Tag Archives: Responsibility to protect

R2P and the Palestinian Ordeal: Humiliating the UN

23 May

[Prefatory Note: The posted text below will be one of the contributions in the forthcoming virtual roundtable The Responsibility to Protect and Palestine, orchestrated and editedby Coralie Pison Hindawi (AUB), that will appear soon on the Beirut Forum website, http://www.thebeirutforum.com/. The roundtable will feature additional essays by Ghassan Abu-Sittah (AUB), Irene Gendzier (Boston emeritus), Siba Grovogui (Cornell), David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford), Ilan Pappe (Exeter), Vijay Prashad (Tricontinental Institute), Mazin Qumsiyeh (Betlehem) and Chiara Redaelli (Harvard). The fact that Gaza has not even been discussed at the UN, despite the prolonged, intense victimization of its vulnerable and impoverished civilian population is one more indication of the primacy of geopolitics and the marginalization of international law and morality. Only civil society activism can keep the torch of justice burning in this global climate.]



R2P and the Palestinian Ordeal: Humuiliating the UN


The Emergence of R2P

At the UN World Summit in 2005 the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was formally endorsed by the participating governments with considerable fanfare. The gathering of diplomatic representatives of sovereign states also declared their intention to implement this assertion of collective responsibility on behalf of international society, as institutionally embodied in the UN. The following strong language was officially used: “In paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (A/RES/60/1) Heads of State and Government affirmed their responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and accepted a collective responsibility to encourage and help each other uphold this commitment.”

The impetus, and even some of the language of R2P, derived from the analysis and recommendations of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) [See Report of the commission, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’] in response to widespread calls for creating a post-colonial normative framework to address situations such as existed in Kosovo prior to the NATO War of 1999, which rested on a humanitarian rationale but lacked UN authorization. The central idea of R2P as set forth in the ICISS Report was the rendering of protection to a people suffering severe harm due to ‘internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure.” It was not directly tied to the underlying presence of the four crimes listed in Outcome Document as triggering possible application of R2P. There is confusion resulting from two parallel framings associated with the R2P norm. The first framing relates to R2P as a response to the occurrence of the four specified crimes. The second framing is more general relating to severe civilian harm resulting from a breakdown and rupture of the internal social order. With respect to the invocation of R2P forcoerciveintervention, the UN understanding seems to be a required Security Council decision, which means the applicability of the veto and that this engages both geopolitical factors and principled objections to overriding of territorial sovereignty.



Applicability of R2P to Palestinian National Struggle

Without doubt, it would seem that the Palestinian ordeal was a perfect fit for the application of the emergent international norm associated with R2P. It is well established by now that the Palestinian people as a whole have been victimized over many years by an apartheid regime imposed by Israel for the purpose of maintaining a Jewish State, which is one instance of a crime against humanity enumerated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute that provides the constitutional framework governing the operations of the International Criminal Court. The coercive dispossession during the 1948 War of more than 700,000 Arabs who had been living in Palestine often for generations, as combined with Israel’s denial of any right of return for Palestinian who fled or were forced out, possess all the elements of the crime of ethnic cleansing. The persistent collective punishment imposed on the civilian population of Gaza not only flagrantly violates Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and in addition is treated by international criminal law as either a crime against humanity or a war crime. In effect, it would seem that Israel has persistently and flagrantly committed three of the four crimes specified in the Outcome Document as triggers for the application of R2P.

Beyond this, however, it is made clear that the primary obligation imposed on member states of the UN is to prevent the commission of these crimes on their own sovereign territory. Other states are expected according to the Outcome Document to help states fulfill this “responsibility to protect their own populations.” In other words, Israel was responsible as a state to prevent Palestinian victimization by adopting policies and practices that were consistent with prohibitions on crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. Not only did Israel fail to do this for prolonged periods, but they affirmed a willingness to rely on such international crimes to sustain their overriding commitment to impose at all costs a Jewish state on a predominantly non-Jewish society, at least if national identity is assessed demographically. Such intentions were boldly asserted in the Basic Law of the Jewish Nation-State (2018), which reserved the right of self-determination in historic Palestine exclusivelyto the Jewish people. It is the priority of the Zionist project that explains why such international crimes of fragmentation and control are a necessary and central feature of Israeli governance. These structural and ideological dimensions  establish the basis for favoring reliance on R2P as essential to overcome the suffering and victimization of the Palestinian people. 

