No. 349: Complex History Dogs Life-Saving Interventions / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
2 November 2015
More than 3-million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996, while more than 200,000 people have died in Syria in the past four years. "Why," ask many, "is this slaughter allowed to continue?"
Contemporary debates about humanitarian intervention can be summarised as a tale of two cities — San Francisco and Bandung — and of two countries, Rwanda and Libya. All four are symbolic of different phases of these debates.
The United Nations (UN) was born in the US city of San Francisco in 1945 with very little substantive participation by African and Asian states. The veto-wielding Great Powers on the UN Security Council established a system in which they would determine when, where and how military intervention could take place. The Bandung conference held a decade later saw 29 Asian and African countries establish new norms of intervention and fight for the complete liberation of both continents.
Western intervention had colonised much of Africa and Asia and brought them under European "sovereignty" using bogus legal principles such as terra nullius: as these territories were inhabited by "native savages" in an era of a perverse Western mission civilisatrice, they could be carved out among European imperial powers.
In order to protect their sovereignty after gaining political independence, developing countries thus felt that they needed to ward off further Western interventions. Many looked to a rules-based UN to preserve their territorial integrity and independence. They also paradoxically sought to use the world body to conduct military and economic interventions in Africa and Asia in support of liberation struggles.
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 forced African countries to modify notions of absolute sovereignty after the Cold War. Western acts of omission and commission in Rwanda — with the US and the UK forcing the withdrawal of a 2,500-strong UN mission, and France having trained and armed genocidal militias — most graphically illustrated the hypocrisy and double standards at the heart of debates on intervention. Due to the trauma of the genocide and other devastating conflicts in Liberia, Somalia and Angola, Africans were forced to abandon their historical commitment to nonintervention. Unlike the Organisation of African Unity, the African Union allowed interference in the internal affairs of its 54 member states in cases of egregious human rights abuses. Nigeria launched humanitarian peacekeeping missions into Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and SA into Burundi and the Congo in the 2000s.
While Africa was forced by necessity to become more interventionist, the rest of the "global South" remained sceptical. China consistently led opposition to US-led "humanitarian interventions" in Kosovo (1999) and Iraq (2003), stressing that sovereign governments had the primary responsibility to protect populations at risk. India was similarly critical of both interventions. Brazil explicitly rejected the distinction of powerful Western states between legitimacy and legality, and also considered the interventions to be illegal.
The military intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in Libya in 2011 — justified on humanitarian grounds, but widely viewed as part of a "regime change" agenda that destabilised the region — greatly damaged the emerging norm of a "responsibility to protect". The Libyan intervention was supposedly launched to pre-empt Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's massacre of protesters in Benghazi, but resulted in Gaddafi's killing in his hometown of Sirte. France violated a UN resolution that it had authorised by providing arms to the rebels.
SA and Nigeria, as nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, voted to support the Nato intervention in Libya. President Jacob Zuma's administration was, however, later stung by criticism within the African National Congress that it had opened the way to a Western "regime change" agenda. Along with its Brics allies (Brazil, India, China and Russia) on the security council, SA accused Nato of having abused its "responsibility to protect" mandate in Libya and firmly opposed a Western repeat of a "regime change" intervention in Syria. Beijing called for "responsible protection"; Brasilia advocated "responsibility while protecting", seeking to ensure the accountability of interveners such as Nato to the security council; while New Delhi noted that Libya had given "responsibility to protect" a "bad name". Following these events, it has clearly become more difficult to secure support for humanitarian intervention at the UN.
Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg