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Smoke and mirrors

Most humanitarian interventions have been undertaken when they suit the interests of the U.S. and its allies

When the Cold War ended, the withering of its restraining influences spawned many ethnic and state-breaking conflicts. Also, the feeling of hubris generated in the U.S. by the demise of the Soviet Union amplified its interventionist proclivities. A combination of these factors led to so-called “humanitarian” interventions, especially in the Balkans and West Asia.

Some of these, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, did achieve humanitarian ends by preventing ethnic cleansing on a national scale. Others, as in Iraq, Libya and Syria, made bad situations infinitely worse. Nonetheless, such interventions helped create a new international norm whereby it was assumed that the “international community” — or more aptly the Western powers — had the right to intervene in countries where governments engaged in brutal suppression of their peoples. The term Responsibility to Protect (R2P), derived from a 2001 report by a high-powered commission at the behest of the UN Secretary General, became the linchpin of the humanitarian intervention argument.

R2P and its corollary, humanitarian intervention, have ended up subverting the international order rather than strengthening it, for two major reasons. First, such interventions have been undertaken with the objective of regime change but without much thought about the rebuilding of state institutions that this would entail. Consequently, they often ended up inducing state failure, which has led to people seeking security through ethnic, sectarian and tribal protection rackets, thus accentuating internal conflicts. Second, humanitarian interventions are undertaken largely at the behest of the P-3 (the U.S., the U.K. and France), who wield veto power in the UNSC and have the wherewithal to mount such interventions. Where they are unable to garner support in the UNSC they have launched interventions under the banner of the “coalition of the willing”, as in the case of Iraq. Most humanitarian interventions have been undertaken when they suit the interests of the U.S. and its allies.

Demands for intervention in humanitarian crises, such as in Gaza, that do not suit the P-3, especially the U.S., face the threat of veto in the UNSC. This is why genuine humanitarian crises crying out for intervention remain unaddressed. Most humanitarian interventions are in fact extensions of the Western powers’ foreign policies rather than genuine attempts at protecting the security of affected populations.

The related idea that the P-5 should not exercise their right to veto on issues of humanitarian intervention, while discussed in the R2P report, got no traction because the permanent members were not interested in their actions being restrained. In the absence of such a provision, R2P merely legitimises the major powers’ penchant to intervene for their own benefit. Consequently, humanitarian intervention is often little more than a game of smoke and mirrors.

The writer is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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Printable version | May 22, 2020 9:40:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/smoke-and-mirrors/article24247591.ece

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