a more comprehensive and successful peace order. Instead, the idea of using force for various purposes grew. Discussing humanitarian intervention was the first step. Eventually, Serbia was unlawfully bombed because of Kosovo. NATO thus set a precedent for unlawful use of force I the Iraq War starting 2003.

Michael Ignatieff, a prominent human-rights scholar, has argued in favour of the Iraq War as a humanitarian war, like Kosovo. However, he fails to consider the many and devastating sorts of collateral damage of war. Ignatieff theorises in the abstract about the lesser of two evils. In real life Iraq, however, military intervention has done more harm than good. It is impossible to justify that war on humanitarian grounds.

The idea of surgical strikes sounds good in theory. But in reality, military force is very blunt, useful for very little other than responding to military force. In Liberia’s and Sierra Leone’s civil wars, things became worse after other West African countries intervened.

The usefulness of the military is often over-estimated. In Rwanda in 1994, peacekeepers were present. They proved inadequate to prevent genocide. Rather, their presence may have compounded the tragedy, by providing a false sense of security. The same must be said of the peacekeepers at Srebrenica.

This is not to say that conventional peacekeeping makes no sense. To the contrary, it can do a lot of good – and is doing so in Burundi, Cyprus and other places right now. But if disaster is to be prevented by force, having adequate resources will always be crucial. Inadequate troops with an inadequate mandate will not help. It is very unlikely that governments will ever supply the massive resources needed to succeed.

The Iraq war has cost billions, perhaps even a trillion dollars. And yet we are far from any peaceful, stable order. I don’t think there will ever be the kind of well-funded, robust intervention that might actually do humanitarian good. But in the meantime, Ethiopia has intervened in Somalia with US support. There is talk of attacking Iran. We are dealing with a new militarism, and the R2P discourse has contributed to it, by promoting the idea of war for a good cause, which, ultimately, means that other good causes justify war as well.

Ramesh Thakur: I’ll endorse most of what you just said. I always opposed the intervention in Kosovo, though it was sanctioned by the UN in retrospect, and that intervention did prepare for Iraq. And yes, there is a paradox of trying to use violent force in order to prevent violent force. Obviously, such matters must be handled with great care.

It is also obvious that large powers are not afraid to intervene, while poor countries fear invasions. To ease such concerns, the Security Council must become better balanced and more transparent. The General Assembly must be empowered to hold the Security Council responsible, and the Security Council must become legally subordinate to the ICJ. Unless that happens, the credibility of intervention, even for humanitarian protection, will be at risk. It is striking that the permanent member most regularly using its right of veto in the Security Council is neither Russia nor China, but the USA. And when UNESCO wanted to officially enshrine peace as a human right, the USA opposed that step, because it would become more difficult to wage war.

Nonetheless, I must emphasise that the UN is not a pacifist organisation. To anyone who is not a pacifist, the question is one of when – not whether – the use of force is permitted or required. In Rwanda in 1994, for instance, a robust mandate would have helped, which is why I am in favour of R2P.

Of course, prevention of disasters is more important than intervening in a disaster. Yes, we need long-term peaceful development and structural progress that makes societies more prosperous and more stable. But emphasising all that does not mean that we will ever live in a world free of intervention. Ruling out military action per se means setting the bar far too high.

Interventions have always happened. The main idea of R2P is to define multilateral rules for such events, acknowledging that they will occur, in order to limit their frequency and enhance their legitimacy and effectiveness.

Mary Ellen O’Connell: I am not a pure pacifist, because I accept the use of force in self-defence. The problem is that R2P has contributed to the illegitimate use of force. And let’s not be naïve: we are more likely to see Western troops intervene in Iran than in Sudan’s crisis region of Darfur. And if we won’t witness an invasion in Iran, the reason will be the disaster in Iraq, not multilateral norms. What we need is a Responsibility to Peace and to do no harm, not the misguided idea of doing good by violent means. This norm is all the more necessary, as reform of the Security Council will not happen any time soon.

Ramesh Thakur: R2P rhetoric can indeed be abused by powerful governments. But that is true of every principle, and does not mean that R2P itself is wrong. . Any US attack on Iran will have absolutely nothing to do with R2P. The real problem is that the multilateral system depends on the cooperation and consent of the most powerful nations. How are we going to arrange a just and stable global order if the most powerful players declare themselves to be above the law? In the UN system, if it is not the USA against the rest it is the West against the rest.

This exchange between Ramesh Thakur and Mary Ellen O’Connell took place at a conference hosted by the Development and Peace Foundation and the Bonn International Centre for Conversion in Bonn late last year. Both contributors approved this documentation.