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R2P, Corruption and Noble Causes

Fall 2011 Nez À Nez

R2P, Corruption and Noble Causes

Proposition: “National interests necessarily corrupt humanitarian interventions”

Kyle Matthews is the Lead Researcher at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (against): Intervening militarily to interdict mass-atrocity crimes or to break the back of a famine remains one of the most controversial and divisive issues in international politics. This is unfortunate, given that in 2011 alone we have witnessed multiple crises morph into full-scale humanitarian disasters. From the streets of Tripoli and Damascus, to the backwaters of South Sudan and Al Shabab-controlled areas of Somalia, civilians the world over are calling out for help and protection. Unfortunately, only a small number will have their prayers answered. While despotic regimes will regurgitate the same line to the effect that the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine is nothing more than a tool for neo-imperialists to interfere in their domestic affairs, the people living under their rule know better.

The American-led UN intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s remains a classical textbook case for humanitarian intervention. Washington’s decision to engage in the Horn of Africa had very little to do with national interests. Rather, successful lobbying by large international NGOs – including CARE and Oxfam – influenced an outgoing US president (George H.W. Bush), who was sympathetic to the plight of Somalis and saw an opportunity to leave office on a positive note. Early success in opening up humanitarian aid convoys saved the lives of an untold number of people, who would otherwise have perished from malnutrition. The only thing that ended up corrupting this particular intervention was the killing of 18 US Army Rangers. If national interests had been at play, President Clinton would not have made the immediate decision to pull all US combat troops out of the country.

Examining the state of Somalia today raises the question of whether preventing state failure through humanitarian intervention is in every country’s national interest. President Clinton’s short-term political calculation to abandon the UN mission in Somalia now appears to have been detrimental to America’s and regional countries’ national interests. After less than two decades, Somalia is once again confronted by famine, and desperate Somalis have taken to the seas and transformed themselves into the globe’s biggest piracy threat – while a radical Islamist group has asserted its authority over a significant portion of the country, and is openly collaborating with Al Qaeda and other transnational jihadist groups. Meanwhile, countries bordering Somalia are beginning to suffer the consequences of a lack of humanitarian intervention.

Wolfgang Krieger is professor of the history of international relations at Marburg University, Germany (for): Traditional international law, as we all know, was based on a concept of national sovereignty that did not allow any foreign interventions for the purpose of settling domestic conflicts. This basic rule of modern international relations was written into the Charter of the UN, but was never universally respected. Arms, money and ‘volunteer’ fighters were sent in ways that would obscure their real origins. During the Cold War, each camp supported ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘liberation movements,’ among other movements and parties – even if some of these and their leaders were often dubious. But such support served certain national interests or the good cause of freedom or the progress of socialism – depending on the perspective in play.

Since then, we have seen all sorts of armed interventions – most of them with sordid or at least questionable results. In addition, the ‘international community’ created what would come to be known as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine – the logic of which led us into the wars in the former Yugoslavia (to protect its Muslim population), in Iraq (to protect the Kurds and others), and in various places in Africa (with Libya being the latest example). None of these interventions lends itself to an easy calculation of overall benefits. None has come to a complete and happy ending. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how this new thinking can be sold to Western democratic publics over the long-term. Will it become more and more necessary to emphasize the national benefits for participating countries? Or to tailor such interventions to the whims of those publics, as well as to their collective – national – interests? Will these interventions increasingly become selfish manoeuvres based on expected economic, strategic or cultural gains?

National governments across Europe have already abandoned the military draft in order to make their forces more easily deployable overseas; that is, beyond the classical task of national self-defence. The US has dramatically increased contract soldiers and even contract intelligence agents for the same purpose. NGOs and the media – mostly the privately-owned media – have specialized in finding places where ‘humanitarian catastrophes’ can be repackaged into urgent cases for interventions – in part, perhaps, to divert our attention from those previous cases wherein such interventions failed to produce anything positive – to put it mildly. In other words, our affluent, liberal societies are increasingly sucked into a ‘need to act’ all over the world. We are increasingly made to feel guilty if we do not send our soldiers and our money. At the same time, we corrupt the new leaders of civil wars or revolutions by giving them weapons and money without asking for much in return. And we refuse to become colonial powers in the good sense of the word, because we preserve the fiction of national sovereignty.

