ISIS, the UN, and
The Responsibility to Protect

Dear Virtual Editor,

The latest human rights outrages in the Middle East have brought me to reflect once again on the fate of civilians.  This time both of my countries are involved and both are once again in danger of heading down a futile path.images-2

I find that I have no less than three posts on the subject of protecting civilians.  I have reconsidered some of the details and noticed a couple of errors, but I remain committed to the principle that humanitarian concerns should be the focus of every policy related to the region— not choosing up sides in wars. The atrocities of ISIS make that focus more important than ever in determining policy. Like most people, my visceral reaction to these outrages is a desire to strike at ISIS with lethal violence.  That, however, is the unwise counsel of a character on Duck Dynasty (really) and will solve nothing.  I offer here an alternative to the same deadly and futile policies that western nations have followed for too long.

In the 15 August 2014 post, “Can the International Community Save Palestinian Civilians?”,  I argued that if Israel really had to go into Gaza to defend itself, it should do so courageously with ground troops who were under orders to use their weapons only in response to attack or the imminent threat of attack.  That would require true courage. Using bombs and missiles and killing civilians is cowardly.

Responsibility-to-ProtectI also mentioned a UN mechanism called Uniting for Peace, and a doctrine called Responsibility to Protect (R2P).  The Uniting for Peace Resolution provides a possible way to get around the outdated veto authority of the permanent members of the Security Council. That was important because the Security Council will never authorize any action to protect Palestinians.  In the current crisis, however, the resolution may not be needed.  Almost no nation in the world, much less a Security Council member, opposes finding a way to confront ISIS.  The question is, what is the best way?  To provide another fig leaf for NATO and the U.S. to wage war, or for a higher purpose that would do more for the West than “winning” another war.

R2P-soldiers-with-kidsThat brings us to Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which I also discussed briefly.  Canadians can be justly proud that the doctrine is the product of a commission established by former Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy.  In short, the doctrine provides that nations forfeit some of their sovereignty when they are unable or unwilling to protect their people from the most egregious human rights abuses–or worse, are themselves perpetrators.  In such instances, the world community has a responsibility to protect civilians. In 2005, the UN world summit of 150 government leaders unanimously endorsed the doctrine.  This was no small development.  It challenges an international norm that goes all the way back to the 1600’s stating that nations have complete sovereignty over their internal affairs. There is no question that present day Iraq and Syria meet the preconditions for intervention under R2P.

So, the problem this time may not be that the Security Council will not act.  In fact, the council could authorize NATO and the 10-nation coalition the Americans are assembling to act under the authority of R2P. Canada is a member of both groups.

(You will notice that neither Iraq nor Syria lie anywhere near the North Atlantic. The only NATO member in the area is Turkey and the Turks are the least enthusiastic of the coalition. Like the March of Dimes after the eradication of polio, NATO has had to find a new reason to exist.)

Coalition_action_against_Libya.svg-2The real question is whether the western powers will screw up R2P again as they did in Libya. A powerful ground force confronting ISIS for the exclusive purpose of protecting civilians could save lives.  It could result in combat, but if the limits of the mission were broadcast widely in advance, and adhered to, the level might be much less than one would anticipate.  The lesson of Libya, however, is that NATO and any coalition led by the U.S. have forfeited their right to act under R2P, at least for the present.

In the earlier post, I said that R2P did not at present provide authority for military intervention.  That was not quite correct. When Libyan dictator Gaddafi massacred several hundred of his own people in response to peaceful protests in 2011, and ignored a Security Council call to stop attacking civilians, the council authorized countries to intervene under R2P.  The UN authorization extended only to humanitarian concerns. NATO quickly took the council up on the offer, but quickly morphed the mission into one of regime change and taking sides in an ongoing civil war.  Many countries in the world, including two with Security Council vetoes, recognized this as an abuse of Responsibility to Protect. Indeed, there were many reports of the plight of civilians being ignored in pursuit of the western objectives of deposing Gaddafi and siding with the rebels.  This action poisoned the humanitarian well to the extent that when Syria’s Bashar Al Assad began murdering his opponents, it was impossible even to get a resolution of condemnation through the Security Council because it did not explicitly rule out use of force in service of the stated American goal of ousting Assad.  So now the U.S. wants to fight ISIS, which is fighting Assad?  Go figure.

imagesIf the West intervenes again with NATO and its non-Middle East coalition, ISIS will have succeeded in one of its main goals—drawing the West back into war in the region.  Nothing but good for these perverters of Islam can come out of such ill-advised action. R2P can help civilians in the areas of Iraq and Syria that ISIS controls, but only, only if the doctrine is implemented as it was intended, under a UN mandate that explicitly directs it exclusively to a humanitarian purpose and not as a pretext for an effort to defeat ISIS or determine the ultimate resolution of the ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and NATO do not appear capable of understanding or abiding by this important distinction. Another force should be assembled that is capable. Incidentally, Libya has now fallen again into chaos.

