Monday, October 6, 2008

Editor's Introduction - October 2008

“Making Intervention Work.” by Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering. Foreign Affairs. September/October 2008.

Recent events, including armed conflict and natural disaster, have alerted the international community of the critical demand for mechanisms that allow for the safe and effective facilitation of humanitarian intervention. To an increasingly larger extent, diplomacy, campaigns of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the international media play a significant role in raising awareness of human rights abuses and violations that occur worldwide. However, according to authors Abramowitz and Pickering, despite numerous calls to action, the United Nations remains the major enforcer of international conventions and norms.

“There have been remarkable advances in the fields of human security and human rights…terms such as ‘never again’ and appeals for ‘humanitarian intervention’ and a ‘responsibility to protect’ have become commonplace.”

Regardless of idealistic conceptions of enforcement and intervention, advocates, governments, and NGOs remain hampered in their efforts to protect lives on the ground. Thus, securing and providing for communities ravaged by war or natural disaster is increasingly stymied by political inaction and repression. In responding to such crises, Abramowitz and Pickering call for a revamped and reinvigorated United Nations to provide the much needed legitimacy, capability, and resources to protect those in need.

“Reinvigorating the UN–which is still perceived by most countries as the preeminent institution providing international legitimacy—will be essential. What is needed is a streamlined UN decision making process, ready UN access to military and other forces, and strong investment in diplomacy by key states and institutions.”

In making their recommendations on reforming the United Nations, Abramowitz and Pickering focus on restructuring the Security Council, establishing a limited peacekeeping force, and investing in high-level diplomacy. But, for the authors, improvements to the United Nations system will only be successful if they occur in conjunction with the continued participation of advocates, governments, and NGOs. Moreover, efforts made by the international community, particularly those made by governments and politicians, must take greater account of public sentiment surrounding human rights atrocities.

“These measures would not necessarily resolve the world’s many humanitarian disasters, nor do they represent the final word on these matters. But they would offer a greater likelihood that strong international action would be taken in the most challenging situations.”

Abramowitz and Pickering realize that simply restructuring the United Nations will do little to resolve problems of intervention. Specifically, more must be done to include the international community in the complex mechanisms and practicalities that ensure effective and legitimate intervention in all cases.

These issues and others are considered in this month’s Roundtable.


Has the Iraq War Torpedoed the "Responsibility to Protect"?

by William F. Felice, Eckerd College

"Unfortunately, such pleas that call for strengthening global governance to forcefully intervene inside sovereign states, in the name of human rights and humanitarianism, will most likely be resented and then ignored by the majority of the world’s states and peoples. To a large degree, this is an unfortunate legacy of the Iraq war."

At a U.N. World Summit in 2005, the nations of the world approved the “responsibility to protect.” This emerging principle of international law, charges each individual state with the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. If a nation fails to protect its populations from these barbarities, the nations of the world declared that they would act, through the Security Council, in accordance with the U.N. Charter, to stop the violence against innocents everywhere and protect imperiled peoples. In theory, Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter gives the member states the military muscle to intervene inside a sovereign state in order to prevent future Rwandas.

Former U.S. Ambassadors Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering, in this month’s Roundtable centerpiece article, advocate certain instruments to allow the U.N. to enforce the “responsibility to protect.” The Ambassadors seek to empower the U.N. to effectively “face down governments that massively mistreat their people.” The Ambassadors’ three-prong line of attack involves a “streamlined U.N. decision-making process, ready U.N. access to military and other forces, and strong investment in diplomacy by key states and institutions.” To accomplish these objectives, Abramowitz and Pickering hope that the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members— China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—could agree “not to use their vetoes to block proposals for coercive intervention in extreme humanitarian crises.” They further make the case for the creation of a standing army of 25,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops to add credibility and professionalism to U.N. peacekeeping operations and to be able to militarily intervene quickly in a humanitarian emergency. In this regard, the authors go beyond the areas of jurisdiction outlined in the “responsibility to protect,” which were limited to interventions to stop genocide, war crimes, ethic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The Ambassadors argue that the U.N. should also be ready to intervene with force after a natural disaster (hurricanes, cyclones, and so on) when a national government is doing little to aid the survivors.

Unfortunately, at this moment in history, such pleas from former American Ambassadors that call for strengthening global governance to forcefully intervene inside sovereign states, in the name of human rights and humanitarianism, will most likely be resented and then ignored by the majority of the world’s states and peoples. To a large degree, this is an unfortunate legacy of the Iraq war.

