Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Responsibility to Protect Iraqis?

CANBERRA – Only one possible justification – moral, political, or military – exists for renewed Western or other external military intervention in Iraq: meeting the international responsibility to protect victims, or potential victims, of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, other crimes against humanity, or major war crimes.

Shia and other non-Sunnis in the path of the marauding ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) – a group whose ideology and behavior are too extreme even for Al Qaeda to stomach – have plenty of reason to fear such atrocities. Ugly executions of military and other captives have undoubtedly occurred in Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities seized by ISIS.

But, based on the evidence currently available, it would be premature to conclude that violence against the defenseless has already occurred – or is imminent – on the scale necessary to justify outside military intervention.

Though pundits have been wrong about almost everything so far in this round of violence, the best current assessment of the overall military situation is that the acute phase of the crisis is past. The mobilization of Shia militias means that the nightmare scenario, the fall of Baghdad, is unlikely, despite the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army.

According to this view, a protracted civil war can be expected, with the most probable long-term outcome being a permanent partition along ethno-sectarian fault lines. In this scenario, the Kurds would control the north, the Sunnis would rule in the west and center, and the Shia would hold power in Baghdad and the south.

It is difficult to make a case for military intervention to prop up the current government and try to enable it to re-establish authority over the entire country. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, has been brutal, corrupt, and outrageously sectarian – deeply embarrassing his supporters in the United States and sometimes even his patrons in Iran. Taking his side in an inter-communal civil war, even if it aided the much-needed US rapprochement with Iran, would simply add fuel to the Middle East cauldron.

Things might be different if al-Maliki could be persuaded to step down in favor of a broad-based Shia-Sunni-Kurdish administration, determined to govern inclusively and create an effective, non-political national army. Massive diplomatic effort certainly should be mobilized to achieve this goal. But this project has failed in the past, and the domestic leadership needed to ensure its success is nowhere to be seen.

Even if such an optimal political outcome were achieved, it is difficult to see what value could be added by external military intervention intended to destroy ISIS as a militant Sunni force. Maybe the limited advisory and technical support now on offer from the US would be of some use.

But, beyond that, air strikes require targets – elusive when no armies are on the move – and all too often they produce innocent civilian casualties. And even 150,000 pairs of foreign boots on the ground were insufficient to stabilize the country after the horribly ill-judged US-led military intervention in 2003.

None of this means that an external military option should be ruled out in the event of mass atrocity crimes occurring – or being imminently feared – at the hands of ISIS or anyone else. In 2005, 150 heads of state and government at the United Nations unanimously supported an international responsibility to protect (“R2P”) at-risk populations, which in extreme cases could take the form of Security Council-authorized military intervention, as happened in 2011 in response to the behavior of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.

Disagreement about the use of that mandate to pursue regime change, rather than only protection of civilians, paralyzed the Security Council in the face of similar atrocities in Syria. But international support for basic R2P principles remains strong, with the Council itself continuing to use “responsibility to protect” terminology in its resolutions and statements (26 times, at last count, since Libya). It is not impossible to envisage a consensus re-emerging should a sufficiently horrifying new atrocity occur in Iraq.

Of course, no such intervention will, or should, be approved in practice unless it is seen as satisfying several moral or prudential criteria, which, though not yet adopted by the UN as formal benchmarks, have been the subject of much international debate and acceptance over the last decade.

Those criteria are that the atrocities occurring or feared are sufficiently serious to justify, prima facie, a military response; that the response has a primarily humanitarian motive; that no lesser response is likely to be effective in halting or averting the harm; that the proposed response is proportional to the threat; and that the intervention will actually be effective, doing more good than harm.

These criteria, particularly the last, will always be difficult to satisfy. But, should an obvious case for action arise in Iraq, we should not be so consumed by the desire not to repeat the misguided intervention in 2003, that we fail – as we did in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and so often elsewhere – to respond as our common humanity demands.

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    1. CommentedCam Jennings

      Gareth thank you for your opinion here regarding the current situation in Iraq and your closing statement highlights a point that is so important, if we are to not repeat the mistakes of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. The Middle East is a complex cauldron and it is our conundrum for a while yet.

