Friday, 6 June 2008

6 June 2008

Why did no one send troops into Burma to bring help to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Cyclone Nargis? Why is no one talking of military intervention in Zimbabwe to relieve the suffering of the people of that country? What on earth happened to all that talk we used to hear about “humanitarian intervention”?

It was to try to find some answers to these questions that The World Tonight co-sponsored a conference in London yesterday at the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House. It threw up some sharp differences of opinion and some fascinating insights into the debate now under way among policy advisers and academics.

Think back for a moment to 1999. NATO was in action in Serbia and Kosovo to support ethnic Albanians against Serb troops and militias. Tony Blair made a much-discussed speech in Chicago in which he said: “The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts.”

Fast forward to September 2005, when the United Nations World Summit issued a declaration, later endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1674, which said inter alia: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity … The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means … to help to protect populations ... In this context, we are prepared to take collective action … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

That encapsulates what has become known as the “responsibility to protect”, or R2P, doctrine. But something happened between 1999 and 2005. The attacks of September 2001 led to US-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq – nothing to do with “humanitarian intervention” or R2P. The idea of waging war for human rights was quickly overtaken by what President Bush called the war against terror.

So was R2P as a UN doctrine still-born? Does it hold out to people in need of protection a promise that the world’s most powerful nations no longer have any intention of fulfilling? It’s a fact that since Kosovo, which is now nearly 10 years ago, there has been no further “humanitarian intervention”. (The Australian-led intervention in East Timor later in 1999, and the British military intervention in Sierra Leone the following year, were both somewhat different, given that they took place either with what is known as the “coerced consent” of the authorities, in the case of East Timor, or with the government’s full consent, in the case of Sierra Leone.)

The former defence secretary and foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind argued at our conference that more often than not, “humanitarian interventions” do more harm than good. They change internal political dynamics, he said, strengthening some groups at the expense of others; they risk generating armed opposition from within; and they can change regional power balances. His message in a nut-shell was: “Except in cases of genocide, intervene at your peril.”

So here’s the question we’re left with: If one day we see more pictures on our TV screens of mass murder, as in Rwanda, or of callous indifference to profound human suffering, as in Burma or Darfur, will we press our governments to send in the troops? Or will we look at Kosovo – and at Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the armed interventions there were undertaken for very different reasons – and say we’re not prepared to get involved?

None of us likes standing by and doing nothing when we see our fellow humans in need. But is there a better way of helping them – a better way of fulfilling our “responsibility to protect” – than by going in with guns blazing? We’ll be discussing some of these issues on the programme tonight, so I hope you’ll be able to tune in and then let us have your thoughts via the website.

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