KM: It is true that the international system favours non-interference, which is codified in the UN Charter. However, that same Charter expresses clearly that sovereignty belongs to the people living within the countries seated at the UN – not to the governments or authorities that rule over them. Furthermore, there is the Genocide Convention, which obligates all signatories to take immediate action to interdict mass killings – through intervention, if necessary – when these occur. With great power comes great responsibility. Sadly, the ‘Permanent Five’ who make up the UN Security Council have a horrible track record of leadership in enforcing this convention. History records that only two genocides were halted unilaterally in the 20th century: India’s intervention in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to stop a mass slaughter that was producing massive refugee outflows, and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, which ended the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity.

The great standoff between the West, led by the US, and the Soviet Bloc clearly did produce suffering and misery through the proxy wars that were unleashed across many continents. This is not debatable; it is a fact. It needs to be noted, however, that the nature of conflict has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The 1990s witnessed a decrease in inter-state conflict and a rise in civil wars. Internal displacement and ethnic cleansing are just some of the new trends for which the world grappled to find solutions in order to better protect civilians – just as civilians found themselves increasingly the targets of deadly violence.

The failure of national governments to give the UN the tools and capacity that it needed to be more effective in protecting civilians in the Balkans and to halt the 100-day killing frenzy that took the lives of close to one million Rwandans in the spring of 1994, produced new thinking on humanitarian interventions. While at the Brookings Institution, Francis Deng, an African diplomat who now serves as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, developed the concept that would go on to form the backbone of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine; that is, that national sovereignty entails responsibility. Witnessing first-hand that when atrocities were being committed, most national governments demonstrated a will not to intervene, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried to form a new consensus.

Alas, to date, many countries – and the West in particular – have not given serious thought to the transnational threats that mass-atrocity crimes produce in far-away lands – especially through the creation of more failed states.

WK: Our subject is ‘humanitarian intervention’ and its relationship with ‘national interests.’ It is therefore not helpful to narrow down the argument about the uses and limits of state sovereignty to the issue of genocide and the Genocide Convention. For in a clear case of genocide, it matters little whether it is stopped by a foreign intervention with a hidden agenda of selfish benefit. Humanitarian intervention in the broader sense, however, is inevitably linked to the pursuit of national interests.

Take the case of Libya, where the governments of France and Britain are eager to demonstrate to the world – and to their voters at home – that North Africa will not be left to the whims of local dictators, to the Arab world or to that ill-defined assembly of states called the ‘international community.’ Together, Paris and London account for nearly half of the EU members’ total defence expenditures. That alone shows that this pair wishes to be seen as global players (alas, smaller than the US). Does this corrupt their humanitarian intervention? Not perhaps in the obvious, Mafia-type way. But there can be little doubt that the new Libyan regime, once it becomes firmly ensconced, will favour France and Britain in relation to rebuilding the Libyan economy – including its oil industry. In fact, the Transitional National Council (TNC) has said so publicly. Who can blame them? But the message will nevertheless be clear: get involved in the process of regime change if you wish to enhance your international prestige, as well as your share of international big business.

Is this an argument against humanitarian intervention? Perhaps not. But we cannot ignore the potential for corruption – potential that is as hidden as it is obvious. Just as we cannot ignore the bureaucratic self-interest lurking behind the UN’s call for more “tools and capacity […] to be more effective in protecting civilians,” as my opponent has phrased it. For all of its importance as a source of legitimacy in dealing with international conflicts, we must not lose sight of the UN’s staggering cost and inefficiency, its failures in dealing with economic development, and all of the rest – mostly due to thousands of incompetent and overpaid officials and their Byzantine bureaucracy. Does anyone in his or her right mind believe that such a body can effectively handle modern armed forces – a task that is often poorly managed by the best of Western democracies? The latter at least get the job of humanitarian intervention done. Sometimes too late and with unintended consequences – due to Clausewitz’s ‘fog of war,’ which Bob Gates recently evoked in the Libyan context; and surely under the lurking suspicion of having national interests that may corrupt noble humanitarian causes. Indeed, it seems obvious that there is no such thing as an innocent humanitarian intervention.

KM: I beg to differ. At the UN Global Summit in 2005, all member states made a political commitment to do more to prevent and interdict mass-atrocity crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes). It is these specific human rights abuses that open the door to humanitarian intervention should a government not refrain from abusing its people. This is what we witnessed at the earliest onset of the Libyan crisis when Muammar Gaddafi’s soldiers used deadly force against civilians. Gaddafi then followed this up with the threat, broadcast over the country’s airwaves, to go house to house to hunt his political enemies down like “rats.” Is this not why so many Libyan diplomats across the globe resigned en masse – in disgust – at what was happening to their brothers and sisters back home?

