Tag Archives: Humanitarian Intervention

Bombing Syria Would Violate the UK Government’s Criteria for Legality

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. 




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he UK government today published its position on the legality of a UK military intervention in Syria, including three requirements under which a “humanitarian intervention” would be legal without UN authorisation, which it claims are “clearly” met. However, any objective observer must conclude that even these loose criteria are absolutely not met in this case, and thus any bombing of Syria would, according to the UK government’s own arguments, be manifestly illegal.

I shall now consider each of these criteria in turn.

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

The government claims that this condition is “clearly” met, as “the Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million”, and has now engaged in “large-scale use of chemical weapons”. This rhetoric clearly flags the bias of the author(s). A civil war in which each side is “killing its people”, i.e. other Syrians, is attributed solely to one side, the regime, as are, implicitly, the total number of casualties and refugees so far – although these figures include victims of all sides, including the rebels. For example, the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fled into northern Iraq in the past weeks, escaping from jihadist violence.

The paper, meanwhile, accepts as fact that the Syrian regime is behind the recent use of chemical weapons, although this is yet to be established and the rebels, too, have previously been implicated in chemical weapons use. Western states, of course, have quite a reputation for lying and manipulating information about WMD (Iraq) and atrocities (Kosovo), and so we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any such claims, particularly when the accusing states show no desire for, and even hostility towards, UN investigation.

Most importantly, although there is general acceptance by the international community of humanitarian problems in Syria, there is widespread disagreement as to who is responsible for these problems, and what relief would be appropriate. Some states hold the rebels rather than the regime more responsible for the situation, while others see it as a civil war with blame on both sides. And only a handful of states support the idea of bombing Syria. So even in the highly loose manner in which the government frames this first criteria, it cannot seriously be considered met.

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

There are very clear alternatives to bombing to improving the situation in Syria, a fact which is “objectively clear” to the majority of the world, and the majority of the British public.

Most obviously, the West could try to de-escalate rather than escalate the Syrian conflict, by promoting negotiations and compromise between the different factions, rather than directly and indirectly supporting the rebels and maintaining their hopes of full intervention on their side. So far, negotiations have not taken place because of the one-sided insistence that Assad must go, followed by difficulties forming a negotiating team on the rebel side. Assad’s regime may be a reprehensible dictatorship but it clearly has popular support of some, particularly Alawites and Christians who fear the Sunni majority. The civil war has evident sectarian elements to it, and the rebels, too, have been accused of war crimes. The situation on the rebel side, meanwhile, is highly chaotic, and there are major jihadist elements among them.

This is not a black and white situation, and even if the regime’s side is a darker shade of grey than the rebels, the course of action that is most likely to save lives is, undoubtedly, to try to de-escalate the conflict and promote negotiations between the warring sides. Given that the majority of the world holds the above opinion, this second criteria has clearly not been met.

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

This very criteria presupposes that bombing can achieve an aim of reducing the loss of lives and preventing chemical weapons usage, whereas many in Britain and globally would argue that such bombing would most likely only escalate the fighting and the civilian suffering – as it did in, for example, Kosovo. It is, therefore, very contestable and debatable. In the light of NATO’s misuse of the “limited” and “proportionate” UN authorisation for action in Libya, meanwhile, it is hard to see how anyone could take such assurances from Western governments serious again.

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. As the partisan rhetoric of the UK government’s paper highlights, this amounts to a very weak attempt, made more with crude propaganda than any serious legal argument, to justify its highly unpopular and contested proposal to bomb Syria.


Photo Credit: Madhu babu pandi

The Algerian Hostage Dead: NATO Is Responsible

While the West may be reluctant to put more boots on the ground due to the growing frustration from the general public, we are likely to see more military interventions this decade.


mali france


What do Libya, Mali and Algeria have in common? The three nations have played a pivotal role in the political domino effect culminating over the last week. At least 48 hostages are now thought to have died in a four-day siege at an Algerian gas plant. In response to the Algerian hostage situation Mr Cameron said his government will continue to focus on fighting terrorism: “There is no justification for taking innocent life in this way”.

These are typical words attributed to a politician speaking in the generic foreign policy language. However David Cameron has failed to mention that NATO also played its part in the Algerian hostage crisis. Algerian crisis is a direct consequence of the current Mali conflict and the Mali conflict is the direct result of the Libyan conflict in 2011 as those who supported Gaddafi were thrown out from the country for being black and had nowhere else to go except to join the Mali terrorist groups.

And since it was Cameron and his “peace-seeking” NATO states who encouraged the violence in Libya and helped to carry out a regime change operation, it seems NATO are at least partially responsible for the Algerian hostage crisis. Politics works in funny ways.

Let us examine each claim individually starting with Libya.

The mission to oust Gaddafi and kick start a new dawn for Libya has been claimed by the West to be a success. Yet an uncomfortable truth rarely mentioned in the Western media remains- hundreds of African migrant workers in Libya accused of being mercenaries for Col Muammar Gaddafi were imprisoned and tortured by fighters allied to the new interim authorities.

