The right to intervene
IN 2002, the Canadian government issued a policy paper entitled The Right to Protect. The paper proposed that, notwithstanding Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter which prohibits “interference in the internal affairs” of a state, the UN should legislate that where a government is grossly violating the human rights of its own people, or is unwilling or unable to protect them from such gross violations, the international community should have the right to extend such protection.
The massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia were cited as instances where such international protection would have been justified.
The Canadian proposition was widely endorsed by western countries and by the human rights ‘community’. But it faced strong opposition from the non-aligned and developing countries as well as from Russia and China. They argued that such a proposal contravened a fundamental principle of the UN Charter and would justify foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign states on the pretext of protecting human rights.
The majority of the UN’s small and medium states sensed that they would be the principal ‘objects’ for such ‘protection’, whereas no decision could be realistically taken to intervene against a major power. For Pakistan, the world community’s indifference to the plight of the Kashmiri people was a singular example of this reality.
After lying dormant for a few years, the Right to Protect was revived by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a report to the 2005 UN millennium summit. During the summit’s preparatory discussions, Pakistan and some other developing countries pointed out that, in fact, international law already provided for international action to prevent and punish genocide as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In such instances, both the UN Security Council and the General Assembly were empowered to act. These ‘crimes’ were fairly well defined. However, these crimes could not be equated with human rights violations which lack the same gravity and legal clarity, for example, the right to free speech, association and so on. The UN Charter does not envisage or authorise international intervention to prevent such violations
The compromise reached was for the UN summit’s declaration to include a chapter entitled ‘The Right to Protect against Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity’. Both the title and the language of the one paragraph it contained delineated the limitation of the so-called ‘Right to Protect’ to these three serious crimes.
Nevertheless, advocates of the ‘right’ have persisted in seeking the intervention of UN human rights bodies in selected developing countries, including Sudan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Myanmar and Iran. It was, however, the internal conflict in Libya that allowed the Right to Protect to “go viral”.
Approval was obtained for a UN Security Council resolution authorising the international community to protect civilians in Libya “by all possible means”. This phrase was then liberally interpreted to include aerial bombardment, arms supplies and special operations to support the insurgency against the Qadhafi government.
The success of this unprecedented form of ‘distance’ intervention was due to several unique factors, including Qadhafi’s personal unpopularity and Libya’s regional and tribal divisions. Despite this, it took six months to oust a dictator with a rag-tag army. The aerial bombing strained Nato’s military resources. The US, initially reluctant to become involved in another conflict, was obliged to ‘lead from behind’.
The ‘success’ in Libya appears to have whet the appetite of the humanitarian interventionists. The US, even as it is withdrawing its ground troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, has warmed to the notion of a ‘distance intervention’, with no ‘boots on the ground’ and thus no casualties. The Libyan precedent has emboldened and accelerated external involvement in Syria.
As in Libya, President Assad’s Alawite regime is undemocratic and ‘separated’ from the majority of its Sunni population. Israel and the US were reluctant until recently to support regime change in Damascus for fear of ushering the Islamic Brotherhood to power. They seem now to have embraced change because Assad’s ouster will be a significant strategic blow to Iran, their current major adversary in the Islamic world.
Turkey and the Gulf Arab states were also worried initially about the destabilising effect of regime change but now believe this is inevitable and desirable to curb Iranian power. All hope that the Assad regime will be replaced by some form of moderate Islamists like the Turkish ruling party.
Such a benevolent outcome is by no means assured in Syria. The chaotic rule of the militias in Libya is not a reassuring precedent. The Americans have themselves reported that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia may be involved in the anti-Assad bombings.
In any case, unlike Qadhafi, the Syrian regime is unlikely to collapse because of ‘distance intervention’. Its elite forces have remained loyal to the regime so far. The opposition does not seem to be coherent and cohesive enough to win on the battlefield or to negotiate a compromise with the Assad regime. The intervention of a credible interlocutor, like Russia, may be required to evolve a peaceful solution.
There has been considerable condemnation of the Russian and (supportive) Chinese veto of the Arab-western resolution in the Security Council. These vetoes were not surprising. Russia and China, with the majority of the developing countries, have traditionally opposed external intervention in the domestic affairs of states. They objected specifically to language in the resolution calling on Assad to transfer power to his deputy. In fact, the surprise was the positive vote cast by India, South Africa and Pakistan in favour of foreign intervention India and perhaps South Africa may feel they are immune from any future utilisation of the Right to Protect against them. Pakistan must know it has no such immunity. Its internal fissures are legion.
Foreign-funded groups within, and ‘international NGOs’ abroad, constantly pillory Pakistan on human rights and ‘democracy’.
The instruments of ‘distance intervention’ — drone attacks — are already being utilised against its territory. Was it wise for Pakistan to vote directly opposite the one country — China — to which it would appeal to quash a similar resolution against Pakistan?
Regardless of what transpires in Syria, the developing countries, together with Russia and China, should promote the following steps to “curb the enthusiasm” of the new interventionists: First, a call by the UN General Assembly to restrict the use of drones and similar aerial attacks to targets which are specifically authorised by the Security Council.
Second, a clear reaffirmation by the Assembly that international intervention must be strictly limited, as agreed at the UN summit, to instances of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Third, the imposition of strict limits and transparency on the foreign funding of ‘civil society’ organisations, NGOs, political parties and human rights organisations.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.