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Interview on Humanitarian Intervention

Academic Foresights, 6, 1er octobre 2012

How do you analyze the present state of humanitarian intervention ?

There is no unified or coherent doctrine of humanitarian intervention yet. The debate has been going on for centuries, always with the same criteria from the just war doctrine (legitimate authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportionality, reasonable chances of success, etc.) but there is no consensus on their respective content, because each country understands these criteria relative to its own interests.

The concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) since 2001 did not change anything in that respect, despite the efforts of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (CIISE) to reach a global consensus with its roundtables all over the world, and the fact that the concept was accepted by the so-called “international community” at the 2005 UN World Summit.

R2P is not a legal obligation to intervene – it encompasses much more than mere intervention as it also includes prevention and reconstruction. It is a political and moral call to do so, gambling on the constructivist presupposition that it will affect state behaviour via identity. States want to appear “responsible”, so they will act. Prestige is indeed a strong incentive to act on the international stage, but this is counterbalanced by more traditional “national interests”. In the case of Syria, for instance, our will to look “responsible” is offset by the prudential (the risk to do more harm than good), the political (Obama is in a difficult re-election campaign) and the economical (the Europeans are broke).

R2P is a slogan that has some media efficacy but a rather dubious legal existence. That does not prevent the majority of observers asserting that it was the basis of Resolution 1973, authorizing intervention in Libya. That is not true either. The Resolution reiterated the internal responsibility “of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population”, but nowhere did it speak of an external responsibility of the international community to intervene. This does not imply that the concept did not play a role in the motivations of certain permanent members, only that it is not considered as a consensual “norm” worthy of being explicitly mentioned.

The intervention in Lybia did not represent an implementation of a purportedly universal “responsibility to protect”, but an ad hoc consensus among powerful states. Moreover, it was motivated by both humanitarian reasons and national interests, as British Prime Minister David Cameron explained in his March 18 speeches evoking the security risk for Europe, posed by terrorist threats and potential migration pressure. It is also a question of moral image and political gain. Nicolas Sarkozy used the intervention to consolidate his presidential calibre and keep the failures of French diplomacy in Tunisia and Egypt out of the limelight.

Humanitarian intervention has always been more a practice than a doctrine, and it will certainly stay that way.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years ?

Paradoxically, the intervention in Libya could open the door to a period of non-intervention. Check the 1990s, the so-called “golden age” of interventionism. In reality, this decade is uneven. Interventions in Iraq and Somalia (1991-1993) led to a phase of non-interventionism, with the disastrous consequences we saw in Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1995). Then, partly because of the guilt produced by these genocides, interventionism came back at the end of the decade, with Kosovo and Timor (1999), but with increased care (cost-free intervention or casualties aversion doctrines). Interventionism failure leads to non-interventionism, and non-interventionism failure leads to interventionism, and so on.

It is therefore not impossible that the combination of circumstances which led to the intervention in Libya in 2011 will not repeat itself in the next five years. Firstly, that was a very special context : the intention to commit massive crimes (mens rea) has never been clearer since Rwanda, than when Gaddafi wanted to purge the “cockroaches”. The exactions occurred very quickly, hastening the pace of the international reaction ; and there was a consensus between the West and the Arab League which even Russia and China did not oppose.

Secondly, a repetition of this combination of circumstances is even less probable now that, despite its relative success, we start to understand the mid-term consequences of the intervention on Libya and the Sahel region, with Russia and China feeling they were abused, having authorized a “humanitarian” intervention which evolved into a regime change.

That argument is not convincing, because Resolution 1973 authorized NATO to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. If Gaddafi’s regime was the threat of these civilians, how can one expect us to protect them without toppling the regime ? Regime change in that case was not an end in itself (as it was in the illegal and illegitimate US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003), but a means to an end. And, for that reason, Resolution 1973 was not abused.

Even if this may be the case, the fact is that Russia, China, and many other countries now believe it was abused, and therefore are less likely to support a similar intervention in the near future.

What are the structural long-term perspectives ?

I don’t believe in a codification of humanitarian intervention, even in the long term, through an amendment of the Charter, or an independent convention, for at least three reasons. The first one is simply that the criteria – why, where, when, and how to intervene ? – will always be contentious, because they will always be understood in the light of divergent national interests.

The second reason is that there is no political will to reach a consensus. Strong states have no reason to change the rules of a game they already control, whilst the weaker states are too afraid to provide new excuses to intervene. Aiming to such a consensus is politically correct : states all feign interest in playing this cosmopolitan game of an “international community” which does not really exist. But in actual fact, no one truly pursues it.

The third reason for which a consensus is very unlikely is the incapability of Western states to fully understand the point of view of their former colonies, which do not have a memory as short as ours. The only way to reduce the gap is not doctrinal, but practical : future humanitarian interventions need the collaboration of more non-western states. In that respect, the participation of Arab countries (Jordan, Qatar, UAE) with the intervention in Libya was important and we should have communicated more on that aspect.

Another way to proceed in that direction is the global reform of institutions we have been talking about for decades. But, here again, it is very unlikely because the five permanent members of the Security Council, which enjoy an illegitimate monopoly on the use of force (illegitimate because it is not representative of today’s world balance, which is not that of the 1945’s, it is moreover morally controversial since two of the members are not democracies, and the veto power is highly problematic), will block any reform weakening their power.

That being said, I don’t believe in prophecies in international relations. I am very sceptical about our ability to determine any long-term perspectives.

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