Sovereignty – at what price?

Sovereignty matters, but so does preventing mass atrocity. A doctrine like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) permits us to override inertia and inaction to alleviate mass suffering, although in Syria we haven’t yet seen an effective plan for doing so. A response to the openGlobalRights debate on R2P. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria.

Salil Tripathi
18 September 2013

Sovereignty matters. It is not right for distant – or even neighbouring – countries to constantly interfere in the affairs of another country, undermining its legitimacy and independence. Those, myself included, who were born in states newly emerging from colonial rule, understand this only too well.  People have the right to govern themselves, without interference from other states – but only up to a point. Nations earn their legitimacy and independence by acting responsibly. When they cease to act responsibly, there have to be mechanisms in place to protect civilians. History is littered with examples of incompetent and malevolent governments ignoring the suffering of their people and not doing enough to protect them, or deliberately killing them. 

The human rights conundrum is understandable: the primary obligation to protect human rights rests with states, and at the same time, the biggest abusers of human rights are states. Many governments fail to live up to commitments they have made to their own people and to the international community. Many more do not adhere to the treaties they have signed. Several governments routinely violate international norms, and too often the international community looks the other way.

While the international community accepted the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005 in an attempt to bring some order after the selective use of the humanitarian intervention doctrine in the 1990s, it did so with an important caveat: approval by the UN Security Council, including of course the P5 - China, France, Russia the US and UK. But given their competing strategic interests, it is clear that collective action will only be undertaken when a humanitarian crisis occurs in a country of limited strategic importance to these big powers. And that means that in the vast majority of cases, an unacceptably large number of civilians will die before some yardstick is applied to justify military intervention (and so far, even the use of chemical weapons the Syrian case has not unified the Council for military action). 

As we have seen in the Syrian case, and in other past conflicts where civilians are dying in large numbers, the international community needs time to build a consensus in favour of intervention. The countries that want to intervene to protect civilians have relied on R2P. Countries opposing it are concerned about unwarranted intrusion in a government’s internal affairs. Many southern governments are particularly skeptical of any military intervention in which western governments intend to take the lead. 

Yet such concerns are often disingenuous. We should welcome, and where appropriate applaud - and not bemoan - a doctrine that allows the international community to override inertia and inaction to alleviate mass suffering. Any military intervention will lead to more deaths, and many of those may be civilian. But non-intervention may make us complicit in a continuing cycle of violence and repression, and allow a vicious, brutal regime to consolidate its power.

The Security Council approved intervention in Libya, but even there some states, including Russia and China, later grumbled that the NATO intervention changed the rules of the game, by replacing the original objective – protecting civilians – with the goal of regime change. But could civilians in Libya really be protected without removing the Qaddafi regime? And by not intervening in Syria at the moment has the international community brought peace for Syrian civilians? 

It is far from an acceptable outcome that a country that genuinely wishes to intervene to prevent mass atrocity cannot do so because of arcane politics at the UN Security Council. Countries from the so-called global South may see imperial designs in allowing the will of great powers to be imposed on weaker nations, as Professor Chimni argues. But large countries within the global South have often resisted international pressure not out of a commitment to any high principle, but to defend their own record.

China claims steadfast devotion to the principle of sovereignty, even if it thinks nothing of violating the sovereignty of its neighbours. Given its own record in Kashmir and its north-east, India is not about to agree to any doctrine that allows intervention in the affairs of other countries. Indonesia’s commitment to non-alignment was as much because it wanted to deal with its own internal insurgencies in its own way, as any nostalgia for the spirit of Bandung. Sri Lanka has resisted scrutiny of its conduct over its total war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Those people in the global South who suffer under repression shielded in the name of sovereignty, may view foreign interference quite differently – they often call for sanctions (think of South Africa and Myanmar), external military aid and, sometimes, direct intervention.

The cost of state’s posturing over sovereignty is the loss of human lives. The interventions discussed in previous essays in this series, including those by Kwesi Aning and Frank Okyere, and David Petrasek, have all dealt with conflicts since the end of the Cold War – the Balkans and Kosovo; Sierra Leone; Cote d’Ivoire; Libya; and the non-interventions in Rwanda, Darfur and Syria. But go back a little further, and there are three clear examples of military interventions by neighbouring countries, the result of which had positive humanitarian consequences. India intervened successfully in 1971 in East Pakistan in the wake of the Pakistan army’s brutal suppression of the Bengali independence movement, which had killed hundreds of thousands and led millions of refugees to flee to India. In 1978-79, Tanzania sent troops into Uganda to overthrow the murderous regime of Idi Amin; and in December 1979 Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

In each of these instances, the intervening country was a neighbour, responding either to border skirmishes or attacks, or to a refugee crisis. In each instance, the intervening country acted primarily to protect its interests, but the outcome led to the removal of a regime that had lost any moral right to rule. The motives of the intervening country may or may not primarily be humanitarian, but had India, Tanzania, and Vietnam not acted, the suffering of Bangladeshis, Ugandans, and Cambodians would have been further prolonged. Even in the absence of the R2P doctrine, these countries acted.

No doubt, military intervention in Syria has become more difficult precisely because of the legacy of the Iraq war. While it is debatable if military action in 2003 was justified for the many atrocities the Saddam regime committed against Kurdish and Shi’a populations - mainly between 1988 and 1991 - such reasoning would at least have had the virtue of being fact-based. But instead of making a moral case about punishing Saddam for past misdeeds – even if it would have been questionable legally – the US and UK built the case on the imminent threat posed by Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. That no such weapons were later found significantly weakened their credibility; so much so, that even the relatively unambiguous evidence of the Assad regime using chemical weapons in Syria didn’t move the Security Council. The Iraq episode at least partly influenced major powers not to take any action in Darfur.

The lack of consensus at the Security Council in the Syrian case isn’t a failure of the R2P doctrine; it is the failure of the Council to play its proper role. However, the real question that Syria poses today is not whether R2P remains a valid doctrine, but whether intervention on the terms proposed - aerial bombardment alone - is an effective way to protect Syrian civilians. And on this point, there is reason to be doubtful, as other commentators, especially Lorena Ruano, have noted. Aerial bombardment may make the great powers feel they have done something, but an effective intervention must be linked to a clear plan for deploying peacekeepers and assisting Syria through a lengthy political transition.

It is an unhappy state of affairs, where broader concerns of realpolitik and an odd commitment to a doctrine of sovereignty itself breached by many powerful nations, have together tied the hands of the international community from intervening when necessary. Indeed, a military intervention might lead to civilian casualties. The criteria Gareth Evans sets out in his essay are eminently sensible. But if military intervention is never going to be an option, then the diplomatic efforts better show results soon. To preserve the architecture of international law, should another hundred thousand civilians have to die – if not by being gassed, by mortars, shells, and gunshot wounds?


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