    2. CommentedRodrigo San Jorge

      Couldn't agree more, Mr. Evans. A pity your Prime Minister doesn't see it that way. He is currently returning would-be Iraqi, Syrian and Sri Lankan Asylum Seekers - who have survived the trek to Australia - back to their respective countries to face almost certain death. Actually, that's not correct - he says they have a 50/50 chance of survival. Even as I write, there are 200 "missing" Tamal Sri Lankans who were handed over to the Sri Lankan navy last week and are currently unaccounted for. So much for Australia preaching morality to the corrupt governments of the world.

    3. CommentedNathan Weatherdon

      Generals know better than anyone how terrible war is. But their first concern is for their own soldiers, not enemy soldiers. Therefore, we should never look to them for moral direction.

      I would not consider "moral, political, or military" as one reason. In fact, it troubles me that someone with such a long history of influence can so easily group together "moral, political and military".

      Unless I misunderstand the argument and he's saying that only one of these criteria can be applied at the same time, due to contradictions in the differentiated conceptual lenses provided from these perspective.

      In any case, if US or NATO troops end up back in Iraq, I certainly welcome the idea of adopting civilian protection as a first principle.

    4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Garreth Evans asks whether there is a "responsibility to protect" Iraqis. The UN doctrine - "responsibility to protect" or R2P - was born out of the humanitarian disasters of the 1990s in Kosovo and Rwanda. It was drawn up for use in cases if governments are either unable to protect their own citizens or are themselves a threat to them. The doctrine was supported by "150 heads of state and government at the United Nations" in 2005.
      Yet there is no international court on hand, that can give the legal go-ahead to intervene militarily. In order to have maximum legitimacy, the use of force to protect civilians should be authorised by the UN Security Council. So far there was only one case that took the "form of Security Council-authorized military intervention, as happened in 2011 in response to the behavior of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya". Although over 160.000 had died in Syria, there is no appetite for another UN Resolution 1973, which ultimately led to the death of Gaddafi in October 2011.
      Many Syrians are embittered by the callousness of world leaders, who have done nothing to stop Assad from slaughtering his own citizens. Western governments argued that in the case of Syria, - unlike Libya - there was no request from regional organisations like the Arab League and the African Union for UN intervention. The mercurial Muammar Gaddafi was not respected and popular among world leaders. On the other hand Bashar al-Assad has Iran as a staunch ally in the region and Russia in the UN Security Council. China has been vetoing all resolutions that it sees as an interference in others' domestic affairs.
      Besides the Libyan experience had had a negative impact on China and Russia. Since Gaddafi's ouster, Moscow has vowed to veto against any resolution that will lead to a regime change. The most important argument had been Syria's strategic location. Should Assad's regime fall, instability would spill across the borders to Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. Today the dynamics of sectarian violence in Syria are deeply felt in neighbouring countries.
      Even if the ISIS poses an existential threat to Iraq and all of the criteria for a UN authorised military action were met, it would not resolve the sectarian strife, once extremism is decimated. Iraq needs a political solution. The question is whether the leaders of the Shia-led government are willing to share power with others and whether the ethnic minorities - Sunnis, Kurds and others - have the patience to help develop a decades-long process to democratise their country.

        CommentedCam Jennings

        Gareth Evans raises some good points to consider regarding the current situation in Iraq. Also, J. VON HETTLINGEN has an interesting reply that also address some thought provoking points. Thank you to the writer again for this piece.

    5. Commentedm r

      This article, rich on all that would be nice to do but should NOT be done is devoid of what is there to do- hence just a self- indulgent diatribe. May be thus we should leave the disease alone as the possible "external" cures are sure to be much worse. Patients also have rights and are NOT just the doctor's meat.

    6. CommentedDavid Johnson

      "in favor of a broad-based Shia-Sunni-Kurdish administration, determined to govern inclusively and create an effective, non-political national army. Massive diplomatic effort certainly should be mobilized to achieve this goal."
      Wouldn't it make more since to try and push for 3 new countries as you describe in the article?

        CommentedEdphil Kenneth

        David you just helped to Say it all.The Iraqi debacle encompasses more than the U.S fit-for-all approach can solve.The divisiveness is deep and the motivation is visceral.Peace would not be at a distance if the country is divided on the basis of this motivations.It would help stabilize not just Iraq but the entire region as well.