Readers will recall that the international community’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was a huge issue, in some circles, during the Sri Lanka armed forces’ humanitarian operation in the north east.
From the beginning of time, men, women and nation states, or whatever the word used for groupings of people with similar interests, whether it be castes, tribes,
kingdoms, city republics, believers, followers of a teacher or philosopher or whatever, have faced the conflict of being torn between being loyal to and adhering to their values, the basic principles they believed in and which underlined their togetherness, the glue which held them together or the alternative of pursuing their own best interests in any given situation, ignoring the values which they should or profess to adhere to, as a matter of convenience and/or personal gain.
Lord Palmerston, one time Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Britain, put this ‘real politick’ very succinctly, when he said: “Britain has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” This was at the height of Rule Britannia, when the Royal Navy ruled the seas.
Wave of political unrest
The international community faces a similar conundrum as a wave of political unrest roars tsunami-like through West Asia, North Africa and the Maghreb Region. The world’s crude oil and gas resources lie beneath the desert sands of these countries.
In their greed for unlimited supplies of this critical resource, nations and international organisations have swallowed their values and played up to the vanities of both vicious dictators ruling these nation states of varying degrees and types.
Kings, presidents for life, emirs, sultans and other serial violators of human rights have been treated with kid gloves, all their cruel repression of their own people forgiven and even terrorist acts committed by their agents on foreign soil have been condoned.
The Libyans shot dead a British Police woman outside their London Embassy, she was trying to control anti Libyan protestors. They admitted to the bombing of an aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, which murdered hundreds of people travelling in the plane and on the ground. This is only one example.
The West Asians in addition to repressing their own people have also done unmentionable things to foreign workers from South Asia, the Philippines and other countries.
Never again, is always uttered collectively by the international community after such an incident. The Holocaust, the partition of India, the Rwandan genocide, the debacle of Somalia, the massacres at Srebrenica and Kosovo, the post election violence in Kenya, were all, after the fact, treated with this chorus of belated regret.
A few days ago the United Nations responded to Qadaffi’s regime in Libya murdering its own people in the streets and passed a unanimous resolution that included a travel ban for senior Libyan officials and asset seizures. There was also a rare referral to the International Criminal Court.
Impotence of the international community
The impotence of the international community in these situations is striking. Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, said that the resolution was intended “to stop the violence against innocent civilians”. But will Qadaffi? The choice to him is being one of eternal power (he and his acolytes think!) and the ‘sexual transmission’ of power to his progeny or an unceremonious death. Will he be deterred by the closure of bank accounts, or a threat of prosecution at some time in the future? Doubtful.
In a belated discovery of their collective conscience and an acceptance of the values they profess to stand for, some governments seem to have overcome their hitherto interest in cheap crude oil and gas and are openly floating the idea of some sort of military intervention against Qadaffi. A no-fly zone has been suggested to force him to keep his war planes on the ground, as he is using them against the dissidents who have taken over large tracts of Libya.
Responsibility to Protect
In the year 2005 the UN developed the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It implies a global responsibility to intervene to ensure the safety of populations whose leaders have turned on them. R2P is considered to have three parts:
1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
2. If the state is unable to protect its population on its own, the international community has a responsibility to assist the state by building its capacity. This can mean building early warning capabilities, mediating conflicts between political parties, strengthening the security sector, mobilising stand by forces, and many other actions.
3. If a state is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, them more coercively and as a last resort with military force.
State sovereignty is not the equivalent of Ian Fleming’s Secret Agent 007 James Bond’s ‘license to kill’. No state can abdicate the responsibility to protect its own people from crimes against humanity, nor commit such crimes itself on its own people. Hence, it is clear that when the state fails to take that responsibility, it is the responsibility of the international community to provide it.
UN Security Council move
The UN Security Council, including state sovereignty champions like Russia and China, after moving with traditional caution at first, invoked R2P against Qadaffi and in its resolution agreed to a substantial package of measures to implement it, an arms embargo, asset freeze, travel bans and as mentioned, a referral to the International Criminal Court.
R2P demands a common will and the weapons and bayonets on the ground. A no-fly zone would require that the Libyan air force be eliminated and the Libyan anti aircraft capacity be destroyed.