The logic of Israeli international crime and the relevance of R2P is compelling from objective legal, moral, and political perspectives. It rests on the existential primacy of nationalism, as reflecting the preferences of the demographic majority, as the foundation of the right of self-determination over the last century. In the case of Palestine, when the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, the Jewish population of Palestine was estimated to be between 5-8%, which increased as a result of Jewish immigration to around 30% at the time of the partition resolution (GA Res. 181) in 1947. In an era of decolonization it was no longer acceptable to achieve minority control via a settler colonial strategy, and it only became practical in Israel’s case by relying on elaborate oppressive structures to control national resistance as reinforced by solidarity initiatives of a decolonizing non-Western world. The Zionist movement also pledged a commitment to establish ‘democracy’ in Israel in addition to establishing a Jewish state, which meant that the Palestinian demographic presence must be kept permanently as small as possible. Such a combination of ethnic and political goals led to a continuous process of ethnic cleansing, as supplemented by a refusal to repatriate Palestinian refugees and allow the return of exiles. To meet the challenge of Palestinian resistance led to an almost inevitable reliance by Israel on the establishment of an apartheid regime alone able to ensure the security and ambitions of a Jewish state. [For clarification and amplification see UN ESCWA Report, “Israeli Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,”March 15, 2017] Such a reliance on such racially delimited structures had the same objective as South African apartheid, that of keeping one ethnicity or race in control of territorial sovereignty by subjugating another race, although the nature of the apartheid structures and the socio-economic settings of the two countries was very different.

It seems self-evident that from legalistic and ethical perspectives R2P should have been invoked and applied to alleviate and terminate Palestinian victimization resulting from Israeli reliance on policies and practices that are the precise crimes that are supposed to engage this responsibility to accord international protection. This assessment is bolstered by the Israeli refusals to take measures on their own to govern the country in a manner consistent with international law. How, then, do we interpret the silence surrounding R2P when it comes to its application with respect to Israel?


The Primacy of Geopolitics at the UN: Legalistically and Politically 

The primary explanation is political and geopolitical. From a political perspective the political consensus underlying the endorsement of R2P never anticipated that the norm would be applied in its coercive modes without the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of the five permanent members of the Security Council. In effect the norm was subject to a geopolitical veto, which was a crucial self-limitation, at least if conceived as an extension of UN responsibility to internal state/society issues. Less abstractly, it was apparent that any attempt to invoke R2P with respect to Israel would be blocked by the United States, in all likelihood, supported by France and the United Kingdom, and even possibly by China and Russia. The Western powers would block R2P because of their ‘special relationships’ with Israel while China and Russia would be wary of any attempt to create a precedent validating forcible intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. These two states learned a lesson when they allowed the application of R2P in Libya in 2011 by abstaining from the Security Council initiative (SC Res. 1973) of Western countries to mount an emergency humanitarian undertaking to protect through a no-fly zone the civilian population of Benghazi against approaching Libyan armies. The military operation mounted by NATO supposedly to implement the resolution almost immediately became a regime-changing intervention of greatly expanded scope. The intervention reached its climax with the brutal execution of the head of the Libyan state, Muammar Qaddafi. The two sides of R2P diplomacy become evident by comparing the cases of Palestine and Libya. With respect to Palestine invocation of the norm is precluded by geopolitics, while with respect to Libya the use of force was legitimized by a R2P justification, which was then undermined by an ultra virus expansion of the scope of UNSC authorization required to reach Western geopolitical goals. In both instances, the hypothesis of the primacy of geopolitics is sustained. 


A Concluding Comment

It should be evident that despite the universalist language, the application of R2P was deliberately limited to extremely rare instances where a geopolitical consensus existed, and additionally, to situations where the capabilities needed to address the challenge of effective protection was available to the UN. If the intention was to find a way to address the kind of situation that led NATO to act outside the UN framework to protect the people of Kosovo in 1999, the R2P approach is little short of delusional. Russia, and likely China, would certainly have vetoed the invocation of R2P in a situation that contained the political implications of Kosovo even if there had been no Libyan disillusioning experience with respect to authorizing humanitarian claims to apply R2P. The primacy of geopolitics poses three sets of obstacles to the use of R2P as a means of protecting people from the four categories of specified criminality in Summit Outcome Document: (1) the legalistic right of veto available to the five permanent members of the Security Council; (2) the politically amorphous pattern of alignments that are given precedence over impulses to apply and enforce international criminal law; (3) the world order reluctance by several leading states to encroach upon the internal territorial supremacy of sovereign states.

For these reasons, it is evident that short of unforeseeable changes in the global setting, R2P is unlikely to be invoked, and if invoked, almost certain to be blocked in application with respect to the criminal victimization of the Palestinian people. This is a sad demonstration of the unwillingness and inability of the UN to accept existential responsibility for the protection of peoples being severely victimized by the specified crimes in situations where the territorial sovereign government is itself the culprit or supportive of the alleged criminality. As international experience since 2005 shows, R2P as a UN innovation functions primarily as a geopolitical instrument, and does not in any way overcome the kind of Kosovo challenge that it was designed to address or to create a normative alternative to ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the post-colonial world.

