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The Option to Protect: The New Terms for Humanitarian Intervention

By Richard Herzinger

In Germany, "national interest" is no longer a taboo reason for military engagement abroad. This lends a new logic to the debate about humanitarian interventions. But Germany and the US would do well to think twice about the responsibilities and resources that engagement abroad ultimately entails.

It is difficult to recall a contribution to the German political debate that has been as roundly ignored, both in Berlin political circles and by the wider public, as President Horst Köhler's comments on the unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In November 2008, Köhler argued that "if we are serious about the values we all stand for," then Europeans must be prepared to "provide soldiers to put a stop to these murders." At the time this statement seemed so completely out-of-place that Köhler's concerns were quickly attributed to his own personal fondness for Africa and thus more or less discounted as the sermonizing of a congenial, sentimental oddball.

A French soldier (left) on a peacekeeping mission in Congo in 2003.
AP

A French soldier (left) on a peacekeeping mission in Congo in 2003.

Yet in pushing for European action, Köhler was hardly playing the ivory tower moralist. In fact, his call for a possible intervention by EU soldiers was very much in line with European commitments already made to the United Nations in Africa, which have so far been fulfilled insufficiently, hesitantly, or not at all. In the meantime, the UN secretary general has also publicly called for European Union troops to be deployed in Congo. In Germany, however, the discussion is still being conducted as if it were purely up to us whether and how we participate in international stabilization operations.

This is not to say that EU military engagement in Congo should necessarily entail putting combat troops on the ground. A lower level of engagement could also be effective -- for instance, in the form of increased logistical support, better equipment and supervision for the completely overtaxed 17,000 UN "blue helmets" currently stationed there, and aerial reconnaissance that would enable troops to quickly reach areas where civilians are in acute danger. Yet the German public seems to have agreed that, in view of its existing foreign deployments, Germany can certainly not afford to involve itself in such an unpredictable crisis. The standard justification for this position is that the German armed forces have long reached the limit of their operational effectiveness. However, it is precisely this claim that points to the urgent need for a discussion as to how Germany intends to meet increasing international demands in the long term and, more specifically, what concentration of resources this might require.

In the face of growing public opposition to its engagement in Afghanistan, the German government is reluctant to create the impression that it is considering further extensive and dangerous German deployments abroad. During his election campaign candidate Barack Obama indicated that he would like to see greater military and financial engagement by European countries in Afghanistan. This has made some Germans nervous. What if President Obama really does press the Germans to take more responsibility-including militarily -- in Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere? Given that German political leaders were almost unanimous in their yearning for an end to the era of George W. Bush and barely concealed their desire to see an Obama victory, it would be difficult to resist such a request. However, with or without Obama, for the time being Berlin is staying firmly on the sidelines until international pressure becomes so great that at least a symbolic gesture once again becomes imperative. For instance, in 2008 the government decided that Germany will participate in the EU deployment against pirates off the coast of Somalia -- although this commitment was long resisted by the Social Democrats because they suspected their Christian Democrat coalition partners would use such an operation to open a backdoor for the deployment of the military in domestic policing.

In the debate on participation in international missions the criterion of "national interest" has assumed a dominant role. Protecting international shipping can be justified with reference to such a preeminent national interest, for example. However, while dealing with pirates also raises questions of international law -- such as where to send potential prisoners -- deploying naval forces alone avoids the problem of stabilizing a failed state. It does not address the cause of increasingly rampant piracy -- namely the collapse of state order in Somalia. Indeed, it might be argued that participation in the military operation to repel pirates is an alibi for rejecting more difficult interventions.

The fact that the question of national interest is no longer being omitted from debates on deployments outside Germany certainly represents progress, at least compared to the 1998-2005 rule of the Social Democrat-Green Party coalition, when this issue tended to be obscured by universalistic pathos. Openly addressing considerations of national interest and more precisely defining the concept of "interest" can only help promote a realistic discussion of the possibilities and limits of foreign deployments.

Yet however it is defined, national interest cannot serve as the sole basis for decisions regarding participation in interventions abroad. The international community of states, and thus in principle every nation, has long accepted the fundamental obligation to intervene in cases of grave violations of human rights -- even if their prevention does not promise any party an economic or geopolitical advantage. In 2005 the United Nations accepted the principle of "responsibility to protect," which in essence argues that if a state is not willing or able to protect its population from serious violations of human rights, the world community must intervene. This does not have to entail military intervention, but the latter cannot be excluded as a final option. While the "responsibility to protect" has not been explicitly codified in international law, its adoption by the United Nations has given it quasi-legal status.

However, there is no instrument that enables the international community of states to comprehensively meet this obligation, and the will to develop one seems to be weakening. Both the Europeans and the Americans are facing limits to their intervention strategies. Over the last two decades humanitarian interventions have expanded to encompass increasingly sophisticated projects of democracy development. However, as has been made painfully clear in Iraq and Afghanistan, such projects require far more effort, patience, and readiness to make sacrifices than governments in the United States and Europe initially envisaged.

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