A comment deserving more than a reply…

Inspired by a comment, “Regarding Sudan…” made by citizen53 in the DailyKos Midday Open Thread of Sunday, 8 March.

“There is an argument in HR circles that the indictment was for show and in the end has little to do with the real problem of protecting people.

Like was done with the formation of the ICTY regarding Yugoslavia, it makes people think something is being done because not much, in reality, is.

We often are pacified by perception.

Humanitarian intervention may makes more sense, even if it ends up being illegal in international law, like Kosovo. Not many really complained about the violation that saved lives.

Sadly, this is the state of international law, where an antiquated UN Charter does not afford the world a way to address internal problems as the issue of sovereignty is abused by bad leaders who commit war crimes against their own people.”

Two points I’d like to address here. More beneath the fold


The split between human rights activists and humanitarians over the ICC warrants for Omar al Bashir has been noted in WPR blog post, “Human Rights vs. Human Life in Sudan” as well as in the LA Times article, “Good vs. Good” by David Rieff that WPR blogger Michael Keating took note of. The issue itself is nothing new, and is the reason why respected and trusted organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross explicitly refuse to take sides in conflicts and refuse to report on situations where it has knowledge of impending atrocities. No humanitarian organization would be allowed to work anywhere if governments refuse to let them in (as in the case of Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis) or if aid went to predominantly anti-government populations. The recent spate over a letter from Hamas addressed to President Obama illustrates just how narrow a path IGO’s and NGO’s must tread in dealings with host countries. The discretion of humanitarian aid workers must remain absolute. I imagine that working in an aid organization like the ICRC must command total commitment, because the secret-service-like devotion must extend even to those no longer working with that organization. Humanitarian aid workers world wide should therefore command our utmost respect.

However, the thinking among human rights advocates is that humanitarian aid alone doesn’t get us where we need to go. The reason being is that overwhelmingly, humanitarian disasters accompany conflict. The humanitarian problems of famine and disease may have fundamental causes such as the climate change effects in the Sahel, or in the rise of food prices brought about by the effects of free-market madness on the cost and use of fertilizer. (see World fertilizer prices surge 200% in 2007). Situations such as these are usually local and fairly easily to resolve. (Though not always. The present and coming climate change problems are going to be monstrous and require massive international discipline.)

The simple truth is that conflict is a disaster multiplier, and has been since disease struck Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Armed conflict not only multiplies the number of those in need of aid, but it makes aid more difficult to distribute by orders of magnitude. The length of the list of crises makes dismal reading (Doctors Without Borders). Almost every crisis situation listed there is caused or exacerbated by armed conflict.

One major lesson we can take from the end of the cold war is that the interpretation of unrest anywhere of being either the machination of or aimed at weakening one great power or the other was totally false. Cross border conflict has largely disappeared—Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding (both are fundamentally aberrations). What has emerged through the myopia of cold war vision is that ordinary people around the world are willing to take up arms in order to protect their own, or to advance their own limited local interests. The vast majority of armed conflicts since 1991 have been intra-national conflicts—civil wars. I don’t doubt that few were prepared for this. What is certain that no institution in existence is even now structured to deal with the massive amount of human misery generated by the global epidemic of internal conflict. Who (other than CIA director William Casey) would have foreseen what effect global communications alone would have on civil unrest?

So the sovereignty question morphs from one of border security and a regime’s impunity in dealing with civil unrest, to one of defining the meaning of what I call sovereign legitimacy and the notion of the inalienable rights of its people. After the Rwandan genocide, UN Secretary General appealed to the international community and issued a challenge:

“…if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”

It was Canada who stepped up. Beginning in 2000, Canada funded and organized a mobile global summit to discuss the question of state sovereignty. Over the course of a year, roundtable discussions were held in Beijing, Cairo, Geneva, London, Maputo, New Delhi, New York, Ottawa, Paris, St. Petersburg, Santiago and Washington in order to sound the widest possible range of opinion. Using a concept first articulated by Francis Deng1 of the Brookings Institute, the current debate taking place is over The Responsibility to Protect (.pdf). Early on in the document, the question of sovereignty is expressed with a sensitivity I’ve never encountered or considered before:

“In a dangerous world marked by overwhelming inequalities of power and resources, sovereignty is for many states their best — and sometimes seemingly their only — line of defence. But sovereignty is more than just a functional principle of international relations. For many states and peoples it is also a recognition of their equal worth and dignity, a protection of their unique identities and their national freedom, and an affirmation of their right to shape and determine their own destiny. In recognition of this, the principle that all states are equally sovereign under international law was established as a cornerstone of the UN Charter. . . . ”

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) introduces a new caveat on that ideal. In the very next paragraph:

“However…the conditions under which sovereignty is exercised — and intervention is practised — have changed dramatically since 1945. Many new states have emerged and are still in the process of consolidating their identity. Evolving international law has set many constraints on what states can do, and not only in the realm of human rights. The emerging concept of human security has created additional demands and expectations in relation to the way states treat their own people. And many new actors are playing international roles previously more or less the exclusive preserve of states.”

R2P places primary responsibility for the physical welfare of its citizens on the soveriegn government. R2P posits an ethic of state governance which if not fulfilled may effectively remove international recognition of that country’s sovereignty. A genocide is not required. Even a failure to respond to a natural catastrophe, as after Cyclone Nargis, can be enough to trigger a humanitarian intervention. R2P leaves many dissatisfied. Some feel the concept goes too far, while others feel it falls short. The commission’s report is a consensus expression of principle which briefly enjoyed worldwide support.

R2P places ultimate responsibility to protect upon the international community, and the framework for protection is both massive and complex. R2P demands that above all, the world has a Responsibility to Prevent. This is primarily, but not limited to, the diplomatic community. Just identifying conflicts where atrocities are likely is a task some are only just beginning to undertake. As I stated above, Inter-Governmental Organizations (IGO’s) and non governmental humanitarian aid groups cannot fulfill this role. So ex-Senator George Mitchell and others founded a mass atrocity/genocide watchdog NGO, The International Crisis Group. ICG does amazing work, and their papers formed the backbone of research that went into my last diary. on the ICC warrants issued for Omar al Bashir. There are others working without a lot of support or recognition, which is one reason I’m writing this very extended reply.

In a recent review of Gary Best’s Freedom’s Battle Samantha Powers describes some of the characteristics of a moral intervention:

“An ethnic, national, or religious group must be in immediate danger of being massacred on a large scale; a credible multilateral body must support the intervention. The countries intervening must forswear up front the pursuit of commercial or strategic interests in the region. They must commit to remaining for a finite period and in numbers befitting their limited mandates. . . . Finally, the countries entering a foreign land must have done so on the basis of the good-faith calculation that the benefits of such action would outweigh the costs—to the victims, the region, and the intervening parties.”

A solution to the conundrum of sovereignty v. intervention has not yet announced itself. Even among progressives:

For years now I have favored NATO bombing of the Sudanese military.”

The full extent of diplomatic efforts to resolve conflict of all kinds, anywhere in the world is under-reported, so I choose to make it a special concern of mine. As I point out in my last diary, the stakes in Sudan are huge, but the consequences of either success or failure may possibly dwarf whatever outcome achieved there. I do not for a minute believe that the UN Security Council call for the ICC to consider actions against Bashir was undertaken without grave concerns for all the people of Sudan. But time is running out, and if the warrants have achieved one thing, it is to refocus much needed official and public attention on those in South Sudan as well as in Darfur.

Above all, we must pay attention.

1Mr. Deng, a Sudanese diplomat, was appointed Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

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