If there is a lesson for the Palestinian struggle it is this. Do not look for relief to any future application of R2P, or for that matter, to inter-governmental diplomacy or the UN. The only path to ending current patterns of criminal victimization is by a combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives. One such initiative is the BDS Campaign that would reach a tipping point if and when geopolitical factors and Israeli national self-interest are recalculated due to pressures from within and without Israel/Palestine. At such a point substituting a democratic form of peaceful coexistence for current apartheid structures would be then perceived as a matter of self-interest as became the case in South Africa after the Afrikaaner governing elite concluded that the white population would be better off in a constitutional multi-racila democracy than by living with sanctions and illegitimacy as an apartheid state.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       


Moralizing Military Intervention

11 Nov
[Prefatory Note: I am republishing my review essay that appeared in International Dialogue: A Multilateral Journal of World Affairs 6:2016. It discusses two excellent studies of humanitarian intervention, a post-colonial trope allowing the United States and West Europeans to feel morally satisfied while projecting military power to distant lands, often with devastating consequences for the people being protected, and sometimes, even being rescued from tyranny and brutal repression. In some respects, what progressive critics call ‘regime-change’ the champions of such policy like the terminology of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ or even better, ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P. Donald Trump interestingly portrayed Hillary Clinton accurately as a regime-change advocate, and pledged not to make such mistakes if elected. We will wait, see, and hope that at least this time, he means what he says. The Middle East has been the testing ground for this ‘new geopolitics’ but its antecedents can be traced back several centuries as the Klose edited collection of essay clearly demonstrates. Both studies are notable for highlighting the non-humanitarian motivations that accompany such undertakings, which are often hidden from public view, and need to be highlighted to comprehend this latest twist in the conduct of international relations.] 


The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas and Practice from the Nineteenth Century to the Present

Fabian Klose (ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 364pp.


The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

Rajan Menon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 235pp









Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union there has been an upsurge of international undertakings that have claimed humanitarian justifications for military interventions in foreign societies. A second kind of justification for such interventions all of which are launched by Western countries (especially the United States) was associated in this period with the global “war on terror” initiated during the presidency of George W. Bush in response to the 9/11 attacks of 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In other words, this upsurge in interventions draws partly on a normative rationale drawn from religion, morality, and law and partly from a security rationale premised on stretching the law of self-defense to meet the distinctive challenge of transnational mega-terrorism. The central question raised is whether this contemporary practice of intervention has been beneficial from the perspective of either humanitarianism or security.

There are some crucial considerations that bear on the use of force given the hybrid structure of world order as partly state-centric and partly geopolitical. The state-centric part is, by and large, anti-interventionist seeking to safeguard the autonomy of territorial sovereign states based on ideas of juridical equality embedded in the rule of law. The geopolitical part is, by and large, interventionist as a reflection of the international reality that only the more powerful states possess the capabilities and the geopolitical ambition to intervene. As might be expected these two dimensions of world order are often in tension when concrete cases arise. For geopolitical actors that are also states the two ordering principles are reconciled by privileging sovereignty for oneself and maintaining an option to intervene with respect to all other states except those that are themselves geopolitical actors.

One way to resolve this underlying tension is to condition humanitarian intervention on a grant of authority by the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, the UNSC is structured in such a way that only when the dominant members, the permanent five or P-5, are in agreement can an authorizing decision be reached. And even on those rare occasions when such authorization is forthcoming as was the case with the First Gulf War of 1991 or the 2013 NATO intervention against the Qaddafi government in Libya, the UN loses any capacity to supervise what has been authorized because operational control is taken over by the geopolitical actor(s) delegated to use force. In this sense, the tension between statism and geopolitics is not overcome by reliance on the UN even when it is capable of reaching a decision, but merely somewhat disguised. In essence, whenever an intervention occurs, its contours are controlled by geopolitics despite UN authorization and reliance on a humanitarian rationale. Further, the UN is too weak to insist that an intervention be confined to humanitarian ends, and geopolitical actors are not willing to intervene militarily unless they possess strategic and self-interested reasons for doing so.

Against this background it is a pleasure to welcome two excellent books that explore the ins and outs of humanitarian intervention, arriving at the essentially convergent and unsurprising conclusion that such behavior is more a geopolitical than a normative phenomenon. The Klose edited collection is generally analytic and empirical in tone, with several strong historical chapters, while Menon’s book is a tightly argued polemic directed against those liberal internationalists who during the Obama presidency have championed the dawn of a new era of humanitarian intervention resting on the implementation of universally shared values.

