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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

MEDDLE PATH - Foreign powers’ right to intervention should be fine-tuned


MEDDLE PATH
- Foreign powers’ right to intervention should be fine-tuned
Aloke Sen
Might is usually right
The ideological underpinning of much of the foreign intervention that we see these days in countries in distress — for instance, those in north Africa and west Asia convulsed by an ‘Arab Spring’ — is provided by a little-known concept called the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P. Loosely also termed the Right to Protect, this norm claims for the international community a right to assist the people of a select country, ideally through — but in extreme circumstances, in spite of — the national government of that country. Understandably, in the latter case, the attitude to R2P varies sharply from those offering the ‘protection’ to the government of the people being ‘protected’.
In the summer of 2008, Cyclone Nargis had laid waste to coastal and inland Myanmar, caused colossal losses in lives and destroyed properties. As offers of assistance poured in, relief supplies were rushed by three countries — the United States of America, France and the United Kingdom — aboard naval ships. Given the frosty relationship between these sanctions-imposing nations and Myanmar’s then military government, nearly paranoid about the security and territorial integrity of its country, the act was seen as deliberate provocation, and the offer of assistance summarily rejected. The foreign minister of one of the spurned countries then darkly muttered about a ‘right to protect’, and the country’s ambassador to the United Nations warned that Yangon’s refusal of aid could lead to a charge of crime against humanity. This strange sparring in the midst of a national calamity ended after a while, but R2P has continued to evoke mixed feelings and some suspicion, and emerged in the past decade as one of the most controversial issues in international diplomacy.
R2P had an interesting beginning. At the urging of the then UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, stung by his organization’s failure to prevent horrific atrocities in Africa and the Balkans in the early 1990s, an international commission on intervention and State sovereignty in 2001 framed a step-by-step guide to external intervention in countries facing crises such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Where the concerned State was ‘manifestly’ failing in its duty to protect its people against the four crimes, the international community was expected to assist: initially by contributing to that State’s capacity to perform its duty; then, diplomatically, through mediation; then, more coercively, for instance through economic sanctions; and only in the last resort, with military force as authorized by the United Nations security council.
Going by its idealistic aim as well as the caution advised before the stage of military action is reached, the initiative has been laudable so far. The nomenclature of the commission itself suggested that it was required to do a balancing act between two contradictory demands: State sovereignty and intervention. Intervening forces were not to wantonly erode the national sovereignty of the State, but, representing the world’s conscience, prevent repeat horrors of genocide and the like. Trouble arises because the theoretical objectives, even if they are sound, and the manner of their attainment are not always aligned properly. The fact remains that R2P is yet to be exhaustively debated by the global community and a consensus yet to emerge on the exact modalities of its application. It is not an international law, only a norm that the UNSC supports, and chances of its abuse are real. The claim of many of the countries that have intervened in Arab affairs, especially in Libya, that their action sprang solely from humanitarian compulsions rings a little hollow.
The primary anxiety of a government at the receiving end of external interference in its affairs is naturally over intention, which is seldom altruistic. Since the concept of R2P is still fluid, it is possible to creatively interpret a situation in the target country as meriting intervention, including military, and this has actually been the case on more than one occasion.
There are a number of concerns and pitfalls: firstly, the legitimacy issue. How is a definitive mandate for armed action in the name of the global community secured? In the case of Libya, for example, the UNSC was not unanimous, as in the case of Iraq in the past, so was there really a clear signal from the council for use of force in these cases?
Secondly, so long as the present unrepresentative character of the UNSC is allowed to continue, what safeguard is there against a handful of countries forming a cartel of their own and arrogating the council’s authority in pursuance of some hidden agenda?
Thirdly, in the absence of universally-acknowledged objective criteria, the danger of selectivity of action remains. While Libya saw the moral and material support of foreign countries to one of its warring factions, there were questions asked about the absence of similar action elsewhere, for instance, in Yemen and Bahrain. Complaints of double standards could not be altogether muffled.
Fourthly, in a civil war-like situation in a country, foreign powers, by taking sides, can distort an evolutionary process, the working out of which ought to be purely that country’s business. This can aggravate rather than mitigate a crisis situation. Also, there is the possibility of the goal posts being shifted, such as from the original mandate of humanitarian succour to one of regime change, the UNSC none the wiser until after the revised goal has been accomplished.
Finally, there is the crucial question of sustainability. Do the foreign powers entering a crisis-plagued country have the will and staying power, including financial, to first restore order and then take up the more arduous task of reconstruction? Or, having achieved their immediate ‘objective’ — which is a matter of convenient interpretation — do they pack their bags and leave, bequeathing a new mess to the recipient of their attention?
This last merits most careful consideration. In case of US intervention in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a lively debate has raged over the nature and timing of the exit of its troops. Rightly so, because post-intervention, both these countries are grappling with new domestic power equations, challenges of economic development and shifting patterns of external relations. It would be unfair to them and their neighbours if the US upped and left having achieved only the military goal. The principle that the country foreign forces are going into must be left a better place at the point of their exit needs to be worked into all R2P-inspired military interventions.
The original authors of R2P had sensed the potential dangers inherent in the concept and attempted to build safeguards against its abuse. ICISS had suggested six criteria for military intervention: just cause, right intention, final resort, legitimate authority, proportional means and reasonable prospect. The commission devised collective action to be finalized through the UN system, on a case-by-case basis, and in cooperation with regional organizations. For example, when the security council sits in judgment over a Libya or a Syria, the Arab League or the African Union can bring much-needed local knowledge and expertise when co-opted. It was thought that adherence to such counsel would minimize the chances of mala fide or impulsive action.
It can be seen that at the present moment, R2P works in an ad hoc and somewhat arbitrary manner, depending on the zeal of the sponsors of action and the prize in question. At the same time, it also remains a potentially beneficial instrument of diplomacy that can stop a Nazi Germany, a Khmer Rouge Cambodia or the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan kind from happening again. Logic demands then that the international community work further on it so that R2P can be fine-tuned to protect but not meddle. Till that happens, it is not only the rogue countries which are in need of chastisement, but also those that have deep fault lines or centrifugal forces at work in their societies that would live in some unease over the prospects of an R2P-style intervention.
The author is India’s former ambassador to Turkey, Cambodia and Myanmar