After exhausting the other rationalizations for the war in Iraq (WMD, al-Qaeda connections, and so on), the Bush administration justified its killing as a humanitarian action to bring democracy and freedom to the oppressed Iraqi people. The so-called “liberal hawks” in the U.S., in particular, supported this call for a humanitarian intervention to liberate the Iraqi people from the brutality of the Hussein regime. Yet, as is well-known, the overwhelming majority of the nations of the world vehemently rejected these arguments for war before the 2003 intervention. In fact, it was not just the governments who opposed the war, but according to opinion polls the overwhelming majority of the world’s people as well. An unprecedented global anti-war demonstration took place in sixty countries, involved eight hundred cities, and included over ten million people around the world. This outpouring of protest was all designed to prevent a war from breaking out. Never before in history had such an event occurred before a war had actually begun.

As the U.S. ignored these voices, the world’s peoples looked to the U.N. to represent their interests. With their veto power, France, Russia, and China were able to prevent a U.N. endorsement of the globally unpopular U.S. preventive war in Iraq. This U.N. action—standing up to the biggest military power in the world—was ridiculed inside the U.S. But, outside this country, the majority of the planet applauded the U.N. and the international organization gained a new level of legitimacy.

There are at least two conclusions to draw from this recent history that are relevant to the Ambassador’s proposals to strengthen the U.N.’s ability to intervene for humanitarian purposes. First, this Iraq experience led many to a new appreciation for the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council. As a result, this may be the wrong time for Abramowitz and Pickering to be calling for a “blunting of the power of the veto” during a humanitarian crisis. To many in the Southern Hemisphere, this call will most likely be seen as an attempt to blunt the power of Russia and China and open the door for U.S. unilateralism abroad. Even though the Security Council did not prevent the U.S. from invading Iraq, it was of tremendous moral significance that the U.N. refused to endorse this effort. Any talk now of removing or down-grading the veto power from those who opposed U.S. actions, will smack of retribution.

Second, the Iraq experience confirmed for many the ways in which the language of “humanitarian intervention” is used by the powerful to advance their interests at the expense of the weak states. Abramowitz and Pickering’s proposals to empower the U.N. could thus be seen as merely a means to give the powerful more freedom to intervene in the affairs of the weak. This will not necessarily increase global cooperation in response to humanitarian emergencies. Unfortunately, the great powers consistently analyze humanitarian crisis through the lens of national interest and act accordingly. China’s support and protection of the genocidal regime in Sudan comes foremost to mind.

As with China, the U.S. is also viewed by many as highly hypocritical in its human rights and humanitarian actions. The U.S. recently had an opportunity to change this negative reputation of utilizing the language of human rights and humanitarianism to advance an agenda of power politics. In September 2008, Hurricane Gustav devastated Cuba, damaging more than 100,000 homes and wiping out key sugar and banana-growing regions. The cumulative storm damage has been placed at $3 billion to $4 billion. Despite this humanitarian crisis, the U.S. has been unwilling to relax the outdated trade embargo and let Americans help Cuba. Instead, the U.S. offered Cuba a paltry $100,000, with enough “strings” attached that the State Department knew Cuba would reject the offer. This fiasco has again demonstrated that the U.S. applies “humanitarian” aid and intervention to promote its foreign policy agenda. It was a lost opportunity for the U.S. to prove its critics wrong.

Until the major powers—including China and the U.S.—demonstrate a firm commitment to humanitarian principles across the board, proposals to strengthen the U.N. bureaucracy ring hollow. It is putting the cart before the horse.

William F. Felice is professor of political science and head of the international relations major at Eckerd College. Dr. Felice was named the 2006 Florida Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is the author of The Global New Deal: Economic and Social Human Rights in World Politics (2003), Taking Suffering Seriously: The Importance of Collective Human Rights (1996), and numerous articles on the theory and practice of human rights. More information can be found on his department website


The Responsibility to Protect and the Failure to Respond

by Todd Landman, University of Essex

"Any assessment of the plight of billions of people around the globe will undoubtedly recognize that real efforts to match in reality what is pledged rhetorically requires some sort of commitment, or “buy in” from today’s great powers. The proposals offered by Abramowitz and Pickering will need to confront the challenge of incorporating humanitarian and human rights concerns into a realist world."

Commentators on global politics frequently observe the abject failure of states and global institutions to respond to local, regional, and global crises ranging from dramatic climatic events, humanitarian crises, warfare and violence, to the continuation of unsavoury rights-abusive regimes. In my own work in the field of the comparative politics of human rights, the types of observations that Abramowitz and Pickering make in this piece are all too common, and have led many in the past to make similar such observations that powerful states constantly engage in a grand human rights “double standard.”

