Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sublime Intervention!

Here's the full text: check the Guardian Comment is Free to see the Care in the Commentary it evoked.

Sublime intervention
It is difficult for some people to accept that sometimes countries do a good deed because it is actually the right thing to do.

Ian Williams

Those who make a fetish of opposition to "liberal interventionism" would have probably defended the slave trade.

As sundry public figures engage in "we are sorrier than you are" competitions about the slave trade to commemorate the 200th anniversary of its abolition in the British empire, it is worth looking at the significance of what followed. It was perhaps the first clear example of humanitarian intervention in modern history.

At the height of a war for survival with Napoleon - who was incidentally fighting bloody wars in the Caribbean to reintroduce slavery to Martinique and Guadeloupe - popular pressure forced the Royal Navy to send ships to West Africa to set up the anti-slavery patrol.

The Royal Navy, which incurred heavy casualties from disease, spent decades trying to suppress the trade, within the constraints of international law, and with varying degrees of active resistance from the French, Americans, Spanish and Portuguese. This happened despite the sugar and slavery lobby in parliament, and even though the British government at home was one of the most repressive ever - think of the Peterloo Massacre in 1919.

Tony Blair devalued the concept of "humanitarian intervention" with his retrospective invocation of it to justify the invasion of Iraq.

But that is no excuse for the anti-Samaritans of the so-called left who sneer at "liberal interventionism" as if there was something shameful at wanting to stop mass mayhem against people in foreign countries.

It is a difficult idea for some people to accept that sometimes people and countries do good deeds - like fight against the slave trade - because it is the right thing to do.

Looking at some of the guff we still see about the intervention over Kosovo, for example, I can imagine some of our current wannabe commissars' reaction if they had been around in 1807. They would have denounced the anti-slavery patrol as imperialist intervention in west African kingdoms' sovereign affairs. They would have denied that anyone died in the trade, or maybe excused the trade as a necessary step to economic development and questioned the motives of the anti-slave trade movement, filled as it was with protestant evangelists.

In fact, the modern concept of humanitarian intervention was invoked when Saddam Hussein was attacking Kurdistan after the Gulf war. When I asked the UN legal department at the time what the legal basis was, they muttered that Hitler had invoked it to invade Czechoslovakia, citing maltreatment of the Sudeten Germans. It was easy to see that, as precedents went, this one was not going far.

It was probably Blair's abuse of the concept in Iraq that led to the international commission set up by the Canadian government to rename it "the responsibility to protect", which was adopted by the UN in 2005.

Their formulation took account of the possibilities for expediency inherent in the idea.

The commission stressed that the international community - not a self-selected state - should only override state sovereignty to stop continuing or anticipated killing. It should be clear that the operations had a real chance of success and would not make things worse. Despite Blair's invocation of humanitarian reasons, his invasion of Iraq failed on almost every test of the principles - while Kosovo passed most of them.

Although the Kosovo intervention was tainted by Clinton's refusal to let it go to the UN, the support of every country in western Europe went some way to meeting that principle - and when the Russians tried to raise the issue, they were trounced in the voting. Darfur would clearly pass most of them - except for the UN security council mandate, and even there, a quarter of the diplomatic effort expended on rounding up a posse against Iran would surely get a resolution against Sudan.

Humanitarian intervention is like brain surgery: sometimes essential, but only to be used as a very last resort, and then only in the most careful way. Progress is slow. Two hundred years after the British attempt to outlaw the slave trade, the Jinjaweed are riding with impunity. But I hope it's not for much longer.

When it comes to damming rivers of blood, I would rather be a sneered at as a liberal interventionist than be a Leninist Pontius Pilate washing his hands of mass murder anywhere else in the world, defending the "sovereignty" of any mass murderer who happens to claim to be anti-imperialist.

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