Indeed it is heavily documented how the victorious rebels were hunting after African mercenaries and the latter had no choice but to escape from the destruction-stricken country. These mercenaries found a new home- Mali. Additionally there are irrefutable claims that homes have been looted, and women and girls beaten and raped. Perhaps removing Gaddafi was a success for the Western nations, but the country is currently in turmoil and is still mostly run by heavily armed mercenaries.

It is clear that the West had a lot of interest in removing Gaddafi. While the UN gave the authorisation to protect the Libyan civilians, this objective turned into a regime change operation. It is not surprising that Russia and China continue to veto any resolutions in regards to Syria as they understand that another aim to protect the Syrian civilians would simply mean regime change in Syria.

We can only speculate what interests the West has in the region. A number of theories have been put forward: oil, a step towards eventually attacking Iran, protecting Israel, all of the above. While impossible to know the truth, it is clear that the West has a grand strategy for the Middle East and Africa.

And so we arrive at the second stage of the domino effect. The current conflict in Mali seems in many ways to mirror the conflict that took place in Libya. Rebels are trying to take over the country and overthrow the government. There is however one difference. The current Mali government is a friend of France whilst Gaddafi refused to get on his knees for the Western powers.

A popular argument used by the politicians is the claim that Libya was a dictatorship while Mali is a democracy and therefore the West has a responsibility to protect Mali from radical extremists. However if this claim was true then the West would have already intervened in Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However these authoritarian states have good relations with the West and are therefore safe from NATO interventions.

Indeed those who claim that the Mali government are not executing their own civilians like Gaddafi did may be shocked to find that there are growing reports by Amnesty International of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in Mali, as troops battle Islamist militants in the West African country.

Residents of Mopti, in the centre of the country, told the Observer of arrests, interrogations and the torture of innocents by the Malian army. Amnesty International says that it has documented evidence of abuse by the Malian army, including extrajudicial killings. It says that in September, a group of 16 Muslim preachers composed of Malian and Mauritanian nationals were arrested then executed by the Malian military in Diabaly. It seems like the French government is trying to protect those that are carrying out human rights abuses.

Undoubtedly the rebels are not saints either. Nevertheless there has to be some consistency from the West. Claiming to be against Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein as they killed own citizens, while at the same time supporting the regimes in Mali, Bahrain and Jordan, who also treat their citizens with cruelty is simply hypocritical.

Of course this is not the first time a Western power has supported brutality. It is also imperative to mention the case of Syria here. Mr Hollande has claimed that the reason why his country is supporting the Mali government against the rebels is because the rebels are Islamic extremists whilst the rebels in Syria are secular.

Mr Hollande’s remarks are are simply wrong as it is well known that a large section of the Syrian rebels are also radical Islamists. The radical rebels who have connections to Al Qaeda seem to be having more influence on the Syrian population than the Free Syrian Army who claim to be secular.

And so thanks to the continuous hypocritical interventions by the Western nations we have arrived at a situation where a BP gas site has been assaulted by terrorists. Whilst undoubtedly investigations will be carried out, it seems more than likely that the terrorists who have carried out the hostage mission are in some way linked to the rebels in Mali.

It is well known that in life, a particular action always leads to a particular consequence. This is called the butterfly effect. International politics is not immune from this phenomenon, as something that began as a mission by the West to oust Gaddafi in 2011 has ended with Western citizens being taken hostage in Algeria. I say “ended” yet it is probable that this is just the beginning of more violence and conflict which will spread to other parts of Africa.

This is rather useful for the NATO states as America and other Western nations have been itching to find an excuse to send more military to the continent now that the Middle East has been “conquered” and squeezed completely dry. And while the resource-plenty and flourishing Africa will now be the new victim of Western interventions, our media and politicians will continue to tell us that our governments are fighting to make the world a safer place by annihilating the terrorists – the same terrorists that arise through Western interventions in the first place.

Just yesterday David Cameron has announced that the war on terrorists will go on for decades and NATO interventions will switch from Afghanistan to North Africa.

Interventions are a destructive cycle. The West intervenes in other regions as a police state under a pretext of supporting democracy, but end up opening a can of worms. Extremism spreads to nearby regions and the locals are angered by the continuous meddling of the West in their affairs and therefore join the terrorist groups which encourages the West to intervene more.

It becomes a permanent circle, or better known as a perpetual war. Alternative solutions to intervention do exist. Empowering regional bodies and governments through international development programs, foreign aid and cooperation are viable alternatives to militarism. While the West may be reluctant to put more boots on the ground due to the growing frustration from the general public, we are likely to see more military interventions this decade. Due to the development of unmanned drones and other rocket-type weaponry, NATO is likely to continue to intrude in the Middle East and Africa. It seems the West never learns.


Photo credit: US Army Africa

Updating The Status Of Human Rights

With the rise of new media, social networking, and citizen journalists in the future we may have a generation of informed citizens aware of their human rights.


