|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives | Search|
By Conor Foley
8 May 2008
There is an alternative to 'humanitarian invasions' and 'philanthropic imperialism' and it deserves our support
Archbishop Desmond Tutu's call for a joint UN-African Union (AU) observer mission to Zimbabwe, following the success of Kofi Annan's to mediate an end to the post-election crisis in Kenya, points to a welcome development in the debate about humanitarian interventions.
Tutu specifically links his proposal to the UN's "responsibility to protect" doctrine and points out that article 4 of the AU's charter gives it the power to "intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity [as well as a serious threat to legitimate order]". He stresses that "military intervention should only be a last resort" and that the mere presence of unarmed observers from other African countries may help to quell the violence.
The more I read about the way in which the debate about "humanitarian interventions" is portrayed in Britain, the more obvious it becomes how much confusion surrounds the concept. This seems to be mainly due to Tony Blair's attempts to hijack it for the invasion of Iraq, which has led some on the left to conclude that humanitarianism itself is a sham. Many supporters of the Iraq war also continue to argue that the UN's weaknesses in previous humanitarian crises, such as Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, means that the system of international law embodied in the UN Charter should be discarded, or re-written, and that some other body should be given the authority to decide when military interventions on humanitarian grounds are justified.
Norman Geras last week, asked whether the AU clause authorising interventions represented "a subtle shift away from sovereignty recognized by international lawyers" and if this meant that international law might be different in Southern Africa to the rest of the world? The answer to this is, of course, a fairly simple "no", but Tutu's proposal actually highlights how multilateralism is beginning to reassert itself, after the mauling it received from Bush and Blair's unilateral adventurism.
The AU was created in 2002, to replace the largely discredited Organisation of African States. It is quite self-consciously modelled on some of the institutions created in post-war Europe, which were backed at the time by the US Marshall Plan. The purpose of the union is to "help secure Africa's democracy, human rights, and a sustainable economy, especially by bringing an end to intra-African conflict and creating an effective common market". The clause in its Charter authorising interventions was inserted five years ago and is something of an innovation because it specifically refers to war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.
However, the UN has a similar power, contained in chapter VII of its charter, which refers to interventions to "restore peace and security". This power can be delegated to regional bodies, such as the AU, which has already authorised such interventions in Sudan's Darfur region as well as Somalia. Both interventions have, to put it mildly, been controversial, but they are part of a global trend towards regional peacekeeping.
Brazil's role leading the UN mission in Haiti and Australia's role in East Timor are the best known of these, but there have also been lower profile interventions, such as the role of the Organisation of American States in defusing the recent crisis between Colombia and Ecuador, and the successful observer mission to Aceh by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
A more interventionist approach by regional bodies makes sense from lots of perspectives, not least because, in the post-Iraq world, the west has lost both its moral stature and political will to take on the role of world policeman that it adopted during the 1990s.
This became increasingly evident in the debates about Darfur, where Bush and Blair's sabre-rattling were exposed as an empty bluff. With western troops bogged down in two large scale conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and western public opinion sick of seeing their soldiers come home in coffins, it was painfully obvious that a military mission was not going to fight its way into Darfur and forcibly disarm the Janjaweed militia. As Alex de Waal, who took part in the AU's attempt to mediate an end to the crisis, noted "humanitarian invasions" and "philanthropic imperialism" have become discredited concepts.
A regional approach to peacekeeping emphasises diplomacy over the threat of military force. It also requires western politicians to recognise that their rhetoric can inflame situations. They may, however, need to be prepared to play an active backstage role providing financial and logistical support to operations, such as providing air support to the Darfur mission.
Although cliches about Africa continue to predominate in the western media, now is actually quite a good time to be optimistic about the continent. It is at its most peaceful for any time in decades, is currently enjoying a spurt of strong economic growth and has more democratic governments now than at any time in its history. That is not to downplay the problems, particularly from the current food crisis, but it is to suggest that the west needs to start thinking differently about the longer-term future. Archbishop Tutu has argued that if the AU can play a positive role in resolving the Zimbabwe crisis it could "demonstrate that Africa has the capacity and the will to resolve a great crisis in a manner which mitigates the suffering of African people". It deserves all the support that the west can give it to do so.
Source: Guardian Unlimited