The contrary thesis of Menon’s book is conveyed by his title, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention. In effect, he is instructing us on the basis of a very scrupulous consideration of doctrine, cases, and results that claims by the West, especially by the United States, to have engaged in a series of “humanitarian interventions” is a snare and delusion, with a shabby record of performance. Menon associates the word ‘conceit’ with its dictionary definition of “a fanciful idea” that embodies an “excessive appreciation of one’s own opinion or worth.” As applied to the controversies about humanitarian intervention, Menon insists that advocates so greatly exaggerate “the worldwide spread of universal norms and their acceptance by the international community” as to make their argument “little more than a conceit” (10). In a rhetorical flourish Menon tells his readers that “[h]umanitarian interventionists are intoxicated by the grandeur and moralism of their transformative program” (178).

Menon develops his case carefully, accurately presenting the arguments with which he disagrees, with his main targets obviously being the liberal internationalists who pushed Barack Obama to intervene in a series of countries in the Middle East with disastrous results. In this regard, it happens to be three influential women—Hilary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power—who have been most prominently carrying the torch of humanitarian intervention during the Obama presidency. Menon does not doubt their sincerity, but he is highly critical of their tendency to separate an affirmation of humanitarian goals from any acknowledgement of the relevance of geopolitical motivations and complications.

As he points out, by neglecting the difficulties of achieving the posited humanitarian goals, the weakness of a humanitarian rationale for the use of force is ignored, and disappointing results ensue. Menon points out that sovereign states are deeply reluctant to sacrifice their own citizens for the purpose of promoting positive humanitarian results. Equally discrediting is the startling failures of intervening states to invest sufficiently and effectively in post-intervention reconstruction, thereby leaving in ruins what they were pledged to fix. As the persisting chaos in Iraq and Libya vividly illustrates, the fact that a dictatorial and abusive regime was replaced does not insure that a society will be better off as a result of the intervention. Especially in Iraq, there is every reason to suppose that the war planners in the Pentagon and the State Department would quietly rejoice if a new strong man emerged who proved capable of imposing order in the manner of Saddam Hussein. In this sense, one of the implicit caveats of the Menon critique is “beware of what you wish for.” In effect, he shows that more often than not, the unintended consequences of intervention create new monsters more formidable than those destroyed. Perhaps, this point can be driven home by pointing out that the American intervention in Iraq led to the formation of ISIS, and its later spread to a series of other countries, including Libya.

Menon also questions the normative argument from two main angles. First of all, he believes that disagreements among major states generally prevent any consensus being formed as to the application of humanitarian norms. And further, that many states in the post-colonial global setting are very reluctant to endorse any right of the West to override sovereignty by way of military intervention. In this regard he views the pretensions of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm with a suspicious eye. The abstractness and vagueness of the norm allows states to interpret its meaning in very self-serving ways, which ensures that its role in conflict situations will be more a reflection of geopolitics than of normative agreement. In Menon’s words “[h]umanitarian intervention can never become an ethically driven pursuit disentangled from power and interests” (11). This assessment rests on Menon’s underlying embrace of realism as the foundation of political behavior involving international uses of force: “Great powers seldom, if ever, surrender their privileges for the greater good” (159). Supposing here that the greater good is the prevention of mass atrocities by demonic governments, Menon is saying that normative considerations to the extent invoked serve as window dressing, and will not generate meaningful action unless reinforced by an accompanying geopolitical motive of sufficient magnitude.

Although Menon does not make the argument, the refusal of liberal democratic states to act collectively to prevent the Nazi persecution of Jews and others is a dramatic confirmation of his underlying argument about the structure of international political life. His main effort is to discredit the liberal claim that after the fall of the Soviet Union there existed a broad humanitarian movement in international society that generated a strong enough headwind to uphold the contention that atrocities could be prevented and punished through the instrumentalities of humanitarian intervention and R2P. I believe Menon brilliantly explicates the several fallacies of the interventionists, while at the same time keeping the door open for intervention in reaction to atrocities when geopolitical forces are effectively aligned and the likely costs realistically taken into account.

With respect to costs, Menon exhibits further well-reasoned skepticism. He shows that throughout history, those who favored the use of force understated the costs and difficulties of proposed undertakings. In this sense, it is not only that humanitarians are naïve in their enthusiasm but also that the militarists (often the politicians rather than the professional military) view intervention threw rose-tinted glasses. Recent experience that confirms the immense difficulties of turning the military superiority enjoyed by an intervening state or coalition of the willing into the desired political outcome. This realization alone should give rise to a posture of caution and restraint when it comes to embarking on any military intervention.

Menon sustains his narrow critique of humanitarian intervention with lucid analysis and a scholarly mastery of relevant materials. There are a few red lines he refuses to cross. There is not a single mention of Israel/Palestine, and the prolonged plight of the civilian population of Gaza, nor is there any insight given as to what could be done to protect the people of Syria from the horrifying spectacle of atrocity. Although Menon advocates a kind of pragmatism in shaping responses, he does not discuss the complicity of geopolitical actors in crimes against humanity, genocide. As well, there is no reference to the relevance of neoliberal globalization to decisions bearing on whether to intervene or not.