The international community may rant and vent but the current thinking is that the international community’s concern for values does not extend to putting soldiers on the ground and risking body bags coming home.
The alacrity with which President Reagan pulled out the Marines from Lebanon, when a suicide bomber attacked their barracks in 1983 and killed a substantial number, confirmed to the world the belief that body bags were the superpowers Achilles’ Heel.
In any case after Iraq and Afghanistan the American appetite for foreign military adventures is limited. As Defence Secretary Gates speaking at West Point, the US Military Academy, a few weeks ago said: “Any future defence secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
From the international perspective, it is crucial that this series of current popular uprising tsunami roaring through the region draws its legitimacy from the fact that they are genuine home-grown revolutions. There is no bullying big neighbour whose secret service is calling the shots working with a local acolyte.
These are societies, cultures and populations regaining control of their own destinies, for so long being abused by cruel dictators. By doing so, they are dealing decisively with two grand lies which the local dictators and international consumers of oil and gas long enunciated – the first is that the Arab mentality needs ‘Big Men’ dictators to run and develop their countries, the other is that any change in ‘resource-cursed’ Arab countries is the mischievous work of either Israel’s Shin Beth or Mossad or America’s CIA, or preferably all three!
These two lies are indeed used by dictators in all third world nations and even in some budding and emerging ones, keen on setting up their progeny to follow them in the good old ‘sexual transmission’ model of succession to power.
Interest before values
Whenever there has been a push for change from within in a ‘resource cursed’ poor nation, some big power invariably gets on the wrong side, by placing their interest before their values.
When the Tunisians revolted against ex-President Ben Ali, France first offered to help Ben Ali’s security forces! When Qadaffi is slaughtering his own people, the Czech Republic said catastrophe would follow Qadaffi’s fall. Malta defended Libya’s sovereignty and Italy predicted that Libya would end up as an unstable Islamic emirate. Prime Minister Berlusconi said he would “dare not disturb” his “good friend Qadaffi”.
The greed for oil and gas placed many nations on the wrong side of history, self-interest overcame adhering to values. The fear of being invaded by refugees is also a factor.
Furthest away Finland was the first to demand sanctions against Libya, proximate Malta and Cyprus, the last. This happened even when the world’s leading grouping of dictators, the Arab League, suspended Libya’s membership! None are so blind as those who refuse to read the writing on the wall!
The difference with the situation when the Soviet Union collapsed and the satellite states in Eastern Europe shifted themselves westwards under the influence of the European Community and NATO, is stark.
Then powerful Western nations used their soft power to encourage and support the democratisation of the former soviet satellite dictatorships using a variety of tools. The international NGO community were given full support to go in and make a difference.
Communication and media BBC, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, the British Council, US ICA, institutions such as universities, trade unions and autonomous think-tanks were provided with resources to work in Eastern Europe to institutionalise democracy.
Clearly, values and interests in that instance came together with a vengeance. But then, 80% of the world’s known oil and gas reserves do not lie beneath the ground of Eastern Europe! It was in the interest of resource-consuming powerful nations to adhere to their values in that case.
To be fair by President Obama, the United States was, in this situation, on the side of populism from inception. Very early on both the State Department and the CIA were of the view that Hosni Mubarak would survive. Both the department and the agency were completely blindsided by the Tunisian tsunami!
Obama, very early on in the developing Tahrir Square situation in Cairo, personally took personal control of US policy, determined to be loyal to the principles he so eloquently enunciated in that historic speech at Cairo’s Al Azar University, very early in his presidency. He realised the need and the opportunity to show Arab Street dwellers an alternative approach to the one promoted by Al Qaeda.
As soon as Mubarak was forced to appoint General Suleiman as his Vice President to deal with the crisis, US Vice President Joe Biden was on the line to him. So also the Head of the CIA Leon Panetta, as Suleiman was, before his promotion, Head of Egyptian External Intelligence.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen was also talking with the Field Marshall who was Egypt’s Minister of Defence. Many senior Egyptian Army Air Force and Navy officers had been to US services staff colleges; up and down the line all the contacts were worked on, and the result was that finally the protesters in Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian armed forces showed President Mubarak the way out.