In the 26 July 2014 post, “What the U.S. and the West Should Do About Iraq: Absolutely Nothing”, I said that the greatest military power in the world was afraid of a group that fights from pickup trucks and trains on monkey bars.  That was not correct.  The western nations still have an overwhelming military superiority and the fear of ISIS as a threat to various western homelands remains overblown.  But it turns out that the group is very well armed and supplied. They do not fight from pickup trucks and train on monkey bars.  Why are they, and other combatants in Middle East so well armed?  Because the nations making up the permanent members of the Security Council, again led by the U.S., have been pouring weapons into the region for years, with Germany as another major supplier and Canada doing all it can to get in on the profits.  Since the first Gulf War, the U.S. has become by the greatest supplier of weapons.  Canadian sales to the region since that time have totaled well over $2 billion, with the greatest increases coming since 2010.  The time-honored practice of war profiteering is alive and well.

Which prompts me to mention the post of Sept 7, 2013, “Weapons Free Middle East”. I wanted someone to notice that the nations of the world had made a start on an arms trade treaty, by a vote of 155-3, with only Iran, North Korea, and Syria opposing. True, the document is weak and its chances of ratification are slim at best. As a founder of Project Ploughshares put it, Did we really think that states engaged in a lucrative industry worth billions of dollars and inextricably linked to their own self-perceived economic and security interest (as perverse as those perceptions might frequently be) are going to awake one morning to sign and seal a treaty that would challenge all that? But in spite of these obstacles, someone needs to start talking about the matter!  The treaty does contain a monitoring and reporting regime which could expose countries who export weapons they know will be used against civilians.  That could help. It is beyond hypocritical for the arms merchants of the world to continue wringing their hands about violence in the Middle East while force-feeding instruments of death to the adversaries.  It is inexcusable for ordinary Americans and Canadians to ignore the practice.

Finally, if you think intervention limited to the purpose of R2P is unrealistic, utopian, whatever, consider this.  The current crop of geniuses in the U.S. administration, apparently fearful of the simplistic public appeal of even more hawkish geniuses like McCain, Graham, and the Duck Dynasty guy, are trying to sort out whom to arm.  They are actually trying to “vett” the ever-shifting array of militias in Syria so they can provide weapons to the ones that might at best take sides with the West, and at worst not use the weaponry to shoot back at the providers!

20140905_mdp_e2_tnIt gets worse. The most influential potential ally against ISIS is Iran. But wait! Iran is supposed to be the sworn enemy of Israel, the biggest and least needy customer of the arms merchants.  Choosing up sides for geopolitical power reasons in conflicts that are not being waged for those reasons is a difficult and dangerous game. It is now about 25 years since the nature of war changed from nation vs. nation to far more complex kinds of conflicts.  The U.S., Canada, and NATO  have not learned this.  They have simply substituted the “war on terror” for the “red scare” and continued to operate in the late 20th Century manner.   We need public awareness and pressure to change course and there is no better place to start than to focus foreign policy honestly on the welfare of civilian victims.  If that pressure succeeds, there will be far fewer real terrorists, and the world would be a slightly better place.

So, I offer a slight modification to the advice that the U.S. and the West should do absolutely nothing in Iraq.  Instead, it would be better if they worked behind the scenes, supplying badly needed resources to a UN force with no geopolitical agenda that would instead make an effort to protect the families of ordinary people who are caught up in this insanity.

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1 comment to ISIS, the UN, and
The Responsibility to Protect

  • Michelle

    Thanks so much for your posts. Have to say, I’m not entirely sure after reading them that I’m more of less confused. Just know I need to become more informed.

    It all reminds me of a book a read called ‘a Scandalous man’ I read, set around the Thatcher administration and the Fawkland’s War- Well worth a read (or listen in audio form).

    It confirms that secret arms deals that all this ideology based war is nothing new and really dates back to pre 70’s I guess.

    Thanks again,
    Michelle