The Klose volume manages a consistently high quality throughout its fifteen chapters, but it is much harder to review. The book lacks the coherence and focus of the Menon effort. If there is a common theme it is this idea of impurity when it comes to military intervention. In an introductory chapter Klose adopts a strong formulation of this view: “if the purity of humanitarian purposes is the sole criterion defining the concept of humanitarian intervention, then it never existed and will never exist. It is an absolute myth that states would risk or have ever risked the lives of their soldiers just to follow the altruistic call of humanity” (13). While Menon devotes his energy to those who are claiming that intervention for humanitarian purposes has become possible and is desirable, the Klose contributors, mainly Europeans, are trying to set forth the mixed motives that color many shades of gray when appraising the main instances of humanitarian intervention throughout modern history dating back to the struggle to stop the international slave trade.

There are two contributions of this historical approach to our understanding of humanitarian intervention. The first is to affirm the degree to which past claims of humanitarian intervention were always covering over geopolitical priorities that alone explained why, for instance, Christians were protected if abused in the declining decades of the Ottoman Empire while the victimization of other minorities was ignored. The second it to deepen our historical awareness in ways that stress continuity with the past rather than the contentions of discontinuity, which Menon tries to refute by a largely ahistorical exposure of the inconsistencies, selectivity, and disappointments associated with the post-Cold War practice in humanitarian intervention/R2P.

What neither book confronts clearly is a core discontinuity bearing on the diminished agency of military force as instruments of intervention. The anti-colonial wars as well as the major instances of post-1945 intervention reveal a pattern of political outcomes in which the weaker territorially based resistance side has mostly prevailed over the stronger foreign intervening side. The Vietnam War should have taught this lesson to American policymakers, but failed to do so, probably due to the militarized bureaucracy that now governs in the United States.

Let me end with words of praise. Both of these books are fine works of scholarship that inform and deepen our understanding of the formidable challenges arising from the commission of atrocities in distant countries. Syria illustrates the particularly toxic mixture of a regime repeatedly committing atrocities and involuntarily offering a haven of sorts for planning mega-terrorist operations against the West. In such a situation it is not even clear whether responding to the acute humanitarian concern posed by the Assad regime will have negative spillover effects on efforts to address the ISIS threat. In such circumstances, an agonizing passivity still seems the least bad option for Washington.


Can Humanitarian Intervention ever be Humanitarian?

4 Aug

             Not since the debate about the Kosovo War of 1999 has there been such widespread discussion of humanitarian intervention, including the semantics of coupling ‘humanitarian’ with the word ‘intervention.’ At one extreme of this debate about language stands Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, who is a staunch advocate of displacing the discourse on ‘humanitarian intervention’ by relying on concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (known as R2P). Evans was, in fact, co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that came up a decade ago with the idea of R2P. This approach to intervention was skillfully marketed it to the international community, including the United Nations. Arguing the conceptual case for R2P, Evans writes, “[b]y changing the focus from the ‘right’ to ‘responsibility,’ and from ‘intervene’ to ‘protect,’ by making clear that there needed to be at much attention paid to prevention as to reaction and non-coercive measures, and by emphasizing that military coercion—which needed to be mandated by the UN Security Council—was an absolute last resort in civilian protection cases.’ [Evans, “Humanitarian intervention is only justified when…” Global Brief, Summer 2011, 60.]


Insisting that the coercive actions in the Ivory Coast and Libya show the benefits of this approach, as contrasted with the supposed failures of the 1990s to take action in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Evans feels so vindicated by recent events as to make the following plea: “So let us please lay ‘humanitarian intervention’ language to rest once and for all.” This raises three questions: should we? will we? does it really matter? My answer to the first two is ‘no,’ and to the third, ‘not much.’ My basic problem with the R2P approach is that it downplays the role of geopolitics in the diplomacy of both decisions to intervene and to not intervene. By hiding this fundamental element in the decision process behind a screen of moralizing language talking of R2P rather than humanitarian intervention invites misunderstanding, as well as encourages imperial ambitions. 


