Sunday, September 1, 2013

Human Rights Expert in Foreign Policy Mag: Don't Call This a Humanitarian Intervention

Human rights expert Charli Carpenter has an excellent piece up on Foreign Policy on the looming military intervention in Syria, entitled "Don't Call This a Humanitarian War."

First, here's some background on Carpenter, taken from her professional bio on the UMass-Amherst site:
Charli Carpenter is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her teaching and research interests include national security ethics, the laws of war, agenda-setting in transnational advocacy networks, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs and the role of information technology in human security. She has a particular interest in the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security. She has published three books and numerous journal articles and has served as a consultant for the United Nations. In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Carpenter spends her time raising two future members of the American electorate, surfing, snowboarding, and rambling about international politics and popular culture at Duck of Minerva.
 Now, let's get back to the article. Looking at the rationales espoused so far by Cameron and Obama/Kerry, Carpenter argues that the proposed military intervention does not adhere to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which is a generally accepted global standard for humanitarian intervention. In discussions about Syria, I have often criticized the West's proposed actions as punitive (an imperialistic slap on the wrist, if you will) rather than humanitarian. Carpenter, as an expert in such matters, discusses this in much more depth. She discusses the six principles on which the emergent "norm" of R2P rests. According to Carpenter, Britain has invoked only three, and the US, Britain, and France have only made solid cases for two. 
(1) Just Cause
The first is "just cause." As the British government stated and many observers have reiterated of late, Syria is in a state of extreme humanitarian distress requiring immediate relief. There is strong evidence in favor of this argument. By any estimate, the civilian death toll at the hands of Bashar al-Assad's regime is staggering, and millions have been displaced. The use of gas against civilians is seen by many to breach an atrocity threshold -- killing hundreds of people (more than 1,400, according to U.S. government evidence). Even without chemical weapons, a strong case could be and has been made for doing something to stop the slaughter.
(2) Last resort
But R2P also says intervention should be a "last resort" -- Britain's second stated principle -- after diplomatic avenues are exhausted. Again, Western powers could make a strong case that this criterion has been met in the case of Syria.
 (3) Necessary and Proportionate
The British government also emphasized that a humanitarian intervention must use means "necessary and proportionate" to humanitarian aims. Here its position is trickier. Of course states are expected to conduct all wars in accordance with the humanitarian principles of necessity, proportionality, and discrimination. They are also expected to observe limits on the means and methods of combat. Would the limited strikes Western powers currently envision meet this standard? It's not at all clear. In fact, the British NGO has issued a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron raising concerns over whether use of explosives in densely populated areas could conceivably be understood as a proportional response consistent with humanitarian aims, given their widespread and predictable impact on civilians.
Now, let's look at the three that have been widely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic. 

(4) Right Intention
This brings us to the three R2P principles British lawyers are forgetting -- and the reasons, perhaps, that the United States has not invoked R2P in its justification for strikes. One is that a truly humanitarian intervention must have "right intention" -- it must be designed for the express purpose of protecting civilians from predation at the hands of their government. But it is very clear that the military campaign envisioned is not really about protecting civilians from Assad or an ongoing civil war. Instead, as Kerry reiterated today, the goal is to enforce a weapons norm through a punitive strike. While this may well be a laudable goal in itself and may indeed do some good in reinforcing an important global norm, there is no evidence to suggest that it will have an immediate and beneficial humanitarian effect -- indeed much to the contrary.
 (5) Reasonable Likelihood of Success
Enter another important principle: that any intervention undertaken to protect civilians have a "reasonable likelihood of success" and avoid making things worse. Even if a Western strike were the most effective way possible to enforce the chemical weapons taboo -- and this itself is debated -- it is far less clear that such a strike would have a reasonable likelihood of success when it comes to the wider goal of protecting civilians. In fact, much data and analysis suggests the contrary. A recent study has found that intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed. While international relations professor Jon Western of Mount Holyoke College rightly points out that it depends on the type of intervention, successful missions have typically included robust mandates, ambitious goals, a willingness to stay the course, and significant resources from the international community subsequent to the invasion. Many involved regime change. In other words, the kind of intervention most likely to actually protect civilians is the polar opposite of the one now being proposed.
 (6) Multilateral Consensus
Even if all these criteria were met -- even if Cameron had been defending a well-deserved, last-ditch military campaign for the right reasons using appropriate means and with the best possible plan to sustainably mitigate rather than increase civilian bloodshed -- it would still violate the R2P doctrine if it included the right to act unilaterally. Precisely because the humanitarian intervention norm runs afoul of the U.N. Charter and because fears are so great that it could be used as a smoke screen for wars of aggression, international support for this emerging norm has always been predicated on the idea that it would be used only where a broad multilateral consensus existed that it is the right thing to do.
You can read more on the Foreign Policy site at the link I included above.
If you want to argue for war with Syria, it is your right to do so (although I will disagree with your argument). However, don't pretend that this is a "humanitarian intervention." It's not. Find a new justification.

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