The UN doctrine can justify military action where citizens need protection – but it does not provide a practical guide…
The western dilemma about intervention in Syria has just deepened. Arguments rage about the justification, legality and legitimacy of a military attack, especially without UN Security Council approval, and about any attack’s aims and effectiveness. President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is morally repugnant, and poses un-duckable challenges to the international community. The justification for any military response cannot be punishment, but has to be deterring further use of such weapons, and protecting civilians in particular. So, does the UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which provides for the international community to intervene when a Government is not protecting its own citizens, oblige a response? And would military strikes in fact protect civilians?
From my experience as UN emergency relief co-ordinator, humanitarians are deeply and rightly sceptical of military interventions presented as for protecting civilians. The unintended consequences tend to be severe, including further civilian casualties, as we saw all too clearly in Iraq. The impact on humanitarian operations themselves can be very damaging: those attacked all too readily lash out at aid organisations, particularly NGOs seen as western-based. In my time at the UN, relief efforts in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur and Somalia were constantly at severe risk from this kind of backlash from perceptions of direct or indirect western intervention, with poorer outcomes and many deaths of aid workers as a result.
The responsibility to protect rightly increases the pressure to act when civilians are suffering. But it does not provide a practical guide to what should be done, which has to be case-specific and fully thought-through. This responsibility was not used in the conflict in Darfur from 2003 onwards, despite the large-scale civilian casualties: it looked unlikely that one-off strikes would have any effect, and no-one was prepared to intervene on a large enough scale to change the nature of the conflict.
The same has always been true of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s dreadful and continuing wars. There was an attempt to invoke the responsibility to protect when cyclone Nargis devastated the Myanmar delta in 2008 and the Government initially refused to allow in international aid workers, but this was rightly rejected as almost certain to make things worse.
One-off intervention did take place in Iraq in late 1998, after Saddam Hussein had refused yet again to co-operate with the UN inspectors. Cruise missiles pounded Baghdad for several days; sadly, there was little or no evidence that this significantly changed Iraqi behaviour. The 2011 intervention in Libya was justified by the responsibility to protect. It changed the regime, but the jury is still out on whether overall it saved civilian lives, during the conflict and since.
The precedents are therefore not necessarily helpful. If the western powers are not trying to change the general military balance in Syria, it would be a leap of faith to believe that the regime would be shaken enough by a one-off batch of cruise missile attacks to change its overall behaviour, engaged as it is in a life and death struggle, with some powerful international support. But it is possible that it could be deterred from using chemical weapons again because the cost of doing so would be too high. That would be a worthwhile gain, and send an important message for humanity overall even though it suggests that we don’t really mind if the regime kills and maims civilians by conventional means.
Nevertheless the overall consequences for civilians need to be factored into the decision making, in the context of the current massive humanitarian disaster: more than 2 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, and millions more inside Syria are desperately in need. However supposedly surgical the strikes, significant numbers of civilians are likely to be killed. Moreover, humanitarian aid operations will certainly be disrupted, in both Government and rebel-held areas, and may even be damaged permanently. I saw for myself how relief activities in Iraq and Afghanistan never recovered after the interventions there, as many of them became not only too dangerous but also ineffective because of local attitudes.
More people may die as a result. The impact on the course of the civil war itself, and its consequences for civilians, are hard to predict, and may not be positive. For now, the best thing outsiders can do to improve the humanitarian situation is to make sure the aid agencies have the resources and access they desperately need.
– The Guardian