17 May 2011

Are extra-judicial killings the new US foreign policy tool?

Written by  Mark Paterson

The idea of a sovereign power's "responsibility to protect" its citizens, or R2P as it is known in diplomatic circles, has gained prominence since it was invoked to justify intervention in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi vowed in February to fight to "the last drop of blood" against protesters challenging his rule. The R2P idea, which has come under increasing scrutiny as the prospects of protracted war in Libya grow, was adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2005, when the global body said "every government has a 'responsibility to protect' its citizens from genocide and sustained human rights violations".

When governments turn on their people, the terrors can dwarf the consequences of conventional wars. The 13-million people slaughtered in Nazi death camps bear testimony to the horror unleashed when states murder their citizens and those for whose care they are responsible.

The 17th-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, seeking to stem murderous anarchy in his treatise Leviathan, posited the idea of a "social contract": individuals sacrifice the freedom to do as they please (which includes killing each other) and cede power to the state in exchange for a guarantee of safety. The idea was later developed to place obligations on the state: if a government failed to safeguard its citizens then it ceded its mandate to rule.

The concept informed the development of European nation states from 1648. However, in the past 20 years, it is Africa that has given the idea its most coherent expression. During the 1990s, Sudanese scholar-diplomat Francis Deng formulated the notion of "sovereignty as responsibility". The idea was amplified in a key speech in 1999 by then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. The address was informed by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The risk of another mass slaughter never left the minds of the founders of the African Union (AU) — making the body a pioneer in incorporating R2P ideas into its Constitutive Act of 2000.

The concept has also been put into effect more fully in Africa than almost anywhere else. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened his 2009 report, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, by referring to the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, where about 300 000 people have died since 2003. UN missions in Africa account for 70% of the world body's peace keepers. In addition, African regional organisations, such as the Southern African Development Community, have crafted collective security measures, including brigades that form a 15000-strong army — the African Standby Force — to protect civilian populations.

After the crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, and accusations that the UN had stood by while civilians were slaughtered, diplomats have honed the concept of R2P, creating detailed criteria for when and how external powers may intervene. A 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty said such "extraordinary" action must be for a just cause, have the right intentions (meaning no subversive agendas), be used as a last resort, be authorised and executed by a legitimate authority, adhere in action to the legal principle of proportionality, and have a reasonable prospect of success.

However, implementation of R2P can quickly muddy what may have previously appeared a clear rationale for intervention.

Once war is declared — and the imposition in March of a "no-fly zone" by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in Libya has been such a declaration in fact, if not in name — everyday rights and wrongs become hard to distinguish.

The moral force of the R2P concept as an argument for war subsists in the numbers of those who have been, and are likely to be, killed. At the beginning of the civil strife in Libya, dozens of protesters were reported by witnesses to have been killed by government forces. Human rights monitors put the early death toll at hundreds. However, these numbers soon grew in the hands of those supporting war. White House adviser Dennis Ross cited the "imminent possibility that up to 100 000 people could be massacred". The British and French leaders, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, talked of saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

By contrast, little heed was paid to arguments that Gaddafi's intentions were not as genocidal as his rhetoric indicated — security analysts described the leader's threats as attempts to intimidate rather than predictions of mass slaughter. The political climate has now become such that ceasefires proposed by the Libyan government have been dismissed as trickery — and when Tripoli accused Nato of killing civilians, military staff said this was "misinformation".

If any weight were lent to the Libyan government's promises, then Nato could no longer claim its intervention was being conducted as a "last resort", as R2P requires. From the AU's point of view, the western powers conducting the assault have deliberately thwarted its peace efforts. SA's former president, Thabo Mbeki, accused Nato of using its no-fly zone to prevent a planned AU delegation from entering Libya. On the day an AU peace mission finally breached the blockade at the beginning of last month, Nato launched one of the biggest series of air strikes of its campaign.

Subsequently, the split in the international community has widened, with US President Barack Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy calling on Gaddafi to "go for good", while the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) have said the use of force in Libya should be avoided. Clearly, the Nato countries that are permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain and France — wish to cede to themselves whatever powers are necessary to achieve their war aims. As a result, fears have been stoked that the intervention is backing one side in a civil war — rebel forces of east Libya under the flag of King Idris (the former friend of the West, who ruled with an iron fist) against those of the colonel who deposed him in 1969.

The scale of the suffering in Libya is clear: the UN estimates 500 000 people have fled the country. However, protracted, bloody regime change flies in the face of key R2P criteria — the intervention's "proportionality" and the "prospect of its success" in saving lives. The mechanism was not designed to provide justification to powerful states seeking the overthrow of national governments.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that the interventionists seem to be moving away from increasingly tenuous justifications based on R2P. Nato's air strikes on Gadaffi's compound in Tripoli, which killed one of his sons, were attempts to assassinate a head of state. Obama claimed "justice has been done" after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. It appears extra-judicial killings have become a foreign policy tool of choice for Washington.

The Greek historian Thucydides, who propounded theories of international relations more than 1 400 years ago, noted in his History of the Peloponnesian War that the "strong do what they can and the weak accept what they must". In Washington, Paris and London, Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron may well win domestic kudos for their international adventures. But the violent show will prove less appealing to the civilians caught in the crossfire of Libya's civil war.

Paterson is co-editor of, and a contributor to, a special African issue of the journal, GR2P: Global Responsibility To Protect.


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