Impractical Pragmatism: A Reply to Pape

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Source: The Telegraph

In a recent article, Robert A. Pape has proposed a new ‘pragmatic standard’ for humanitarian intervention. Following the UN-authorized intervention in Libya and the ongoing crisis in Syria, Pape’s piece is part of a growing academic literature which focuses on how best the international community can respond to mass atrocities. However, in seeking to revitalize the notion of humanitarian intervention, Pape, like other recent works such as Pattison (2010), is quick to dismiss the role of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P).

The R2P doctrine, certainly, does not represent a perfect standard. But there are two key issues with his approach. First, he presents a substantial misreading of it, one in which the R2P doctrine’s widespread international support (marked by its inclusion in the World Summit Outcome document in 2005 and in the UN General Assembly debates held on it in 2009 and this year) is ignored. Second, there is little evidence that his standard would work more effectively than the R2P doctrine; rather, his criteria deliberately would limit intervention only to the ‘easiest’ cases of mass atrocities.

Pape sees the R2P doctrine as having three main weaknesses. These are, however, questionable weaknesses in themselves and represent only a narrow reading of the 2001 ICISS report, rather than of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which represents the international consensus on what the R2P doctrine is, nor does he refer to any developments since such as the Secretary-General’s 2009 Report on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect which proposed the three pillar strategy. The first weakness, he argues, is that because the Responsibility to Protect lacks a clear standard, it obligates the international community “to intervene in almost any instance of human suffering, including natural disasters, disease, failed states, and collateral violence to civilians during civil wars” (52). In both documents there is clear limiting language he does not quote- the ICISS Report argues it applies in situations of large scale loss of life through either deliberate state action or neglect or a failed state situation, or large scale ethnic cleansing (32), while the Outcome Document notes that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” This explicitly does not include most of the situations he notes above. Further, we have the example of how state practice has evolved since 2005. When French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argued that the R2P doctrine should be invoked following the government of Myanmar’s failure to allow in assistance following Cyclone Nagris, his claims were rapidly dismissed.

Second, he argues the R2P doctrine “fails to identify the levels of casualties that interveners should accept among their forces…” (51-2). Because it offers no clear guidance, he suggests this would “effectively obligate them to commit vast resources…” (52). Given that this argument focuses purely on the causalities among the intervener’s forces, and gives no weight either to the tactics used or civilian lives affected, I find this troubling but can at least understand the communitarian logic. But this presumes an individual state is required to respond. The R2P doctrine creates no such obligation to respond with military force to all situations which would fall within the doctrine- once again citing the Outcome Document, it establishes that the Security Council may take collective action “on a case-by-case basis … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations.”

His third concern is that the R2P doctrine “would obligate the international community to engage in ambitious nation building in the aftermath of an intervention.” (52) Not only does this represent a narrow reading of the ICISS Report, particularly its ‘Responsibility to Rebuild’ which was not included in the Outcome Document, but such an obligation clearly has not been invoked in any of the cases where the R2P doctrine has been used, including most obviously Libya.

His misreading of the R2P doctrine is problematic, but does his standard have benefits? His alternative threshold for mass homicide is crossed when a government “when it has killed several thousand of its citizens (i.e., 2,000 to 5,000 un-armed protesters, bystanders, or those commonly called “civilians”) in a concentrated period of time (i.e., one to two months), and it is likely to kill many times that number (i.e., 20,000 to 50,000) in the near future, an often credible likelihood when hundreds of thousands or more are fleeing for their lives” (53). This presumes that a number – rather than language such as ‘manifestly failing’ – provides a better indicator for action. But by focusing solely on the government, it ignores other situations which could lead to similar loss of life such as a rebel group in de facto control of state territory which engages in such killing or a failed state situation. Yes, such situations would not necessarily require a violation of state sovereignty, but would fall within the state’s responsibility to protect its population. Further, he argues that such a threshold has not been crossed all that often, but this is simply an artifact of data – as Alex Bellamy’s recent work demonstrates, there have been “103 episodes since 1945 where at least 5,000 civilians in any given year were intentionally killed.”

But the threshold is only part of his argument – he also argues that interventions should only occur if military operations can be “effective” (55), a word he reduces down to “low costs” to the would-be intervener (as a counter-example, Pattison has a far better discussion of what effectiveness actually means to both the interveners and the state acted upon). He uses three interventions in the 1990s and Libya in 2011 to identify key conditions for low-cost intervention: an identifiable and separable target population, local allies, international coalitions, extreme imbalance of power and lucrative targets for over- the- horizon power.

There are a few issues here. He has a curious reading of history with respect to these cases. For example, with respect to Northern Iraq in 1991, he argues the “United Nations authorized armed intervention to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq…” which is simply wrong as I have noted elsewhere. Further, his criteria can apply in this case only by ignoring the fact that the Gulf War had just been fought and that Saddam Hussein’s government had little capacity to oppose military action. Presumably factoring in the costs of that war would remove this from the ‘low cost’ intervention success category. Similarly, the suggestion that Bosnia was a case in which “the United Nations authorized military action to protect the Bosnian Muslim” in March 1993 neglects the fact that the creation of the Srebrenica safe area did not include any mandate change to the UN Protection Force. And, except for a brief footnote which mentions the massacre (55) there is no discussion of the collapse of that safe area leading to the genocidal deaths of over 7,000 Bosnian males, nor that this ‘successful’ intervention took some three years and large scale deaths to bear any fruit.

More broadly, however, his criteria fail to address what are probably the two biggest weaknesses of the R2P doctrine. The first by prioritizing only low cost interventions, it assumes that the international community should never take action in hard cases. He provides no answer to situations like Syria and Darfur, the crises which truly ‘shock the conscience of mankind.’ Military interventions may not have worked in either of these cases, but the R2P doctrine (as opposed to his pragmatic standard for humanitarian intervention) provides ways for the international community to take action short of intervention.

The second is how does an intervention under the pragmatic standard end? The Libyan intervention has been widely critiqued for the resulting regime change. Yet Pape specifically dismissed the role of regime change- his standard “does not require the use of military force to replace the government” (56). But, linking this to the above criteria means his solution is, in effect, the creation of a safe area. This is not necessarily a problem in itself, but the lessons of the safe areas from the 1990s are that they tend to be expensive and long lasting- the Northern Iraq safe area cost $2.7 billion and lasted only through a continuous no –fly zone which existed for twelve years.

Pape’s laudable goal is to save lives. Unfortunately, his pragmatic standard does little to improve upon the R2P doctrine and instead represents a regression back to the debates of the 1990s. Beyond his assertion that this standard could be codified (80) there is little to suggest it would be widely supported, nor would it offer any solution to the true hard cases of mass atrocities.

Phil Orchard

Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations, School of Political Science and International Studies

University of Queensland