President Obama was able to be loyal to his values and showed that those were identical to the interests of the United States in that situation. Obama has since bluntly stated that Qadaffi should quit.
Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron hastily added on a visit to post-Mubarak Egypt to a previously scheduled visit to the Gulf countries. Addressing Generals in Egypt, Emirs in Kuwait and students in Qatar, Cameron made it clear that he was not a proponent of helicopter democracy; democracy cannot be delivered by airmail, democracy is a journey which involves patient work on crucial building blocks such as a free press, an independent judiciary, an autonomous administrative mechanism, respect for human rights, separation of powers, etc.
Cameron said it was not for him to pontificate about how their governments respond to the aspirations of their people. But he categorically rejected one fallacy, that “Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy,” saying that this view bordered on racism.
The view that the West must choose between stability and political freedom in the Arab and Muslim world was a false choice. Protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain were evidence that ‘denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse’.
A step further
So, this time around the Brits and the Yanks are on the right side. The Brits have gone a step further; the Black Watch regiment of the British Army has been placed on 24 hour stand-by to move. A British Joint Service Headquarters has been set up in Malta.
The Americans have moved Marines and naval and air assets to the Mediterranean, ostensibly to help evacuating foreigners from Libya. The US has also air bases in Sicily and Crete.
But optimism cannot substitute for a strategy or a policy. Qadaffi has an 18,000 strong air force spread out over 13 bases, around 30 Russian attack helicopters, a heavy transport helicopter squadron with four Boeing Chinooks and a squadron of Russian medium helicopters that can serve as gunships.
His air defences include Sukhoi jets, over 100 MIG-25s, 15 Mirage F-1s equipped with Air to Air missiles and Russian Surface to Air Missiles. Implementing a no-fly zone effectively will require at least 100 fighter jets, aerial refuelling, airborne warning, sophisticated communication links and rescue and recovery capacity.
The 50,000 strong Libyan Army consists mostly of conscripts, but Qadaffi’s sons control 20,000 well-armed militia men belonging to their clan backed up by mercenaries from Chad and Niger. In this context any foreign intervention will be a tough call.
Democratic values must be built up building block by building block. As long as American and British interests are in concert with developments on Arab Street, there will be no conflict between values and interests. But will it always be so?
There is no certainty.
It will certainly be, in the words of Lord Wellington, the victorious commander, in the battle of Waterloo against Napoleon, who described the battle thus: “A damned close run thing!” If that be the case, the world’s commitment to R2P will not be tested.
But there are cynics who maintain that the big powers interest in links to the dissidents is in order to secure post autocrat supplies of oil and gas! Recently Nirupama Rao, India’s Foreign Affairs Secretary, reiterated in an interview with NDTV, that as far as the Libyan situation was concerned, India was acting in pursuit of its best interests.
That’s ‘real politick’ for you, the Panchaseela, nonalignment, Asokan Pillar inscriptions, Gandhi-ism and the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution, on which Indian policy was at one time grounded, not considered!
Britain’s Lord Mendelssohn likewise launched a spirited defence of Tony Blair’s Government’s ties to Qadaffi’s Libya, warning that “stigmatising of every business leader, academic, politician and public servant” linked with Libya will only serve to harm British interests. The good Lord Palmerston’s doctrine lives on!
One is free to speculate in our case, whether the response to the humanitarian operation would have been different if oil and/or gas or some other resource was available in north east Sri Lanka? What about the possibility of crude oil in the Gulf of Mannar?
But as Lord Mark Malloch Brown, former head of UNDP and Britain’s one time foreign secretary, has pointed out in his new book ‘The Unfinished Global Revolution: The Pursuit of a New International Politics,’ the world is changing and there is an ongoing clash between old-fashioned state sovereignty and the new reality of international cooperation and extended globalisation: ‘With the world fast becoming a global bazaar, governments must commit themselves to an international framework of rules and institutions which would make it a safer, fairer and less destructive place.”
May be it is this evolution that we are currently witnessing, an ongoing tussle between a sovereign ruler’s interests and emerging international values?
(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)