May 2, 2011


Firing Into a Continent (Matthew Omolesky, 5.2.11, American Spectator)

TODAY, HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTIONS in Africa and elsewhere are accompanied not by the language of the mission civilisatrice, but rather by the notion of a "responsibility to protect" civilians. The phrase "responsibility to protect" itself first came to international prominence only fairly recently, having been the subject of an influential 2001 report prepared by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The humanitarian sentiments that, from time immemorial, have prompted outside actors to intervene in unstable situations was therein presented as having evolved to such an extent that, as Tanzania's Salim Ahmed Salim put it in 1998, "we should talk about the need for accountability of governments and of their national and international responsibilities. In the process, we shall be redefining sovereignty." Nelson Mandela declared that very same year that "Africa has a right and a duty to intervene to root out tyranny…we must all accept that we cannot abuse the concept of national sovereignty to deny the rest of the continent the right and duty to intervene when behind those sovereign boundaries, people are being slaughtered to protect tyranny."

Such ideas are hardly novel, of course. The Hague Convention of 1899, drafted the same year that Conrad's Heart of Darkness first appeared, contained language referring to the need to enforce the "laws of humanity, and the requirements of the public conscience," while the duties to "prevent and punish" crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have been enshrined in the 1948 Genocide Convention and thereby afforded the status of jus cogens (a peremptory norm of international law). Yet the recommendations of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty did constitute a significant step in a new direction. By proffering that "[w]here a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect," the Commission was proposing a paradigm shift in international relations. The traditional sovereign norms embodied, for instance, by the Abomey dispatch of 1890 were steadily being undermined.

The breadth of this doctrine is wide indeed, and the more idealistic of its proponents have been prone to push its limits to implausible extents. Academics like Jeremy Sarkin have maintained that the implication of the burgeoning "responsibility to protect" is that the "onus to prevent and react should also be placed on those states that have important relationships with violator states. These states, for example China with respect to Sudan, Zimbabwe and others, have significant economic and military relationships. They are in influential positions to affect the conduct of these rogue states. Where these states fail to use their influence they are also failing their obligations." One can hardly imagine the Chinese government being held in violation of international law for failing to launch a humanitarian intervention against the powers that be in Khartoum or Harare. Going even farther than Sarkin, Samantha Power, a human rights scholar and presently the Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs for the United States National Security Council, notoriously argued in 2003 that the situation in Palestine was such that "both political leaders [Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon] have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require external intervention." The very idea of such an "external intervention," an "imposition of a solution on unwilling parties" involving "a meaningful military presence," could only exist in the abstract, and indeed Power was obliged to repudiate her comments in 2008. Despite the obvious pitfalls and practical difficulties inherent in the expansion of notions of humanitarian intervention, however, the responsibility to prevent atrocities, protect civilians, and react to human rights crimes is increasingly felt in the international community, as evidenced by recent events in the Maghreb.

THE ONGOING MULTINATIONAL intervention against Muammar Gaddafi and his Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, enabled by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, has been expressly predicated on the idea of a responsibility to protect Libyan civilians, and as such represents a useful test case for the nascent doctrine. The March 17, 2011 resolution refers to "the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population," the determination of the international community to "ensure the protection of civilians and civilian populated areas and the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance and the safety of humanitarian personnel," and the authorization of member states to "take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." On its face, this is a humanitarian intervention based almost entirely on the principles set forth by Salim, Mandela, Sarkin, Power, and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, in their recent op-ed "Libya's Pathway to Peace," drove the point home by basking in the "unprecedented international legal mandate" that produced the intervention.

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Posted by at May 2, 2011 5:35 PM

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