            At the other semantic extreme is Michael Walzer, who writing in Foreign Affairs, insists that the idea of humanitarianism has become a central feature of world politics in the early 21st century. He starts his article with some hyperbolic language to this effect: “Humanitarianism is probably the most important ‘ism’ in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and general distrust of large-scale ideologies.” [“On Humanitarianism,” Foreign Affairs 90(No.4): 69-80.] I find such a sentiment to be so exaggerated as to defy reasoned discussion. One wonders has how such an incredible sentence escaped the scrutiny of the eagle-eyed editors of Foreign Affairs. Walzer appears to be suggesting that humanitarianism now eclipses realism and nationalism as an influential global force in the world of ideas and statecraft, which is not only farfetched and wrong, but especially surprising considering that Walzer is without question one of the world’s most respected and influential thinkers on the ethical dimensions of relations among sovereign states. His overall effort in the article is to demonstrate that this humanitarian impulse is a matter of duty for governments, and should not be treated as a species of charity, a potentially valuable distinction that becomes clear when he comes to discuss humanitarian intervention without even mentioning the R2P approach, presumably because it obscures rather than illuminates the underlying issues of choice.


            Walzer looks behind the semantics of intervention to appraise the responses to situations where populations are genuinely at risk. He faults the UN Security Council as having a dismal record in the past due to its failures “to rescue those in need of rescuing,” giving Rwanda  and Bosnia as examples. Walzer goes on to conclude that the “UN Security Council rarely acts effectively in crises, not only because of the veto power of its leading members but also because its members do not a strong sense of responsibility for global security, for the survival of minority peoples, for public health and environmental safety, or for general well-being. They pursue their own national interests while the world burns.” [75] This passage sounds to me like an old-fashioned reaffirmation, after all, of realism and nationalism, and is far more descriptively credible than Walzer’s assertion that humanitarianism is the recently emergent dominant ideology.


            Coming to specifics, Walzer understandably turns his attention to Libya

as having generated a new debate about humanitarian intervention. He summarily dismisses leftist suspicions about Western recourse to hard power solutions to international conflict situations, but also acknowledges that this NATO intervention does not seem to be succeeding in making good on its initial humanitarian claim. Nevertheless, he gives the intervenors a surprising clean bill of health as far as their intentions are concerned: “Their motives were and are humanitarian, but not sufficiently shaped by considerations of prudence and justice.” [77] Walzer is alive to the complexity of international political life that makes him skeptical about endorsing generalized solutions to such general problems as what to do about a menaced civilian population.  Instead he advocates a situational approach to gross civilian vulnerability. He argues that any state can serve as a humanitarian agent even without necessarily receiving permission from the international community for a use of non-defensive force. In Walzer’s words, “[t]here is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent.” He gives approval to several non-Western examples of humanitarian intervention: Vietnam in 1978 contra the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, India in 1971 contra Pakistan in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, and Tanzania in 1979 contra the bloody tyranny of Idi Amin in Uganda. These uses of force are endorsed as serving humanitarian ends even though they failed to receive any mandate to act from the Security Council and although in each instance, despite rescuing a vulnerable population, the predominant motivation to intervene seemed clearly non-humanitarian in character. In contrast, Walzer pushing to the outer limit his central thesis as to the rise of  humanitarian diplomacy writes “In these circumstances, decisions about intervention and aid will often have to be made unilaterally…The governing principle is, Whoever can, should,” [79] which is the second extraordinary statement made in his article.


Such a volitional framework governing interventionary initiatives negates, without even an explanatory comment, the essential effort of contemporary international law to prohibit all international uses of force that are neither instances of self-defense (as defined by the UN Charter in Article 51) nor authorized by the UN Security Council. In this respect, Walzer seems to be endorsing a kind of ethical anarchism as the best available means for achieving global justice in these situations. At this point he veers back to his confidence in the purity of geopolitical motives by contending that ‘what drives’ these uses of force “is not only humanitarian benevolence but also a strong sense of what justice requires.” [79] This is written as if imperial ambitions even if packaged as ‘grand strategy’ should not be a concern. What about the protection of vulnerable states that are victimized by geopolitical maneuvers associated with resources, markets, and congenial ideology? It might be well to recall that it was a notorious tactic of Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy to intervene or threaten to do so for the sake of protecting German minorities being allegedly abused in neighboring countries.