In a 1999 article in the New York Times Magazine, David Rieff argued that the selective intervention of states on behalf of human rights is a tragic betrayal of an otherwise impressive “triumph” of human rights in the latter half of the twentieth century. Stephen Krasner has long argued that powerful states will pursue human rights policies when they are in their interests to do so. Somewhat more critically, in Theory and Reality in the International Protection of Human Rights, James Shand Watson contends that the failure of states to prevent a century of state-led violence, genocide, and continued rights abuse, proves that human rights are merely a fiction.

Beyond these various arguments, systematic empirical analysis of foreign aid allocation shows that states behave strategically in often ignoring the human rights practices of recipient states (particularly now during the “war on terror”), while other cross-national comparative research shows that the impact of international human rights law on state behavior is non-existent, counter-intuitive, or in the case of my own research, “significant, but limited.” Indeed, it appears that domestic processes of economic development and democratization, coupled with greater openness to international linkages through non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations serve as important supporting conditions for improvements in human rights protection on the ground.

Any assessment of the plight of billions of people around the globe will undoubtedly recognize that real efforts to match in reality what is pledged rhetorically requires some sort of commitment, or “buy in” from today’s great powers. This, however, is an old chestnut of internationalism that has been with us from the early realist arguments found in Thucydides and Machiavelli, through the attempts to establish the League of Nations, the debates to give real teeth to the United Nations, the latest efforts to fortify the security and rights mechanisms within the U.N. (as well as within the regional systems of Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia), to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

In addition to the different experiments mentioned by Abramowitz and Pickering, I would add the Community of Democracies (which is restricted to democracies) and the U.N.-sponsored International Conferences of New and Restored Democracies (which are open to all member states) that have been organized since 1988 and currently chaired by Qatar. But any of these projects is always subject to the realpolitick of the great powers, whoever they may be at the time a potential solution is offered. Abramowitz and Pickering are fully cognizant of this point as they discuss the difficulty of overcoming the veto on the U.N. Security Council and in realizing their modest idea of a small U.N. force that could respond to various crises in the world. In addition to the absence of response to the typhoon in Myanmar, the impotence of the United States and European Union in the face of the situation that developed recently in Georgia shows the limits and additional challenges to breaking this cycle of selectivity.

Perhaps one way to proceed is to start to cast human rights and humanitarian arguments in realist terms. Is it not in the national interests of states to surround themselves and to associate themselves with what Jack Donnelly calls “rights-protective” states? Can the rationalist approach and the realist paradigm (even in their most material manifestations), as well the real decision makers within the world’s great powers, incorporate the idea that the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights are actually in their interests as an end in themselves and as a means to achieving greater overall security and peace?

For too long, such arguments have been cast as against realism rather than within realism. Some worry that repeating the realist mantra (especially to international relations students) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the observable behavior of states in terms of their selective attention to the world’s humanitarian and human rights problems (either immediate or long term) suggests that the balance of evidence still very much weighs in favor of the realist perspective. It thus seems that if any progress can be made, it is within realism and within the minds of policy makers who are worried about national interests and national security on a daily basis. The proposals offered by Abramowitz and Pickering are certainly laudable, but their realization will need to confront the challenge of incorporating humanitarian and human rights concerns into a realist world.

Dr. Todd Landman is Director of the Centre for Democratic Governance, Department of Government, at University of Essex. He is author of Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics, 3rd Edition (Routledge 2008), Studying Human Rights (Routledge 2006), and Protecting Human Rights (Georgetown 2005); co-author of Governing Latin America (Polity 2003) and Citizenship Rights and Social Movements (Oxford 1997); and co-editor of the Sage Handbook of Comparative Politics (Sage 2009). Dr. Landman has served as international human rights and democracy consultant for UNDP, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, CIDA, DFID, DANIDA, IDEA, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands, Foreign Ministry of Mongolia, International Centre for Human Rights Policy, and Minority Rights Group International. His personal website can be found at


Improving the Agents and Mechanisms of Humanitarian Intervention

by James Pattison, University of West England

"Much of what I have said may give the impression that I think that we should abandon the U.N. as the focus of peace operations. This is mistaken. The frequently-highlighted inefficiencies of the U.N. are, in practice, overshadowed by the understated, but notable, successes that it has with its peace operations."

