Friday, March 4, 2011

Ron Smith: responsibility to protect?

It seems very clear now that Libya is on the cusp. Anti-Gaddafi Libyans have liberated substantial parts of the country, particularly in the east, but the preponderance of military power, especially the air force, still seems to be supporting the regime (although reports of specific actions do suggest a lack of enthusiasm, and there have been prominent defections). Clearly, though, they could be much more effective and, if the will was there, they could roll back the uprising and inflict major losses on those involved.

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.


Brian said...

‘Responsibility to Protect’.
I would like to pose the question.
What if this revolt in the Middle Eastern countries continues and disrupts to a large extent, oil supplies to the West. (This could of course happen if the Islamic Fundamentalists manage to seize complete control of these governments and a fresh Iranian situation imperils oil supplies to Western Countries).
To reason that because the United Nations has decreed that any intervention into the internal affairs of “sovereign nations” is illegal; must we accept that jurisdiction without hesitation? When, not if, it comes down to a situation that this scenario of a lack of oil, endangers the wheels of industry to such an extent that those countries starved of oil products are in danger themselves, of a revolution from within!
What then?
Are we then justified in taking such action also in a “Responsibility to Protect”? One can but wonder at the reaction of socialistic parties when faced with this choice of survive or internal chaos? Perhaps another subsidy or tax relief being a successful policy or negating any re-action! (For a while at least)
Intervention has become a dirty word, especially when the USA tries unsuccessfully to intervene, mainly on its own behalf, which is tied whether we like it or not, to all other Western Countries.
More and more I am reminded of the appeasement of the 1930’s, and the world situation today, but burying our heads in the oil sands of the Middle East will solve only to escalate the problem, although it may win an election or two.
The chaos in Libya, and the threat to all the other Muslim States is international one not a national one, for whoever wins, you can bet your disappearing dollar the West will be the loser.

Ian said...

Brian if you are reminded of the 1930s you will remember that Japan was starved of oil (by the USA) and intervened to access oil from the Dutch East Indies. This intervention included preemptive attacks on Manila and Pearl Harbour.

You might also remember that the UN Charter was written by the USA (with a little bit of help from friends like NZ). They might have been thinking of protecting their own sovereignty when they wrote it.

The problem with intervention is that it seems OK when you and your friends do it, but not OK when someone else does it.

If lack of oil will lead to revolution in Western countries then revolution is inevitable in a few years time when oil runs out.

In 2004 a US comedian commented that he "couldn't understand how our oil got under their sand". It seems that the comment is still valid.