This is also why the Arab League called for the enforcement of a no-fly zone and the creation of an arms embargo, which the UN Security Council then authorized. Yes, France and the UK might have ‘mixed motives’ (i.e. to avert massive refugee flows or to dislodge a lunatic who cannot uphold commercial contracts), but let us not forget that the importance of any humanitarian intervention is that its objectives are primarily humanitarian and geared toward the protection of civilians. We should not wring our hands if a country contributes its national resources (blood and treasure) to free a people from tyranny and oppression, simply because at the end of the day, after the job is done, it walks away with some new political or economic guarantees. Although the Libya crisis is by no means a closed chapter, the real story is that a massacre in Benghazi was avoided. In Western countries, there was no artificial humanitarian argument advanced like that witnessed in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It appears that the real ‘national interests’ that tried to corrupt this humanitarian intervention came from China, whose state-controlled arms industry sold weapons to Gaddafi long after UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed. Also, it must be noted that South Africa played an important role as the devil’s advocate for the Gaddafi regime, which has since been explained by the embarrassing fact that President Jacob Zuma previously accepted funds from Gaddafi for his presidential campaign to unseat Thabo Mbeki. Observers of history will find many more examples of the ‘national interest’ being invoked to justify inaction – or worse, to block humanitarian intervention.

WK: In thinking about the problems of humanitarian interventions – including their potential for corruption – it seems of rather limited use to evoke the 2005 World Summit and its outcome paper, which mentions mass-atrocity crimes rather briefly on page 30 of a 38-page document. This kind of UN and summit prose does pitifully little to prevent the crimes that interest us in this debate. Just look at how the African Union failed to support the UN-mandated intervention in Libya, and how the Arab League only supported the no-fly zone – but nothing else. To speak of an ‘international community’ being in agreement on the protection of civilians from mass violence carried out by their own governments is simply not in accordance with the facts. While some progress may have been made on this issue since the war in Kosovo, we are still far from having a workable consensus in this field. Indeed, the elites in Africa, in the Middle East and in quite a few other parts of the world still have precious little respect for human rights. We should not yield to any illusions on this matter.

If we are to understand the problems that may arise in the near future, we need to take a broader perspective on humanitarian crises and foreign interventions. The Arab revolutions are far from over, and still have frightening potential for turning ugly. Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa are still mired in conflict and by enormous prospects for human catastrophe – to say nothing of other parts of the world, such as South Asia. This is why we need to think carefully and from all different angles about these issues, and not simply follow the trail of pious international promises.

My opponent quite rightly points to the potential for corruption on the part of those countries that do not send their soldiers – that seek to prevent coercive measures and UN Security Council resolutions authorizing armed foreign interventions. We all remember the ugly bargaining with China and Russia in the context of the wars in Yugoslavia and in Iraq. But who was willing to offer such deals? Surely the powers that wished to go ahead with their military operations! Of course, not all of those interventions by ‘the international community’ were strictly humanitarian or launched to prevent mass atrocities in the narrow, legal sense of the term. But in terms of Realpolitik, those differences do not always matter much. If Germany, for example, refrained from supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on the Libyan operation, it did not do so in order to permit Gaddafi’s atrocities. It acted for domestic electoral reasons. Do we call this corruption in a political sense? Was it done because one expected the operation to fail and to produce advantages for those who had stood aside? Surely Berlin expected some kind of advantage from that decision. We still have not learned all of the facts. And that goes for the whole issue at hand. We should approach our subject with an open mind, but also with a good deal of scepticism. It remains to be seen whether humanitarian intervention will truly make the world a better place.

KM: While it is easy to dismiss the rhetorical support given to the outcome paper of the 2005 World Summit, it is difficult to take the position that progress is not being made. Since 2005, a whole series of civil society-led umbrella groups, think tanks, university research centres, celebrities, student-led anti-genocide groups and indeed new offices within the UN itself, have come into existence. Even if governments are reticent to support ‘humanitarian intervention’ when it is warranted by actual human suffering on the ground, the coalescing of these new non-state actors is having an impact. Think of George Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project that uses space-based technology to monitor the border region between North and South Sudan, or the Global Center for the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in New York that engages members of the UN Security Council and issues timely press releases and policy briefings to showcase what is really taking shape in the halls of power and on the ground. You now begin to see that national governments are being challenged publicly to change the way that they do business. Yes, the African Union was uncooperative over Libya, but this was mostly because Gaddafi was the organization’s financier. While governments will no doubt continue to deny their responsibilities or stymie action, a new cadre of actors has emerged. They will make it increasingly difficult for governments to sit on their hands and feign ignorance, or ignore the pleas of the people calling for protection.