            Returning to a comparison of perspectives, Evans sets forth a series of guidelines that he believes will make it more likely that uses of force in these interventionary settings will be respectful of international law while at the same time recognizing the sensitivities in the post-colonial world about giving approval to military encroachments upon sovereign space, which are invariably of a North/South character if acted upon by the United Nations, that is, the North as agent of intervention, the South as the site where force is used. His five criteria are law-oriented, and deferential to the authority vested in the Security Council: (1) seriousness of the risk; (2) purposeful and discriminate use of force to end threat of harm; (3) force as a last resort; (4) proportionality of military means authorized with respect to the humanitarian goals of the mission; (5) the likely benefit of the contemplated use of force for those being protected. Since Evans, unlike Walzer’s willingness to live with unilateralism, seeks a consensual foundation for such uses of force, he insists that the final mandate for an R2P operation must be shaped within the five-part framework set forth and based on a formal Security Council authorization. Walzer argues more opportunistically, geopolitically naively, that states should be empowered to act even without proper authorization if they have the will and means to do so. His examples  of humanitarian interventions by non-Western states (Vietnam, India, Tanzania)were all neighbors of the target state, and at the time contested to varying degrees due to the play of geopolitical forces, not as a reflection of different levels of humanitarian urgency. In this regard, the strongest humanitarian argument was undoubtedly present in support of the Vietnam intervention in Cambodia to stop a massive genocide, but also the most controversial as it contravened the American policy at the time of placating China so as to increase pressure on the Soviet Union.  Acting under the umbrella of R2P is most likely to generate intense controversy when the United States acts with or without European backing (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya), especially if the humanitarian claim seems marginal or as a cloak hiding strategic and imperial goals. Only in the Libyan debate did R2P figure prominently, and maybe led several of the members of the Security Council, including China and Russia, to abstain rather than to vote against SC Resolution that gave NATO the green light to commence its military campaign.

In this sense, Evans’ claims need to be taken seriously, but not because they represent a step forward, but rather because they weaken the overall effort of the UN and international law to minimize war and military options in international political life.


            What makes these discussions serious is their bearing on life and death issues for vulnerable peoples and their supposed benefactors. On the one side, Noam Chomsky is right to worry about ‘military humanism,’ which he depicts as the grand strategy of hegemonic political actors being cleverly disguised as global public works projects. In effect, humanitarianism is the pathetic fig leaf selected to hide the emperor’s nudity. Chomsky points to ‘double standards’ as proof positive that whatever the explanation given for a particular intervention by the United States or NATO, the claimed humanitarian motivation is window dressing, and not the primary consideration. He treats Western silence about decades of brutal Turkish suppression of the Kurdish movement for human rights as an illuminating example of geopolitical blinkering whenever it seems inconvenient to take action on behalf of a victimized minority. In my view, the most extreme instance of double standards involves the failure of the UN System or ‘a coalition of the willing’ to take any action protective of the Palestinian population enduring an oppressive occupation for more than forty-four years,

despite the direct UN and colonialist responsibility for the Palestinian ordeal.  


On the other side of this debate among progressives is Mary Kaldor who worries that without the intervention option dreadful atrocities would take place with even greater frequency. She supported intervention to protect the endangered Albanian population of Kosovo, fearing that otherwise the genocidal horrors of Bosnia would likely have been repeated, including even the risk of reenacting the grisly massacre of Srebrenica. At the same time, Kaldor was not indifferent to the risks of great power abuse, and tried, in the manner of Gareth Evan, to condition her endorsement of intervention with a framework of guidelines that if followed would make the restraints of international humanitarian law applicable and minimize the exploitative opportunities of intervening powers. This framework was embodied in the report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo on which Kaldo was an influential member. That report also took account of the inability of the intervenors to win UN Security Council approval (in this instance, because of the expectation of Russian and Chinese vetoes). The report took the position that in situations of imminent humanitarian catastrophe it would be legitimate to intervene if the capabilities were available to exercise effective proportionate force, although unlawful given the UN Charter prohibition on all non-defensive claims to use force. It is, of course, not generally desirable to create exceptions to restraints that enjoy the status of fundamental rules of international law, but it can seem even more discrediting for the role of law in world affairs to be paralyzed in humanitarian emergencies by rigid rules and procedures that produce inaction, and expose vulnerable peoples to the ultimate abuse of genocide or severe crimes against humanity.


There is no right and wrong in such a debate. Both orientations are in touch with relevant realities, and there is no principled way to choose between such contradictory concerns beyond an assessment of risks, costs, and likely effects of intervention or inaction in each instance depending on its overall properties. Judgment here is necessarily operating in a domain of radical uncertainty, that is, nobody knows! This raises the crucial question, what to do when nobody knows? It is this unavoidable responsibility for a decision when the consequences are great and available knowledge is of only limited help that points to the difficulties of the human condition even putting to one side the distorting effects of greed, ambition, civilizational bias, and the maneuvers of geopolitics. The late great French philosophical presence, Jacque Derrida, explored this dilemma in many discourses that related freedom to responsibility, with some collateral damage to Enlightenment confidence in the role of reason in human affairs. For Derrida, making such decisions is an unavoidable ordeal that is embedded in what it means to be human, combining helplessness with urgency.