I agree with the broad thrust of Abramowitz and Pickering’s article. They rightly highlight the failings of the current agents and mechanisms of humanitarian intervention. The problem, however, is twofold. First, all the currently-existing interveners possess notable, and well-known, flaws. The U.N. and regional organizations suffer from serious shortfalls in funding and equipment. States frequently lack the commitment and willingness to act. And, although NATO’s operations in Bosnia and Kosovo raised hopes that it would be a willing and powerful humanitarian intervener, the reluctance of many of its members to commit troops in Afghanistan (where member states have clear interests) has cast serious doubts over whether it can be relied on as an effective agent of humanitarian intervention in the future (where the interests of its members may be less clear). Second, there are problems with the authorization of intervention: there are many occasions when humanitarian intervention should be rapidly undertaken, but is not because it has been stymied in the U.N. Security Council. There needs, then, to be notable improvements if the international community is to possess the capacity to intervene effectively for humanitarian purposes when necessary.

However, I am less convinced that the solutions offered by Abramowitz and Pickering would do much to improve the international community’s capabilities in this regard. To start with, take their suggestions that concern the authorization of force and, in particular, the proposal to curb the use of the veto. This has been mooted for a number of years (for instance, it was suggested by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 (ICISS)), but there has been little, if any, indication of a willingness by the permanent members (P-5) to restrain themselves in this way. I fear that this is a political dead end. What we need instead are alternative, additional sources of international legitimacy. Indeed, this is one reason why the notion of a “league of democracies” has been floated. Other options for improving the authorization of intervention include the strengthening of regional organizations (more on that later), a reinvigoration of the Uniting for Peace procedure of the General Assembly and, more ambitiously, the development of cosmopolitan democratic institutions, such as the world parliament endorsed by Andrew Strauss and Richard Falk. My point is that finding alternatives to the U.N. Security Council is the best way of making it work. These alternatives would pressurize the Council into making the right decisions more often, for fear of losing power and influence.

Abramowitz and Pickering also present two proposals for improving the mechanisms to undertake humanitarian intervention: (i) a contribution of 5,000 troops from each of the P-5 (a 25,000-strong force in total); and (ii) a 5,000-strong autonomous U.N. rapid reaction force. There is reason to be cautious about the first proposal. Having the P-5 authorize, and then undertake, their own interventions could risk putting too much power in their hands. The second solution, however, has more merit. Indeed, I have written elsewhere that such an option is the most desirable long-term solution to the problems faced by the current agents and mechanisms of humanitarian intervention.

That said, the particular proposal made by Abramowitz and Pickering of 5,000 troops would run into a number of problems. If the force fulfilled its role in one region in the world, it would not be able to intervene elsewhere. The need for rotation of troops would also mean that it would be a “one-shot option.” That is, after undertaking one mission, it would not be able to intervene for a number of months afterwards while its troops regenerate. Furthermore, there may be no backup troops forthcoming to replace the force, which would leave it with the dilemma of either leaving, thereby letting the crisis go unresolved, or staying, and thereby depriving others access to its protection. Moreover, having funded the force, states would expect it to remove some of their peacekeeping and intervention burden (or humanitarian relief burden), and therefore may be less willing to provide troops and equipment themselves. As such, this proposal, if established, would add little to the currently-existing options.

To be fair, Abramowitz and Pickering seem to see this force as a stepping-stone to something more significant. But the same problems would apply to a larger, more developed force (including their other suggestion of 25,000 troops from the P-5). To be more valuable, a standing U.N. force would need to be much larger. But this leads to problems of its own, including feasibility and the potential for abuse.

Accordingly, I still believe that regional organizations offer the best solution for improving the capacity to intervene. The potential of the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) in particular is substantial. To be sure, both institutions are currently a long way from being able to conduct major humanitarian interventions by themselves. But given their general support for humanitarian intervention (e.g., in the African Union’s Constitutive Act) and the interests that they possess in halting humanitarian crises, we should pursue the development of their capacities. A stronger AU and EU will add much to the ability of the international community to undertake humanitarian intervention.

Much of what I have said may give the impression that I think that we should abandon the U.N. as the locus of peace operations. This is mistaken. The frequently-highlighted inefficiencies of the U.N. are, in practice, overshadowed by the understated, but notable, successes that it has with its peace operations. Likewise, the problems that UNAMID has had getting up to strength in Darfur should be put into the context of what is a boom time for U.N. peace operations. According to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, there are, as of August 2008, 107,503 troops, police, observers, and other officials serving in 16 U.N. peacekeeping operations. This is the largest number of peacekeepers to date and, what is more, it looks like this number will continue to grow. Of course, this should not be a reason for complacency. We should continue to improve the agents and mechanisms of humanitarian intervention to build on the U.N.’s abilities and to offer more options when faced with the mass violation of basic human rights. Augmenting regional organizations’ capacities would be one way to do so.

