Recently, Gareth Evans, President of ICG and the architect of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), accosted me and argued that I had misrepresented the doctrine—especially that I had equated it with the older, now-superseded notion of “humanitarian intervention.” He makes a similar point on page 58 of his book The Responsibility to Protect.
This is the first part of a three-part review of The Responsibility to Protect. Let me start off by conceding that Evans and other leading proponents of R2P take pains to explain that their conception of the doctrine is much broader than a restatement of the rationale for intervention (as for example promoted by Bernard Kouchner’s droit d’ingérence). One of the recurring themes of Evans’ book is rebutting those who see R2P as a “trojan horse” for intervention or neo-colonial reassertion of control. The doctrine includes special emphases on prevention and post-conflict reconstruction, and seeks to shift the locus of concern from the external intervenor (who has a right or duty to intervene under the older formulation) to the right of the individual at risk, and the responsibilities of the state and international community to provide protection. The immediate intellectual progenitor of R2P is in fact Francis Deng’s notion of “sovereignty as responsibility.”
The concept of R2P connects three well-established concepts: crisis prevention, military intervention for humanitarian reasons, and post-crisis recovery. Part of the significance of the post-crisis component is that post-conflict countries are at high risk of relapsing into violence—sometimes more extreme than the violence from which they have just escaped. It also revises these concepts. The responsibility to react involves different elements of which coercive military force is just one. And the legitimate use of that force is hedged around by tough criteria—the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty gives five: seriousness of harm, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means, and balance of consequences.
I am sympathetic to most of this. One of the arguments I marshaled in critique of the calls for intervention in the 1990s was precisely that they privileged the intervenor over the citizen—and at least R2P tries to remedy that. And yes, R2P is a much broader concept than humanitarian intervention and deserves to be discussed on its merits.
What’s the problem? Let me outline my case. First, I don’t think Evans rightly characterizes my position. Second, I don’t think that the record of addressing conflicts and civilian protection in the post-Cold War era provides as strong support for the need for R2P as Evans contends. Next, while bringing the concept of (revised) intervention into the same conceptual and diplomatic stable as (also revised) concepts of prevention and post-conflict recovery brings some benefits, it also has downsides. And I think that those risks are demonstrated by the experience of Darfur.
Critiques of R2P
Evans’ rightly categorizes me as a critic of R2P. But I don’t think he represents my arguments fully when he writes (p. 58):
“There are a number of critics who oppose the whole idea of R2P, and the constraints on absolute state sovereignty it entails, not for any crudely self-interested reason but for high-minded and ideological ones: those who retain a strong aversion to imperialism, or perceived neo-imperialism or neocolonialism, in any shape or form, and who remain instinctively unwilling to concede in principle that any form of external intervention could ever wholly avoid having that character.”
He then brackets Mahmood Mamdani and myself as exemplars of this viewpoint. On Mamdani he hits the mark. On the last page of Saviors and Survivors, Mamdani writes: “More than anything else, ‘the responsibility to protect’ is a right to punish but without being held accountable—a clarion call for the recolonization of ‘failed’ states in Africa.” (He might also have mentioned Steve Fake and Kevin Funk who have recently described R2P as “Disciplining the Mice, Freeing the Lions.”)
My view is somewhat different. While I suspect it would be very difficult for any American or European-led military intervention in an African country to avoid having some form of imperial character, I see that as a mark against intervention but not necessarily a decisive one. I have written that philanthropic imperialism is imperial nonetheless—but by the same token it is also philanthropic and at times the philanthropy can be distinctly more beneficial than the imperial is harmful. (For example if Belgian and French paratroopers had halted the Rwandan genocide in its early days.) Intervention is always questionable but not always wrong. I suspect my scepticism makes me set the bar for justifying intervention higher than Evans, but on its own that is a disagreement over degree not principle.
My views of sovereignty are not the same as Mamdani’s and my analysis of Darfur very different (as detailed on this blog). At a meeting in Addis Ababa in March, I argued that the African Union should use the phrase ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ to help frame its analysis of Sudan—a proposal to which Mamdani strongly objected, saying that what defined sovereignty was its lack of responsibility, and that I was setting out on the slippery slope to an imperial arrogation of national sovereignty. The only meaningful use of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ was, he said, as a cognate for democracy. I can see two arguments worth making here: one is that promoting democracy should be an intrinsic part of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, and the other that domestic political actors who oppose abusive governments have a responsibility to seek internal solutions and not rely exclusively on external salvation. But I think the idea of absolute state sovereignty has been superseded, and a good thing too.
When I quit Human Rights Watch in December 1992 it was not in defence of Somali sovereignty but because I feared—along with my colleague Rakiya Omaar—that the U.S.-led intervention would go terribly wrong. And one reason we feared it was fated to do so was that it had not been well-designed, because of deep-seated flaws in the way in which the humanitarians and the military were analyzing Somalia and responding.
My critique of R2P is similar: the bones of the argument are empirical and consequentialist, but the analysis—a political ethnography of western engagement with crises—highlights some points of principle and perspective.
The fundamental reason why I object to humanitarian intervention is that it is unlikely to work. And in turn, my major critique of R2P is as well as adding to the stable of instruments for preventing and mitigating crises, it detracts from that stable. Ten years ago the stable included several rather plodding diplomatic mechanisms—donkeys if you like. I would include Chapter VI peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstructions and DDR among these donkeys. Humanitarian intervention was a tiger caged elsewhere. One of the things that R2P does, I argue, is to increase the number of donkeys in the stable and bring the tiger in as well. Having a tiger around also makes the donkeys friskier—perhaps they are more likely to give a hefty kick. But donkeys and tigers are still different animals, and it’s the tiger that is the scary one. And in order for the tiger to cohabit with the donkeys it must be stripped of some of its claws.
So: Evans is correct that R2P is much broader than “humanitarian intervention” and also that the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” is different. But there is still something that is recognizable as a version of “humanitarian intervention” in the stable, and in its (perhaps semi-de-clawed) state it still has the loudest roar.
The Background to R2P
What was the historical reason for building this broader stable that is R2P?
The stimulus for R2P was the bloody reality of the 1990s: missed opportunities for preventative diplomacy and instances of egregious inaction by peacekeeping forces—occasions in which international troops stood by and allowed massacres to happen because their commanders did not possess the mandate to fire their guns in anger, and were worried what might happen if they did. I discern two slightly different motivations for R2P. One is making civilian protection a central concern for diplomatic efforts, in each of the three stages of prevention, reaction and recovery. The second is turning that general principle into an operational practice for peace support operations: providing UN peacekeepers with mandate and capacity to undertake actual protection when civilians are under immediate threat, so that outrages such as Kigali and Srebenica would not happen again.
Evans makes a strong case in favor that prevention, reaction and recovery should be stabled together. He makes the point that a new norm can bring together all aspects of civilian protection under a single organizing principle, giving international political capital to the concept. His arguments are well-known and accessible so I won’t repeat them here. Among them are the observation that, diplomacy will be stronger if diplomats have coercive options to fall back upon, and abusive regimes cannot fall back upon old-fashioned arguments based on sovereignty. In addition, peace support operations are now so multi-faceted that they are seamless with prevention and protection activities—noting particularly that it is countries that have recently been at war that are most at risk of relapsing into large-scale violence against civilians.
However, there are also arguments for keeping a firewall that separates coercive force from all other aspects of diplomacy including traditional peacekeeping by consent. Caging the tiger outside the stable, as it were.
Let us begin with the question of how best to interpret the 1990s. Was it as much a failure as it seemed at the time? Evans begins with this summary (p. 3): ‘the enduring memory of the decade is hesitation or incapacity to act, or act quickly enough, in case after case where civilian lives were massively at risk.’ That is indeed the memory. But memory can play tricks. At the end of the book (pp. 234-5) Evans draws on the data and analysis of the 2007 Human Security Brief, which show a worldwide decline in armed conflict and associated civilian casualties beginning in 1992, and in sub-Saharan Africa since 1999. He concurs with the report’s authors that the ‘the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face’, namely ‘the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking, and postconflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half.’ The Brief notes that there was just one Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, but 16 in 2006. In 1989 there were only three groups of ‘friends’ of peace processes, in 2006 there were 18. It may be the case that contemporary peace agreements are no more likely to succeed than their predecessors in the Cold War era, but the very fact that there are so many peace initiatives means that overall success is far more likely.
We must be cautious in interpreting the African data in an optimistic manner—levels of conflict in Africa have fluctuated widely from year to year and there have been sharp declines before, though none as pronounced as 1999-2006. The Human Security Brief’s definition of sub-Saharan Africa also excludes Sudan. But the trends and explanation seem valid. This is cause for congratulation. It is also a very important corrective to the view—possibly driven by media coverage that selectively reports bad news—that large areas of the world are in the grip of relentless conflict or worse, face ever-increasing violence. When your job is a fireman, you remember the fires that happened, not those that didn’t. Stalin infamously said that one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. By the same token, 999,999 deaths that did not happen is a statistic, while the one death that did remains a tragedy.
These successes pose a challenge to Evans and advocates of R2P: if widespread conflict resolution was in train before the concept of R2P was launched (in 2001) and adopted at the World Summit (in 2005), then why do we need a new norm? If the existing—enhanced, improving—mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution were working, and indeed spreading, why not just stick to what was working instead of introducing an ambitious new principle?
To be continued…