            I would suggest two lines of response. First, there are degrees of uncertainty, making some decisions more prudent and principled, although inevitably with the unclear contours with respect to envisioning outcomes given ‘the fog of war.’ In this regard everything is guesswork when it comes to composing a balance sheet of horrors. Still, it seems plausible to insist that Rwanda in 1994 was a lost opportunity spare many lives taken in a genocidal onslaught, a claim strengthened now and later by the preexisting presence of a UN peacekeeping force in the country, and the informed judgment of both the UN commander on the ground and many observers. General Roméo Dallaire indicated at the start of the crisis that 5,000 additional troops plus a protective mandate to act from the UN could have prevented most of the killings, estimated to be over 800,000. (Dallaire commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda; see also Linda Malvern, Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, Verso, 1994.). From the perspective of prudence, the fate of minorities trapped in major states is almost always an unattractive option, although non-military initiatives of support and censure may have positive effects in some instances. It is unattractive because the costs would be high, the target state has major capabilities, the scale of an effective intervention would exceed the political will to protect a threatened minority, and most important, there would be a high risk of starting a general war.


The Libyan intervention in 2011 was falsely labeled and the mission authorized was light years away from the operational goals of the NATO operation. In effect, this amounts to a disguised form of an unlawful use of force, but coupled with a dereliction of duty on the part of the Security Council to ensure that the gap between its mandate and the actual operation was closed. Besides, those who are being protected, or more accurately, being helped in a struggle for control of the country, were a shadowy organization thrown together on the spot, lacking in cohesion, and almost from the outset having recourse to violence in a manner that violated the spirit and character of the inspiring Arab Spring popular movements in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, there was a humanitarian challenge, as the dictatorial leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, was delivering bloody rants and the civilian population, under siege in Benghazi, was definitely in a situation of imminent risk. Under these circumstances, a carefully delineated protective move under UN auspices could have been justified, but it would have depended on placing NATO troops in situations of potential danger. The kind of air campaign that has been waged by inflating and exceeding the actual UN mandate depicted in Security Council Resolution 1973 has been discrediting for UN peacekeeping and authority. It has been ineffectual in stopping the violence in Libya, and likely responsible for its spread. At the same time, so far the intervention has resulted in not a single NATO casualty (while causing a rather large number of Libyan civilian deaths). Whether the stalemate in the conflict will produce a negotiated compromise remains uncertain, but the shaping and execution of the intervention is suggestive of the inadequacy of either allowing the decisions and policies relating to humanitarian catastrophe to be made by governments on the basis of their own calculus or through reliance on a UN framework that is susceptible to major geopolitical manipulation.


There is a preferable, although imperfect, alternative that has been around for several years: the establishment of a UN Emergency Peace Force (UNEPF) capable of being activated through the joint authority of the Secretary-General and a super-majority of two-thirds of the membership of the UN Security Council in reaction to either a humanitarian catastrophe arising from political policies or conflict, or a natural disaster that exceeds the response capabilities of the national government. The UNEPF should ideally be funded through some kind of small global tax imposed on the sale of luxury goods, international travel, currency transactions in financial markets, or some combination. If this proves to be impractical, then voluntary contributions by non-permanent members of the UN Security Council would be acceptable. The whole idea would be, to the extent possible, to break the present links between ‘humanitarian interventions’ and geopolitics. The only means to do this would be through the creation of a maximally independent international agency for such undertakings that would engender confidence in its good faith and through its prudent tactics and effective operations. Unlike such delegated interventions as the Gulf War of 1991, the Kosovo War of 1999, and the Libyan War of 2011, UNEF would rely on tactics that were geared toward minimizing risks for a threatened population and would operate under the strict supervision of the mandating authorities while carrying out an interventionary or relief mission. UNEPF capabilities would be constructed from the ground up, with separate recruitment, training, doctrine, and command structure.


            This seems like such a sensible innovation for the benefit of humanity that it may seem puzzling why it has never gained significant political support from UN members, but it should not be. For decades global reformers have been advocating a UN tax (often named a ‘Tobin Tax’ after James Tobin, an Nobel economist who first floated such a proposal) and the kind of UNEPF recommended above (for instance, carefully outlined in a proposal developed by Robert Johansen in collaboration with other scholars, a prominent political scientist who has for years been associated with the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame). Such a practical solution to this daunting challenge is not on the table because it would weaken the leverage of geopolitical actors over the resolution of conflict situations. Reverting to the earlier discussion of Walzer, it is precisely because humanitarianism is marginal to the conduct of world politics that makes the UNEPF proposal seem utopian. In relation to Evans, geopolitical forces can accommodate his framework, which is probably well-intended, but provides intervening states with a rationalization for their desired uses of force without significantly interfering with the discretion to intervene and not to intervene. As the Libyan debate and decision confirms, geopolitics remains in control despite recourse to the framing of action by reference to R2P. If we want more principled and effective action in the future, it will require a great deal of pressure from global civil society in collaboration with middle powers, the sort of coalition that led to the surprising establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 over the opposition of such international stalwarts as the United States, China, Russia, and India.