Dr. James Pattison is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the West of England, U.K. He recently completed his PhD on humanitarian intervention, for which he was awarded the “Sir Ernest Barker Prize for Best Dissertation in Political Theory.” He has written various articles on the ethics of war and intervention and is currently working on a book on the Responsibility to Protect for Oxford University Press. Please visit his website:


Reforming Humanitarian Rescue

by Brent J. Steele, University of Kansas

"The U.N. performs many functions very effectively—but armed humanitarian rescue has never been one of those. While the authors fully recognize the problems with the U.N. as it currently stands, in my view the main issue is the constitutive basis of the U.N. itself."

There is much to commend in Morton Abramowitz and Thomas Pickering’s article “Making Intervention Work.” They propose to reform the United Nations’ capacity for intervention with the creation of an autonomous U.N. force largely constituted with forces contributed by the Security Council’s member-states. If such a force were kept to a minimal operational mission, “a small rapid-deployment force with special engineering, logistical, medical, and police skills,” as the authors suggest, then I think this is a good idea. If such a force would, however, become more than this—an autonomous army of military personnel meant to intervene with force into any humanitarian crisis in which it is needed or sanctioned—then I fear this would be a counter-productive entity.

I do concur with the authors’ important points on the obstacles inherent in democracies that make their propensity for intervention very rare indeed. This is a point that Samantha Power most stridently made in her seminal book A Problem From Hell. Leaders in liberal democracies see all risks and no rewards in pursuing an intervention to stop a genocide, although Power also seemed to think that liberal democracies were still the most likely actors to recognize the horrors of genocide. Yet I’d even take Abramowitz and Pickering’s argument further—perhaps the reason why liberal democracies are risk-averse when it comes to genocide is because they are liberal, in a classic philosophical sense. By focusing on the self-interest of individuals, and forming a government around those interests, such regimes are not meant to initiate any “other-regarding” sentiment in their populaces, even if they pay lip service to such a notion in speeches and ceremonies promoting the phrase “Never Again.”

Had I read this proposal ten years ago, I would have been whole-heartedly behind its prescriptions. And still today I applaud the attempt by these authors to try and resolve a problem (humanitarian crisis) seemingly desperate for a systematic solution. But in 2008 I am less inclined to see this as anything more than another “top-down” one-size fits all solution to a “type” of crisis (humanitarian disasters) that is as diverse as it is urgent. In short, I do not see the U.N. resolving these crises—even an autonomous force of “first responders” would still be log-jammed with bureaucratic obstacles. The U.N. performs many functions very effectively—but armed humanitarian rescue has never been one of those. While the authors fully recognize the problems with the U.N. as it currently stands, in my view the main issue is the constitutive basis of the U.N. itself. The U.N. was created to promote sovereignty and stability. To paraphrase the tenor of many English School theorists, the U.N. is here to promote order, not justice. In a world of nation-states, such an entity constituted by states will not be able to transcend the Westphalian tension between national and international interests.

So I would suggest that in order to support humanitarian intervention we need to by-pass the nation-state as rescue’s main instrument, and instead look towards non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even private military firms (PMFs). These come with costs, of course, but in humanitarian crises, debate and consensus-building cost precious time and lives. NGOs and PMF’s are quicker and more efficient. NGOs are most preferable—because as glorious as an armed intervention against a genocidal regime or militia may be, the most comprehensive way to save lives is still the well-organized distribution of medical and food aid. PMF’s of course challenge the monopoly of violence that the sovereign state is supposed to have, but if sovereign states have no interest in intervention, then PMF’s are a potentially prudent last resort, as Michael Walzer suggested in a recent article in The New Republic. Again, this is one of several possibilities that should be considered depending upon the context of the humanitarian crisis. Such a complex problem deserves a diverse array of solutions, but I am afraid that the solution proposed in “Making Intervention Work” would have limited feasibility, if it ever came to pass in the first place.

Brent J. Steele is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. His primary research interests cover a wide array of international relations topics, including international ethics, international political theory, United States foreign policy, Just War theory, ontological security theory and international security. In addition to his first book, Ontological Security in International Relations, he has published articles in journals such as International Relations, International Studies Review, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of International Relations and Development, Millennium and, Review of International Studies. Please visit Dr. Steele’s website: