Friday, March 4, 2011
Ron Smith: responsibility to protect?
According to media reports from those on the ground, it is clear that the insurgents would appreciate help and this could be decisive, especially if it were to focus on interfering with the Libyan Airforce’s ability to operate; effectively, this would be the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’, of the kind that was imposed on parts of Iraq, after the Gulf War. The crucial question is who might have the capability and the obligation to do this. Not New Zealand, of course. In a general way, we might be said to have some obligation to help, simply as a community that enjoys the sort of democratic freedom that the people of Libya are striving for. But we are a long way away and, crucially, we do not have the capability required. Such as we used to have, is quietly corroding-away in a field somewhere and we pointedly declined the opportunity to update this capability when we had the chance.
The Russians and the Chinese will continue to block any effective action by the United Nations. They both reserve the right to deal with their own citizens in much the same way as Gaddafi is dealing with his. That leaves the Europeans and the United States. In practical terms, it probably leaves the United States, since there are few, if any precedents for effective action without them. The model here is the American-led NATO intervention to end the Kosovo genocide in 1999, during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. So what will President Barak Obama do? My suspicion is that, after two years of apologising to the world for American exceptionalism and their persistent tendency to impose themselves on the world, he will do as little as he can and as late as he can and try not to cause any offence in doing it. If others (European powers) do enough to support the Libyan people in their struggle, or if Gaddafi’s supporters (particularly the military) lose enthusiasm for his idiosyncratic and generally atrocious regime and progressively decline to support military action against the rebels, we may yet still see the dawn of a new era (fraught with problems though it will be). On the other hand, we may find ourselves witnessing a very considerable fresh massacre of the innocents then and making empty threats about war crimes trials, for the newly restored Gaddafi-family dictatorship.
In tutorials, I sometimes discuss individual moral obligation in terms of simple hypothetical examples. In the first, someone comes across a very young child in difficulty in a shallow pond. The person could easily save the child at the expense (at the most) of getting their feet wet. In such a case, we would think it very strange if the person concerned did not do so. To put it differently, we might say that individuals in this sort of case have a moral obligation to act. Of course, we can think of harder examples. The same child has fallen overboard from the Cook Straight ferry in a gale. In such a case, we might think that the recognition of obligation carried such a cost that we would not condemn a person who failed to act (although we still might admire someone who did). Can the principle be applied to whole communities (states), and, if it can, is the Libyan case closer to the ‘ornamental pond’ end of the spectrum than it is to the ‘Cook Straight’ end?
In the Libyan case, there are, of course, costs and these go beyond the possibility that those serving in the armed forces of states that do intervene on the side of the people are killed. There is a risk that the Libyan people themselves come to resent the intervention, notwithstanding that some of them appeared to request it. There is also a risk (no, a certainty) that other parties who are not anyway well-disposed to the United States use it as an opportunity to condemn it and plan retaliation. And of course, it will then be ‘all about the oil!’ In addition, there is the fact that intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state is contrary to international law. There are also accidental risks: innocent civilians are harmed, or the casualties amongst the intervening troops are unexpectedly high. This certainly isn’t the ‘pond’ case but neither is it the ‘Cook Straight’.
The United Nations has recently agonised over the extent to which the international community has an obligation to protect the innocent, even against their own governments. The concept has been advanced under the title, ‘Responsibility to Protect’. If we believe it, perhaps Libya is an example, and action is required.
at 7:31 PM