Sunday, August 02, 2009

Intervention and indifference

Ian Williams: Intervention and indifference

August 3, 2009

Two centuries ago, at the height of a war for its survival against Napoleon, the Royal Navy diverted ships to West Africa for the anti-slavery patrol. Those who wanted the trade to continue – which was pretty much every other nation except Haiti – attacked British motives as sordid, commercial and imperialist. In fact, it was the result of a huge upswelling of public opinion, strong and evangelical enough to overcome some of the most powerful commercial interests in the country.

Similar cynical accusations were bruited last week at the United Nations when the UN General Assembly debated Ban Ki-moon’s report on the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which was Kofi Annan’s greatest achievement as UN Secretary General. He had steered 150 heads of states, and their representatives present, to accept unanimously the concept at the 2005 World Summit.

Rather than the impossible task of rewriting the UN Charter, Annan persuaded the assembled leaders to reinterpret it and declare that the threats to international peace and security which come under the organization’s remit include crimes against humanity, even when committed internally by a sovereign state.

Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, is a staunch supporter of the concept and his report framed the discussion in a way that precluded overturning the principle. However, opponents at the General Assembly and their ideological allies outside were determined to undermine R2P and weaken its implementation as much as possible. In this, they were helped by the President of the General Assembly, the Nicaraguan Sandinista foreign minister Miguel D’Escoto, who questioned the document’s undermining of the state sovereignty on which he claimed the whole UN system was based.

Much less subtly, the Chinese delegate stood the whole concept of R2P on its head by declaring that there must be no “wavering of the principles of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference of internal affairs”. In contrast, Ban’s report referred with more nuance to the “abiding principles of responsible sovereignty.”

Humanitarian intervention – invoked by Hitler in the Sudetenland and Japan in Manchuria – is indeed a slippery and abusable concept. Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq as humanitarian intervention, and Moscow’s attempt to invoke in Georgia the principle it denied in Kosovo show the dangers.

Noam Chomsky, invited to speak by D’Escoto, raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor or why the UN stood by as Israel attacked Lebanon and Gaza, but claims the Nato air raids on Serbia actually precipitated the worst atrocities. This latter claim is not only untrue, but also morally unpalatable in its spurious causality. It is like claiming the RAF raids on Germany precipitated the gas chambers.

It also begs the question: does he want international action to stop atrocities in Gaza, the Congo or situations like Timor? Or is he only opposed to “Western” interventions? Would he have opposed the slave patrol that rescued hundreds of thousands from bondage on the grounds that imperialist Britain was hypocritical?

It probably did not impress him that Britain was again on the side of the angels, as Mark Malloch Brown spoke firmly in favour of the concept – and forbore to mention that, as UN Deputy Secretary General and unlike most of the current British Cabinet, he had publicly cast doubts on the Iraq war.

The astute delegate from Ghana took Chomsky to task for failing to address the principle of “non-interference” – the practice of countries’ standing by in the face of horrors across a sovereign border. The African Union’s charter specifically adopted “non-indifference.” It includes the obligation to intervene.

As enunciated by the UN, the R2P principle puts the onus of decision-making on the Security Council, which leads to further accusations of double standards, since the permanent five sit in judgment on others armed with vetoes to protect themselves. However, the problem with the Security Council has rarely been vigorous interventionism but active indifference.

Even so, there is plenty of finger pointing to do. China protects Sudan, North Korea and Zimbabwe, in the latter case following in British footsteps, since Britain once vetoed resolutions on Rhodesia. France covers for Morocco in Western Sahara, while the United States has until now automatically covered for Israel and Russia for Serbia. Equally Britain and the US were confident that their vetoes would stop their invasion of Iraq being on the Security Council agenda, just as Beijing ensures that Taiwan is excluded from the UN and Tibet and the Uighurs from its agenda.

This expediency has given opponents of the R2P plenty of ammunition, even if their high-minded declarations about the sacredness of sovereignty barely camouflage the ugly self-interest underneath. In effect, apologists for authoritarian sovereignty imply that they would happily let all murders go unchecked because some states get away with it.

Maybe it is time for Britain, perhaps with France, to set an example, and either renounce or set strict limits on any future use of the veto. It could also resume voting for Middle Eastern resolutions instead of abstaining to cover for US vetoes. It may be just what Barack Obama wants to help him with his new Middle East policy. After all, the old one, more than anything else, has made a mockery of Western pretensions to global values.

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