Let us be clear: the traditional understanding of what is entailed by a country’s ‘national interest’ is outdated and ill-conceived when it comes to humanitarian intervention. Seen through the traditional prisms of security (protecting the state) and economic relations, doing more to prevent the next Rwanda-like genocide does not make any sense. It is far better to wait for a country to go into a nose-dive, destabilize neighbouring states, and then follow up with a generous financial contribution to allow humanitarian aid programmes to launch under the auspices of the UN or international NGOs. However, as Gareth Evans, the former foreign minister of Australia once remarked, “states that will not or cannot stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics, and other global risks.” It is foolish of those of us living in multiethnic societies to fall into the line of thinking that it is not in our national interest to partake in humanitarian interventions. Just take the case of Canada, one of the world’s most pluralistic and multicultural societies. In 2009, when fighting was raging in Sri Lanka between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military – trapping many civilians in a battle zone – mass demonstrations erupted in Canada, home to one of the world’s largest Tamil diasporas. The city of Toronto, in particular, witnessed demonstrations that shut down key transportation arteries – with obvious economic impact. The city’s mayor and the premier of Ontario both made public pronouncements for the demonstrations to cease and desist, and called on the federal government to take action internationally.

In democratic societies, we tend to elect people who come into office with short-term political objectives and a limited knowledge of international issues. These are the individuals who must come to realize that in our globalized and interconnected world, it is next to impossible to hermetically seal our borders from the fallout produced by mass-atrocity crimes. Our leaders need to understand that instability and mass human suffering in far-away lands can threaten global public health, result in the growth of a lawlessness that may compromise international trade, generate mass refugee flows, and pose challenges to social cohesion in multicultural states.

WK: I agree. The term national interests forces us to focus too narrowly on what is wrong with our current practice of humanitarian interventions. While the participating nations may pursue selfish interests in one way or another – even to the extent of dishonesty or worse – and while non-participants may also misbehave in various shameful ways, the most dreadful part is often played by the leaders of the suffering populations. Let us remember the outrageous criminal energy with which Colonel Ojukwu of Biafra acted in first appointing himself president of that breakaway (oil-rich) Nigerian province, and then orchestrating a humanitarian catastrophe in order to get aid money from Western countries with which to finance this dirty war. He literally invented a genocide against the Ibo people – while 7 million of them lived all across Nigeria as they had done before. He even forced the international relief organizations to load up munitions in airplanes that were to bring relief goods into the isolated refugee areas. While the Colonel eventually fled in his white Mercedes-Benz, and lived off his London and Zurich bank accounts thereafter, some two million Biafrans died in this humanitarian drama. Bernard Kouchner, the well-known co-founder of Médecins sans frontières (and later French foreign minister), was among the few humanitarians to publicize – at least in part – the dirty game for which the international relief organizations had been misused.

The crises in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere followed what were neither natural disasters nor spontaneous ethnic conflicts with some benign government watching helplessly; in fact, they were cleverly and brutally engineered human catastrophes that served local tyrants and their collaborators in building a power base financed by international aid shipments and funds. Anyone who has read Linda Polman’s 2010 book, War Games, knows how those people intentionally created human suffering in order to attract international humanitarian aid, and how they manipulated the Western press in order to create the images and news stories needed to motivate private donors. While competing relief organizations find themselves trapped in a collaborating mode – hoping to do at least some good, even though a large part of their aid money disappears into dark channels – Western governments lack the courage to call a spade a spade, because their publics are so eager to help and to believe that the human suffering is their own fault and responsibility.

Of course, we cannot solve these problems by staying at home, saving our money and leaving suffering people at the mercy of tyrants. But we need more transparency and more honesty in debating the facts. The massive misuse of aid money by local tyrants and warlords must be brought into the open. The media must be scolded and, if possible, punished for its dishonesty in misrepresenting reality. And the relief organizations must do their part in developing a more realistic approach to the issues – instead of basking in the warm light of humanitarian delusions. Only by educating Western publics about the real origins of most humanitarian catastrophes and the real part played by the local elites can we expect to improve matters at the level of international security policy – including preventative and reactive strategies against mass crimes of all kind. The politics of Western guilt complexes and presumed Third World innocence has run its course in the face of an ugly reality.


Kyle Matthews is the Lead Researcher at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. He is President of the Montreal branch of the Canadian International Council, and a member of the New Leaders program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Wolfgang Krieger is professor of the history of international relations at Marburg University, Germany. He has taught at Princeton, the University of Toronto and Sciences-Po in Paris.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / Jerome Delay)

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