Citizen Journalism


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]deologically, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created, a utopian world of transparency was decreed. This utopian ideal was imagined to be intricately linked to our apparently universal morals. And the media is a right in and of itself, due to its abilities to hopefully help stop future atrocities. Within the last quarter of a century, the news media has changed drastically, seeing the rise of twenty four hour broadcasting, the internet and the rise in citizen journalism through the pervasive use of Twitter. This constant noise has made sure the public is now having an active participatory role in media.

When we discuss the promotion of human rights we tend to mean the awareness of, and the prompt reporting of abuses of human rights and crimes against humanity in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much has been written about how established media outlets should promote human rights and how their perceived dogma is compromised by interested parties, and recent case studies have proven it is only with the public taking ownership of their ‘media’ that we are seeing a real difference being made.

Media and human rights both have blurred definitions. The power behind the media lies in the significance of freedom of expression, often linked with freedom of speech. It is a vitally important right for the media, as it is the method through which the expression of views takes public form. In its most recognized modern format this is Article 19. of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 is of pivotal importance as it impinges on other articles and if not fulfilled, many feel, can curb other rights; limiting democracy. However, there are different interpretations to the way this is understood internationally; there is a common recognition that the right to hold an opinion and freedom of expression can be seen as one composite right.  The right to a freedom of opinion is recognized as an absolute right; our freedom to express them is subjected to limitations by our respective governments.

We are all part of the media, and even more so now are in a new age populated by citizen journalists who act as government watchdogs. The relative anonymity of the internet means that the public feels comfortable in their freedom of expression.  Some argue that citizen journalism curtails the prevalence of yellow journalism and ideally brings to the forefront human rights violations as they pertain to the individuals currently in question. It used to be “an old cliché that journalists wrote the first draft of history”, now it is citizens all over the world whether they be partaking in the Arab Spring or writing for The Risky Shift. This means that we the citizens are the ones demanding for human right abuses to be culled, and we have the power. Or so we would like to think. But biases still remains, have a look at your twitter feed and you’ll notice that all those you follow have a similar political agenda.

This new media can be seen to inform traditional news, not entirely eliminating the need for professional journalists, who can then inform the wider public by reporting on human rights abuses through their own access to a global forum raising awareness and prompting action from bodies with power. New media has allowed us to be engaged with the events happening around us, and as such the ‘better’ citizens we become by being more informed. This is the type of media we need when promoting human rights; an investigative media that demands that we take notice and make a difference. If we are not going to be actively taught what our inherent rights are, new media will educate us.

State-owned media is known to be biased, sometimes blatantly; more often than not denying or not reporting human rights abuses. It may even report abuses in a positive light leading to news that is no less skewed than propaganda. Private media is not necessarily better as they often pursue power, and profit; as evidenced by the Leveson Inquiry. Thus there is a tendency to report “exciting” profitable news rather than cover social justice issues. The rise of social awareness and citizen journalism is a backlash towards corporate media. The manipulation of information to bolster national interests, or military and strategic objectives, both on behalf of private and public media especially in the current climate, is a reality all journalists face. However, it is thought that journalists of a high standard from independent media outlets will renounce this, but this is not always the case even if it should be. A lack of trust has begun to permeate the media that online news and citizen journalists have started to act as a buttress against the misinformation that traditional media spurs. It has also incited public debate on a more personal level to promote human rights and their abuses. In the last five years there has been a blind acceptance of what mass media has reported and its bias, however the public is now answering back and setting the agenda. That’s not to say this new citizen journalism isn’t privy to bias, you need to look no further than the furore surrounding Kony and ‘slacktivism’.

With the rise of new media, social networking, and citizen journalists in the future we may have a generation of informed citizens aware of their human rights.  With the help of new media to diversify news content, democracy will be placed at the forefront by the fact it is operated by citizens.When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it was dreamt that each citizen would carry a copy and promote both theirs and their neighbors’ inherent rights. Although this was never the case, citizen journalists might be manipulating the dream for the 21st century.

Relief Response Coordination: Independent NGOs vs The UN Umbrella

The nature of humanitarian assistance in disaster response almost always includes an international element. In turn this then calls for some sense of international organisation and co-ordination of the response.



An important aspect of the relief environment is that it is unregulated. Usually there is no single authority able to control the action of all actors participating in the relief response. Ideally this role would be taken on by the affected country’s government, but unfortunately, all too frequently the government involved is lacking in experience, funding and knowledge required to manage an emergency effectively and in areas where the emergency is conflict related it is not uncommon for the government structure to be dysfunctional. This has the potential to leave the best role of relief actors unclear.
The UN is the largest international relief organisation, under which many relief and humanitarian NGOs work. The Cluster System, implemented as part of the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review, aims to apply the regulation to their actors that is often missing from the whole picture, in order to coordinate a more effective response. The Cluster System divides any relief response into nine “clusters” each with a lead agency:

· Nutrition (UNICEF)

· Water and Hygiene (UNICEF)

· Health (WHO)

· Coordination and camp management for displaced people (UNHCRM/IOM)

· Emergency shelters (UNHCR/IFRC)


· Logistics (UNJLC/WFP)

· Means of communication (OCHA/UNICEF/WFP)

· Early Recovery (UNDP)

This system aims to fill the gaps found in previous relief responses such as the 2004 Indonesian Earthquake causing the well covered Boxing Day Tsunami. The official investigation of the response suggested the international relief mission did not effectively respond to the needs of the population and was driven more by politics and media. The cluster system aims to ensure that all humanitarian needs of the population are fulfilled by each of the nine clusters. This system has coordination and leadership at an international, national and cluster level aiding a spread of effective aid across the affected population.

