04/13/2009 04:25 PM

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.

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.

Lessons of the Recent Past

The original aim of military intervention on humanitarian grounds was to protect defenseless civilians from assaults by their own government or other armed groups. The first experience of such intervention, the US-led mission in Somalia in 1992-93, ended in fiasco. Although the task of the US troops was to assist in relief operations to help the starving population, they were quickly drawn into fighting between rival warlords. After a dead US soldier was filmed being dragged like a trophy through the capital city Mogadishu, the United States withdrew. The lesson drawn from this experience was evident in the use of aerial bombardments to incapacitate enemy combatants in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999 prior to sending in ground troops. Somalia also made clear that military action to protect civilian populations must be linked with a plan to stabilize the political situation on the ground.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought this second lesson to the fore. These were wars waged with the intention of bringing about regime change and establishing democratic government. Humanitarian intervention thus gave way to the armed export of democracy, although this has taken different forms. In the case of Afghanistan the war was mandated by the United Nations, in the case of Iraq it was not. While the 1999 intervention in Kosovo was carried out without an express UN mandate, it was based on a NATO alliance. By contrast, the United States acted in Iraq outside the transatlantic alliance, supported only by a "coalition of the willing," whose presence was retrospectively legitimized by a UN mandate. The 2006 mission in Congo to ensure orderly democratic elections combined elements of these different variants. The mission was supported by the United Nations and the European Union, and even endorsed by the ruling regime. Yet here too the goal was the introduction of democracy.

The current situation in Congo has revealed once again that democracy cannot be guaranteed simply by holding free elections. Following the Congolese elections, EU troops were rapidly withdrawn without any safeguards in place against a relapse into civil and gang warfare. Such safeguards should have included exerting diplomatic pressure on neighboring Rwanda to prevent it from meddling in Congo's problems. Further peacekeeping duties were left to UN troops from African and Asian countries -- with what were plainly disastrous consequences.

The crisis in Burma in the summer of 2008 presented another facet of the challenge posed by humanitarian disasters. While Burma's autocratic regime did not cause the humanitarian crisis brought about by Cyclone Nargis, the junta exacerbated it by obstructing the delivery of international aid. Addressing the United Nations, Pope Benedict XVI called for international intervention in cases where states were unwilling or unable to protect their populations against the effects of humanitarian crises, irrespective of whether these crises were "natural or man-made." However, while calls grew for direct intervention in Burma -- including from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner -- it became increasingly evident that such undertakings were heavily dependent on prevailing constellations of power and interest.

In the case of Burma the main obstacle proved to be China, which even resisted a request for a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss sending in international troops to ensure the delivery of aid. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated at the time that it was essential to make clear to the Burmese military junta that the issue was not one of politics "but of saving human lives." And yet, as past experience has shown, this is precisely what dictators are unable or unwilling to believe when it comes to "humanitarian interventions." Indeed, from their point of view such suspicion is justified, since giving priority to the defense of human life and rights over absolute state power constitutes an assault on the megalomaniacal claims of dictatorial systems.

If the West intends to seriously entertain the idea of intervening in a country against the will of the national government, it must accept both the necessity of military means and the risk of violent confrontation with local power holders. It must also accept that such action may lead to a decline in relations with powers -- such as China and Russia -- that usually see humanitarian intervention as a masked attempt to extend Western influence. Moreover, in order to ensure the establishment of sustainable political and social structures following the disempowerment of a regime, the intervening powers must move rapidly from directly providing emergency aid to a program of nation building. This can take years, if not decades, of intensive engagement and requires enormous material investment. However, in the face of the problems being faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western countries, including the United States, are now reluctant to take on this task. The history of humanitarian interventions has thus taken a paradoxical turn since the 1990s. The increasingly comprehensive goals set for intervention and the setbacks experienced have brought us to a point where engagement in cases corresponding to the original model for humanitarian intervention -- the direct protection of civilians and refugees who are under threat -- now seems hardly viable.

The fatal consequences of this development are not limited to Congo. For years now they have been evident in the approach to the Sudanese province of Darfur. In order to avoid intervening itself, the West has sent in a poorly equipped African Union protection force, which is unable to do more than merely observe the murderous campaign being conducted by the Sudanese government and its militia allies against the country's black African population. This force was supposed to have been equipped with a robust mandate and increased to a total of 26,000 troops at the beginning of 2008. However, the delaying tactics of the regime in Khartoum and a lack of zeal on the part of the international community in fulfilling its obligations have rendered this plan meaningless.

The reluctance shown by Western governments is certainly in line with the mood of the Western public. The tendency to favor withdrawal is not only evident in the case of Iraq but also that of Afghanistan. Psychologically, Western societies are drawn in two directions. Images of suffering and violence presented by the media evoke an overpowering wish for something to be done immediately -- one that is articulated across a spectrum extending from the Pope to leftist humanists. However, once the high cost of concrete action becomes visible, the reaction of the public is to be appalled and reject further action.

Trial and Error

In historical terms, humanitarian interventions are still a new phenomenon. It is only since the 1990s that the international community has broken with the dogma of classical international law that prohibits interventions in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Since then, conceptions of international law have gradually shifted in the direction of international civil rights. However, the enforcement of such rights remains largely based on an arbitrary principle of trial and error -- with fundamentally uncertain outcomes. Of course, there can be no master plan tailored to deal with all the humanitarian catastrophes that could conceivably occur. However, more conscious, systematic foresight; more international coordination; and a more targeted division of labor in the prevention and pacification of conflicts are goals that are not only possible but indispensable if the international community is to avoid repeatedly being taken by surprise by crises.

The fundamental principle should be a renewed focus on ensuring that population groups under threat have a right to protection and that at least minimum legal standards apply. Although the goal of democratization should not be abandoned, it needs to be clear that implanting democracy is a long and complex process that requires a great degree of perseverance and determination. Such a process can only have a chance of success if a certain level of security and civil relations are established within a society. The United States has had to learn a cruel lesson in this respect in Iraq, and the Europeans are now learning it in Afghanistan. However, it is vital that broken dreams of democratic development are not used as a justification for standing idly by in the face of horrific violations of human rights.

In this respect it is worth reconsidering the idea of a "league of democracies," which was proposed by US Republican candidate John McCain during last year's election campaign. This concept is not new, and has previously been associated with the Democratic spectrum of US politics. An ongoing consultative committee of states sharing basic democratic and humanitarian values could help to better coordinate the process by which individual states or associations of states take responsibility for tasks in the field of international conflict management and focus on certain areas and regions in the longer term. Moreover, such an alliance could lend greater international legitimacy to urgent political and military interventions being blocked as a result of chronic resistance by particular powers within the United Nations. If the international community truly believes in fundamental human rights, it will realize that it is always within the national interest to help those who cannot help themselves.

Richard Herzinger is editor of Die Welt and Die Welt am Sonntag.


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