Stopping genocide and mass atrocities – the problem of regime change

Should international action to protect people from genocide and mass atrocities every result in regime change?  Recalling Pol Pot’s murderous rule in Cambodia, Idi Amin’s reign of terror in Uganda, the fate of Liberians living under the rule of Charles Taylor, history teaches us that when states massacre and abuse sections of their own population, regime change is sometimes needed to bring the killing to an end. But some are rightly concerned that this could be used by unscrupulous governments to justify armed intervention for their own selfish purposes. In this post,  I propose five potential checks to guard against such abuses whilst recognising  that regime change may sometimes be necessary to save lives.

First, intervention must have a mandate from the Security Council. Although the Council is a highly imperfect institution, it nonetheless imposes a strong and useful procedural check by demanding that it is not sufficient for a state to simply convince itself, or its like-minded friends, of the justice of its cause when intervening. Insisting on Security Council approval demands that would-be interveners persuade their peers – including the permanent five members – to accept the case for action.

Second, states that champion intervention should be expected to demonstrate their humanitarian intent by acknowledging – through their words and deeds – a duty to prevent genocide and mass atrocities and respond in the most effective ways possible.  This requirement is potentially controversial because states are typically not well disposed to accepting that they owe positive duties towards strangers. When it comes to the question of acting to protect foreigners from harm, states – and many political theorists – tend to be more comfortable with the language of negative rights (there is a right of intervention is some situations but not a positive duty to do so) than positive duties.  However, when international society recognizes – as it has – ‘failures’ in relation to genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, it acknowledges that inaction in the face of genocide was wrong and thereby implies a duty to act in such cases. Properly understood, rights always entail corresponding duties. Rights without duties are hollow, and since it is broadly understood that there is at least a thin layer of universal rights (the right not to be killed in a genocide, for instance) it follows that there must be some universal duties. Because it would be unrealistic to expect every individual to take action to realize the fundamental rights of every other individual, duties are mediated by political institutions. This is not to say that there is a duty to intervene militarily whenever mass atrocities are perpetrated, but that actors should do whatever they can at a reasonable cost and without inflaming the situation further to protect endangered populations. Recognising a right but not a duty to protect opens the door to the abuse that is so feared because it allows states to act on their own self-interest without burdening themselves with duties. States that accept a duty to protect will not only advocate intervention when it suits other purposes, they will also dedicate resources to preventing mass atrocity crimes in the first place and to protecting civilians even when it is not politically convenient for them to do so.

The third test relates to the use of humanitarian justifications and their relationship to the known facts of the case. The simplest test of an actor’s intention is to compare what they say they are doing with what is known about the case. Do actor’s justify their behavior in humanitarian terms and is there a pressing humanitarian situation to respond to? For example, most proponents of RtoP, this author included, quickly dismissed attempts to argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a legitimate humanitarian intervention. We did so on two grounds. First, the US did not primarily justify its actions in these terms and nor did its pre-2003 policy of maintaining harsh general sanctions on Iraq evince much concern for the humanitarian situation in that country. Second, at the time of the intervention, there was no immediate humanitarian crisis that had been precipitated by the government.  Most governments and analysts applied similar logic to Russia’s attempt to justify its 2008 invasion of Georgia on humanitarian grounds, finding that there was no evidence to support claims that the Georgian government was perpetrating mass atrocities.

Fourth, the calibration of means and ends. Would-be interveners should select strategies that enable them to prevail without undermining humanitarian outcomes. This requires more than simply abiding by the laws of war. First, above and beyond the requirements of law, militaries should pay particular attention to the principle of due care in selecting targets and weapons. When the purported purpose of an intervention is to save civilian lives, failure to exhibit due care casts serious doubts on the humanitarian intentions of the interveners and therefore on the legitimacy of the operation. Second, within the boundaries of what they have been mandated to do by the Security Council, interveners should choose strategies calculated to achieve the best humanitarian outcome in the shortest amount of time and with the least danger to civilians. This requirement raises difficult questions about the relative value of force protection and civilian protection. On this question, Michael Walzer offered the compelling argument that soldiers should be prepared to accept additional risks if doing so reduced the risks faced by civilians. There are, however, limits to how much additional risk can be accepted by military personnel. As a rule of thumb, we might say that soldiers should be prepared to accept additional risk so long as it does not jeopardize their chances of prevailing. After all, when states intervene to end genocide and mass atrocities the humanitarian purpose is best served by the rapid demise of the perpetrators. That said, few things are likely to damage the humanitarian credentials of a military operation more than the perception that it is increasing the overall risk to civilians.

Fifth, states that intervene in the affairs of others ought to recognise a duty to help the country rebuild its infrastructure, restore its autonomy, and re-establish its self-determination. This is somewhat related to the idea of jus post bellum – the notion that the ethics of war includes an ethical commitment to building peace afterwards – but is particularly important in this setting as further surety of a state’s intention to fulfill humanitarian goals. A concern might be that a demonstrative commitment to peacebuilding might give rise to a new form of imperialism through the imposition of certain institutions or modes of governance.  To avoid this, perhaps the best vision of what is required ethically is Michael Barnett’s notion of ‘republican peacebuilding’ – peacebuilding focused on supporting a people’s capacity to govern itself. Institutional checks on this potential problem might include a requirement that peacebuilding activities be channeled through the UN’s Security Council or, better still because the state concerned is a key participant, the UN Peacebuilding Commission.

We can be confident in thinking that interventions aimed at halting genocide and mass atrocities that satisfy these five conditions – Security Council authorization, recognition of humanitarian duties, an obvious connection between justifications and known facts, the calibration of ends and means, and evident commitment to long-term peacebuilding – are pursued primarily with humanitarian intent.  We may also feel confident that in such circumstances the causal flow between protection and regime change is in the right direction – namely, that if it occurs, regime change is a contribution to the pursuit of protection from genocide and mass atrocities. It would be difficult indeed to think of a situation in which these five tests were satisfied but where the causal chain flowed in the other direction (protection used as a vehicle for regime change). What is more, the tests present substantial hurdles that will be difficult to jump in practice. Not only should this provide reassurance to those still wary about the potentially negative impact of protection induced regime change on the principles of sovereignty and self-determination, it will also ensure that  instances of protection induced regime change remain, as they have to date, rare and exceptional.

Alex Bellamy

Human Protection Hub

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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