The other aim of the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review was to improve the effectiveness of funding by increasing flexibility and timeliness. As NGOs main income is from donations, and the swiftness of their response is dependent on their income, an element of competition develops between organisations, for donations and then in time taken to enter an area in emergency. The supplies required for an effective response may also be limited and so NGOs can become competitive over this also. The 2005 review did effectively alter this for the organisations working under the UN umbrella providing more flexible and timely funding for operations and deployment.

However, despite the improvements made from the 2005 review, the UN system is still pretty far from perfect. MSF have famously denounced the UN system and refused to join it on the basis that they believe the reforms to not have been as effective as they could have seemed. They argue that the increased organisation and coordination may have further lengthened the time taken for relief response to commence, using example of their 2006 response to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The main reason MSF stubbornly maintains their independence is to ensure they do “not jeopardise the strictly humanitarian and impartial nature of [their] organisation”. This statement refers particularly to conflict situations in which MSF feel the UN continues to take a political stance which echoes into its humanitarian response. Previously it is clear to see where this is true, the exclusion of certain groups in Sierra Leone in 1997 when the UN withdrew staff and cut off military assistance to support the political arm of weakening the AFRC/RUF. This political decision led to unnecessarily and arguably deliberate suffering and starvation of the population. The UN Secretary General has repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of integrated missions meaning any UN presence should represent the priorities and contribute to the objective of the UN mission. In April 2006, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced the halving of the food rations of the Darfur area due to lack of finance. This arose because the donor countries to this programme decided to make assistance to populations conditional upon the signing of a peace agreement.

MSF is not the only NGO to be functioning independently in areas of relief work. Many others enter countries in need with no invitation and no need to report to any umbrella organisation or authority. This disorganisation can bring about the gaps and unbalance in relief response as it is hard to monitor in country who is receiving what aid, from whom and where. However, it may also be considered better to let organisations get on with what they do and remain flexible to the changing needs of an area in emergency.
I have a great deal of respect for Medicins Sans Frontieres and the incredible work they do which I consider unrivalled in providing unbiased help to everyone. They are a specialised NGO with health as their direct objective and have chosen to opt out of UN operations because they believe it the best decision to provide the best responses they possibly can. However, I see the benefits of joining an umbrella organisation such as the UN in providing better all-round relief for areas that need it. I think that the UN system, encompassing the cluster system, still has ground to cover in efficiency and response deliverance and in providing the best response for everyone effected but that the NGOs involved in their operations do extraordinary and altruistic work which is better organised and more effective for the work of OCHA, UNDAC, IASC and the UN which governs them all.

Is The Global Order Changing?

We are not experiencing the rise of a challenger to the current hegemony, but an interregnum in which the current arbiter of liberalism, the US, is in relative decline.



[dropcap]H[/dropcap]umanitarianism, and humanitarian intervention, flourished under the liberal world order in the 1990s that had been dominated by the United States (US) and the West. Upon the foundation of liberal values the world witnessed an unprecedented rise in humanitarian activity and actions justified on humanitarian grounds. Some, such as David Rieff, suggest that humanitarianism has gone too far and needs to return to its purist form, providing only ‘A Bed for the Night’. While Rieff argues that a return to the purist notion may be necessary to help save humanitarianism, a shift away from the post-Cold War era may in fact usher in an era of purist humanitarianism. As it has grown out of ‘Western’ values and has become enshrined in ‘Western’ doctrines of international relations a shift in the world order away from the order dominated by the West could have serious implications for humanitarianism.

Taking Sørensen’s[i] more general definition of world order (‘a governing arrangement among states, meeting the current demand for order in major areas of concern’) we can observe changes in such arrangements. A stable world order, according to Sørensen, rests on a composition of material capabilities, ideas and institutions.

World orders are complex and intricate, not merely one-dimensional. Sørensen breaks down four areas of concern, suggesting that all overlap, these are:

(a) the realist concern of the politico-military balance of power;

(b) the liberal concern of the make-up of international institutions and the emergence of global governance;

(c) the constructivist concern of the realm of ideas and ideology, with a focus on the existence or otherwise of common values on a global scale; and

(d) the IPE concern of the economic realm of production, finance and distribution.

In regards to (a) it is clear that the US still retains the mantle of global leadership in regards to security – it retains the largest military budget (larger than the next fourteen powers combined), and has cemented itself within the world’s longest standing security community – NATO. Ikenberry alludes to the notion laid out by Kennedy that where a hegemonic power is in decline and is being challenged there is a greater risk of violence. Given the lack of credible military threat posed by China it is unlikely that, at least in military terms, we will see a drastic alteration in the world order. There is much literature on this element of US Decline.

There has, however, been an alteration in priorities for the global security agenda, as the mass-casualty terrorism of 11th September 2001 (9/11) changed the perception of security threats. While the immediate response from the US was strong multilateralism, this deteriorated as US policies became much more unilateral, culminating in the National Security Strategy (NSS) of September 2002, which declared a need for pre-emptive action. The agenda has, therefore, shifted away from dealing with the hangover from the Cold War (FRY, Somalia), towards these ‘new’ security threats. Sørensen suggests that (at least when he was writing) there are three major areas of security concern in the international system: domestic conflict in weak states, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa; unstable regional security complexes, such as South Asia; and the threat from mass-casualty terrorism. This indicates a clear break from the post-Cold War era, in which mass-casualty terrorism did not play so highly on the agenda, and the focus was much more on the former Soviet bloc countries.

Similarly, with regards to international institutions (b) there is much to suggest that the current, liberal, institutional framework will remain, if slightly altered. China, Russia and other emerging powers have placed great stock in the UN, for example, as a means to ensure that their sovereignty (territorial integrity in particular) is not violated. These powers have been enforcing traditional notions of sovereignty through the current liberal framework, which has implications for humanitarianism – resulting in a less receptive environment for intervention. While these implications exist, Ikenberry and others point out that the rise of China has been on liberal terms, through these institutions. This could result in a perpetuation of liberal values and, should Constructivism (c) hold true, these institutions could help generate a norm of appropriateness amongst non-liberal members that reflect the norms of humanitarianism. US, or indeed liberal, hegemony will remain unchallenged as the US retains leadership through international institutions, which grant it structural reach unrivalled by any other power.[ii] Further to this, due to its foreign policy outlook and potential conflict with domestic ideology it is unlikely that China will be able to credibly challenge US preponderance within these institutions, making it unlikely to challenge America’s global dominance.[iii] Other Asian powers are also unlikely to take the mantle of leadership for they either lack the political will or resources.[iv]

Finally, in regards to economic concerns (d), it is clear that the global shift east has already occurred. Quah[v] illustrates the extent to which the global economic centre of gravity has shifted away from the transatlantic axis (where it was located in 1980s) towards the east coast of Africa, and it is projected to reach the India/China border by 2049. Given the huge role of the ‘West’ in funding humanitarian intervention throughout the 1990s, directly – through NATO actions and ODA – or indirectly – through the UN, NGOs, etc. – this shift in economic potency may have implications for humanitarianism at large, but particularly intervention. This could result in a reversion to the purist notion held dear by ICRC.

From the above it becomes clear that the world order we are presented with in the 2010s contrasts with the world order of the 1990s in which we witnessed a growth of humanitarian action. It is, however, the case that what we are experiencing is not the decisive rise of a challenger to the current hegemony, liberalism, but an interregnum in which the current arbiter of liberalism, the US, is in relative decline. This could result in more instances in which we observe an almost Cold War-like stalemate indicated by the recent stand-off between Russia & China and the ‘West’ in Syria. This, ultimately may result in the return to the type of humanitarianism Rieff is so fond of.


[toggle title=”Citations”]

[i] All references to Sørensen shall be in regards to: Sørensen, Georg. (2006) ‘What Kind of World Order? The International System in the New Millennium’ Cooperation and Conflict Vol. 41

[ii] Gowan, Peter. (2004), ‘Empire as Superstructure’, Security Dialogue 35, p.259;  James, Harold. (2011), ‘International order after the financial crisis’, International Affairs 87: 3, p.533; Peter Saull. (2004), ‘On the ‘New’ American ‘Empire”, Security Dialogue 35, p.252; Wade, Robert Hunter. (2004), ‘Bringing the Economics Back in’, Security Dilemma 35, p.245-249

[iii] Acharya, Amitav. (2011) ‘Can Asia Lead?’ International Affairs 87: 4, p.859

[iv] Ibid. p.868-9

[v] Quah, Danny (2011) The global economy’s shifting centre of gravity. Global policy, 2 (1). pp. 3-9. ISSN 1758-5899


The Problems With Intervening In Syria

Intervening to protect Syrian civilians is not as simple as some have made it out to be.



[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith calls continuing for the West to do something about the mounting bloodshed in Syria, it is important to consider what an intervention would look like. While it is all well and good to say that “something must be done” in Syria, relatively little attention has been given to what that would be. As we shall see, any intervention will be troublesome.

The Pentagon has signalled that intervention would be an expensive endeavor. A report by the influential Brooking’s Institution says that an invasion and subsequent occupation of Syria would require at least 200,000 troops and cost $20-30bn a year. This is a major commitment at a time when western militaries are having to cut back in order to reduce budget deficits. For the US, this would wipe out the ‘savings’ the United States is making from withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. The situation would also likely be similar to the invasion of Iraq, with foreign troops facing widespread hostility and insurgency.

While advocates may argue that they aren’t suggesting a full-scale invasion of the type outlined above, this is what an intervention in Syria would require. While Senator McCain among others has argued that NATO can accomplish its goals with a repeat of the air campaign against Libya, it is doubtful that this will have the same result. Syria has a bigger population and many more cities than Libya, which is mostly desert with a few cities on the Mediterranean coast. With only a handful of major population centers, the campaign in Libya had much fewer targets. Secondly, the Syrian military is much larger and better armed than that Gaddafi’s was, including Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons, which could be a major threat to foreign aircraft. While in Libya the military was always neglected by Ghadafi and thus became a major source of discontent, the Syrian military is loyal to Assad, and made up largely of Alawites, who will want Assad to stay in power.

The Syrian opposition is nowhere near as strong as the one in Libya, and doesn’t control territory in the way the Libyan opposition controlled Benghazi and the eastern provinces of Libya. The Syrian opposition only controlled Homs, and has since lost it. If the Free Syrian Army is to defeat Assad they will need to hold a good percentage of Syria, and at least threaten the capital of Damascus. So far this is a pipe-dream and the only efforts in the capital have been isolated attacks. For these reasons intervention in Syria would be completely different to last year’s success in Libya. But we now know that even that success was close-run.

One suggestion for limited intervention is the idea of setting up ‘safe havens’ across the border in Turkey. Former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter has been a vocal proponent of setting up these zones to allow civilians to flee terror and for the opposition to build up its strength. Though this is a well-intentioned idea, in reality it would likely make the situation even worse. To many, Syria would be justified in invading said safe areas if an opposition army is planning to launch attacks from there. This could lead to a regional war that would drag in neighbouring countries.  It would also be very hard to enforce. Would NATO troops have to protect the border to make sure Syrian troops don’t cross it?

Another idea has been to send in Special Forces units to help the opposition. This had some success in Libya, where Qatari Special Forces worked closely with rebels. The image of Special Forces is at an all-time high right now after the successful raid on Osama bin Laden last year and other recent operations. But as blogger Robert Caruso points out, they are not “magical” and would also require substantial support units and aircraft.

Advocates of intervention need to clarify what intervention in Syria is supposed to achieve, and what the strategy would be. In Libya, the United States, France and Britain pressured the passing of a UN Security Council resolution that allowed intervention to protect civilians. But this was interpreted to mean regime change, something other states (including Russia) said fell outside the mandate. Those countries are unlikely to support a similar resolution on Syria as they feel they were misled last year. As in Libya, a mandate to protect civilians would inevitably lead to the realization that the Assad regime must be forced out. However this would be much more difficult than last years intervention, and may even make things worse.

International Interventions Post-Cold War

A critical assessment of the evolution of international interventions in the post-Cold War era with reference to theories of international relations
{School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh}



[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ollowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the substantial increase in intrastate civil conflict, it has been argued that the post-Cold War period has witnessed a significant evolution in both the justifications given for international interventions and correspondingly the characteristics of international interventions themselves. Whereas interventions in sovereign states during the Cold War were typically conceived of as being egoistic articulations of the national interest of intervening states conducted for some strategic purpose. It has been widely remarked that international interventions in the post Cold War era have been increasingly characterised by the rise of multilateral interventions justified on humanitariangrounds, where there is seemingly little discernable state interest other than moral compulsion. Nevertheless, although it is not disputed that, ‘a novel feature of the post-Cold War security agenda is how the issue of intervention for strictly humanitarian objectives, and the claim of an emergent norm of humanitarian intervention, have gained a central place in international discourse and debate’, [1] this norm is controversial. Indeed following the events of 9/11, it has been argued that the norm of humanitarian intervention (HI) has been utilised and manipulated by countries such as the United States to retrospectively justify its’ primarily unilateral actions in Iraq[2]. As a result, this essay will attempt to do three things. Firstly, it will attempt to articulate the thought behind what is considered to be the most distinctive aspect of post-Cold War era international interventions, namely the evolving norm of HI. Secondly, it will endeavour to critically assess this evolutionary claim with reference to theories of international relations, notably the realists, constructivists and post –colonialists. Thirdly and subsequently, it will attempt to conclude that the norm of HI does not represent the evolution of post-Cold War international interventions that it pertains to be. Rather, it is an idealistic justification which is somewhat of an oxymoron and is easily undermined in practice.

With the end of the Cold War and the realization of a new world order defined by US preponderance, a new phenomenon emerged in the post-Cold War era whereby there was , ‘a rash of interventions since 1989 that [looked] particularly altruistic’[3]. Unlike their previous incarnations in the Cold War, these new interventions displayed a number of characteristics which seemed to be unique and thus represented an evolution on the unilateral endeavours of the past. Driven by a need of the international community to mollify an alarming rise in ‘intrastate wars’ [4] and to find an answer, ‘to the moral challenge of what needs to be done’ [5] in such situations. A norm became prevalent in the early 90’s which justified a state or more commonly a collection of states to intervene and use military force against those states that were alleged or shown to be committing human rights violations on their own citizens. The norm of HI arose as a response from the international community and the UN to those new security challenges and situations which represented a grey area between the principle of state sovereignty and the universality of human rights. While it was articulated that, ‘in an ideal world, noncoercive efforts would produce better behaviour… states persecuting their own people are rarely responsive to peaceful gestures’ [6] and consequently, coercive international intervention was considered to be the only response to civil conflict.

Nevertheless, while the emergent norm of HI increasingly came to be seen as the distinctive representation of a progression from Cold War to post-Cold War interventions, some theorists and critics began to question this claim. While they did not dispute that, ‘idea shifts and norm shifts are the main vehicles for system transformation’ [7] and therefore that a developing norm of HI could radically change perceptions and justifications for intervention. What they did dispute is the idea that state’s own motives and interests could be somehow transcended so that nation states could be said to be acting solely from moral and altruistic concerns. Whilst for theorists such as Finnemore, ‘the 1992-93 U.S. action in Somalia was a clear case of intervention without obvious interests [because] economically Somalia was insignificant to the United States… [and] security interests [were] also hard to find’, [8] some critics disputed this claim. Rather they argued that the rising norm of HI reflected a political interest, namely the further advancement of Liberal Internationalism and therefore that there is an implicit political agenda hidden behind the seemingly philanthropic moral concern. As Dannreuther has helpfully articulated following the thought of Wheeler and Habermas:

‘it has been those who have interpreted the end of the Cold War as a strengthening and vindication of liberal internationalism, and the associated concept of human security, who have promoted humanitarian intervention as the key litmus test for the progressive development of an international solidarism, where the claims of humanity override the egoism and strategic amorality of state interest.’ [9]

Whilst the thought that there is a political and therefore intentional aspect behind the emergence of the norm of HI is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, the very fact that it has often been obscured has led many theorists from both a neo-colonial and a critical security studies perspective to question the veracity of the intervening states’ intentions.

From a liberal perspective, the emerging norm of HI represents the fulfilment of particularly liberal ideas such as human rights and freedom from persecution which are said to be inherently powerful, universal and international both in scope and resonance. However, while, ‘liberals of a more classical and Kantian type might argue that these interventions were motivated by an interest in promoting democracy and liberal values’ [10] there have been many who have criticised the notion that the emergence of the norm of HI is truly a manifestation of these so-called liberal ideas. Indeed in the realm of Critical Security Studies, theorists have, ‘condemned the practice of humanitarian intervention’ arguing that it is, ‘a smokescreen for traditional imperialist and Western geostrategic objectives’ [11]. Rather than accept that HI is borne from a concern for human security in weak or failed states, theorists such as Chomsky, echoing a realist argument, have determined that this shift towards humanitarianism is nothing but a cover for the disguise of state interest. The norm of HI may be the standard by which intervening states justify their actions but it acts as a stratagem through which states can conceal their true intentions whatever they may be. As Chomsky ruminates emphasizing the scepticism of many toward HI, ‘we can, in short, ask whether the pursuit of self-interest might happen to benefit others in particular cases, or whether unremitting public pressure might overcome the demands of the “principal architects” of policy and the interests they serve’ [12]. For Chomsky and others, the answer is open to debate. Whilst HI is often utilised by states and transnational bodies like the UN, intervention directed under the auspices of an intervening state is always liable to be driven by some ulterior motive and therefore we should not hold out hope that this emerging norm represents a true evolution.

As has been alluded to above, many theorists were quite sceptical in the early to late 90’s that the norm of HI really represented a change from what had gone before and this was derived in part from the seemingly selective way in which the international community determined which states were ripe for HI and which were not. Nevertheless, following the events of 9/11 and the U.S’s subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, these arguments become increasingly poignant as a new wave of post-colonialist thinkers brought their unique perspective to bear on events in the post-Cold War era. Writing from the perspective of the embryonic nations that were commonly intervened in by the Western powers, they were, ‘apprehensive of the new international activism and the developing norm of humanitarian intervention that could potentially threaten their sovereign status’ [13]. The post-colonialists argued that the norm of HI was not widespread but was rather a peculiarly Western conception which legitimised intervention through the dichotomy of a civilised humanitarian saviour and hopeless victim. As Ayoob has remarked, ‘the selectivity demonstrated in the choice of cases both for humanitarian intervention and the installation of international administration has had a major impact on third world perspectives on these symbiotically linked enterprises… not only has the exercise of double standards become somewhat rampant in the sphere of humanitarian intervention, it has provided the critics of such intervention with their most potent ammunition against this enterprise’ [14]. Instead of accepting that the developing norm of HI represented an evolution in the validations for international interventions, post colonialists remained pessimistic about its humanitarian overtones, reflecting that it may just be an excuse. In a post 9/11 world, where the US as the global hegemon could ostensibly intervene in states unilaterally on a whim only justifying its actions, ‘retrospectively… on humanitarian grounds’, [15] the idea that there had been an evolution in international interventions was seen as increasingly flimsy.

In light of the new security threats post 9/11, the norm of HI began to be perceived in two ways. It, ‘appeared either as parochial in the new strategic environment, or as a potentially dangerous means of legitimating interventions for other non-humanitarian purposes’ [16]. However, while many were quick to dismiss this evolutionary norm, other theorists were more forgiving and indeed reflected that although the norm of HI might be unable to be abstracted from the ideology of the nation states who constructed it, the very fact of there being a norm represented a kind of ideational evolution. Although notions of HI are undeniably Western and, ‘have been associated with Western-led ‘coalitions of the willing’ that typically brought together effective states and/or regional associations’, [17] from a constructivist perspective, this penchant toward Western values simply reflected the dominance of Westerns states and the norms they preach. Whilst post-colonialists would contend that HI has an imperialistic connotation to it due to, ‘the “standard of civilization” yardstick that was used in the nineteenth century to justify colonial subjugation’, [18] the fact of the matter is that HI is an attractive concept. Although using coercive military force for humanitarian objectives seems somewhat mutually exclusive, it has become prominent because, ‘norms held by states widely viewed as successful and desirable models are… likely to become prominent and diffuse’ [19]. As a result, while the contradictory and seemingly contingent conception of sovereignty articulated through the norm of HI is anathema to many post-colonialists; it does not follow from this criticism alone that the idea that the norm of HI represents an evolution in international interventions can be refuted.

Within the post-Cold War period, the emerging norm of HI became expressed most lucidly in the 2001 document entitled, ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P and yet this articulation exhibited a seemingly irreconcilable problem. Whilst it was recognised that the international community exhibited an increasing compulsion to act and intervene militarily when issues of human rights came, ‘under direct and serious challenge’, [20] the justifications given for intervention were extremely narrowly demarcated. Despite the title and language of the report providing, ‘a linking concept that bridges the divide between intervention and sovereignty’, [21] the report displayed an awareness that the marriage of two disparate concepts was always going to be controversial. As Ayoob has remarked articulating the position of the Chinese with regard to the norm, ‘theoretically, the conceptualization of humanitarian intervention is a total fallacy’ [22] and that is because the norm of HI is oxymoronic. By attempting to reconcile the means of coercive military intervention with the end of the protection of human life at risk of genocide or civil war, the norm of HI seems to be constructed from two mutually exclusive elements. As a result, it seems disingenuous to suggest that an intervention on humanitarian grounds truly represents an evolution on what has gone before.

After critically assessing the idea that there has been an evolution in international interventions in the post-Cold War era through the emergence of the norm of HI, it can be stated in conclusion that this norm does not represent an evolution on what has gone before. Despite pertaining to justify interventions for some higher moral purpose than the egoistic justifications exhibited by nation states in the past, the unilateral actions of the US and the West after 9/11 have reinforced suspicions that this norm is simply a cloak to hide state interest. Whereas Liberals see it as the fulfilment of particularly powerful liberal ideas such as democratisation, from a Critical Security Studies and Realist perspective, the norm of HI smacks of a justification utilised for some ulterior motive. Similarly while from a Constructivist perspective this norm is reflective of the dominance of Westerns ideals, from a Post-Colonialist perspective, this norm of HI is imperialistic, an oxymoron and legitimates intervention on flimsy grounds. In sum, whilst the norm of HI is not disputed, its’ idealistic justifications for international interventions are controversial and therefore cannot be said to represent an evolution of post-Cold War international interventions until there is a reconciliation of justification and practice.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.141
[2] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.142
[3] Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. (Cornell University Press, 2003) pg.56
[4] Roland Paris. Peacebuilding and the Limits of Liberal Internationalism (International Security,1997) p.54
[5] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.141
[6] Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering, Making Intervention Work: Improving the UN’s Ability to Act. (Foreign Affairs, 2008) p.101
[7] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, (International Organization, 1998) p.894
[8] Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. (Cornell University Press, 2003) p.55
[9] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.141
[10] Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. (Cornell University Press, 2003) p.56
[11] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.142
[12] Noam Chomsky, Humanitarian Intervention (1994)
[13] Mohammed Ayoob, Third World Perspectives on Humanitarian Intervention and International Administration, (Global Governance, 2004) p.101
[14] Mohammed Ayoob, Third World Perspectives on Humanitarian Intervention and International Administration, (Global Governance, 2004) p.99
[15] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.142
[16] Roland Dannreuther, International Security: The Contemporary Agenda (Polity Press, 2007) p.142
[17]Mark Duffield, Development, security and unending war: governing the world of peoples. (Polity Press, 2007) p.134
[18] Mohammed Ayoob, Third World Perspectives on Humanitarian Intervention and International Administration, (Global Governance, 2004) p.101
[19] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, International Norm Dynamics and Political Change, (International Organization, 1998) p.906
[20] Adam Roberts, The Price of Protection, (Survivial, 2002) p.157
[21] Adam Roberts, The Price of Protection, (Survivial, 2002) p.158
[22] Mohammed Ayoob, Third World Perspectives on Humanitarian Intervention and International Administration, (Global Governance, 2004) p.108
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