Lucke Glanville argues in his recent Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect (2014) that this responsibility dates back from the 16th and 17th centuries. However, a good number of scholars believe that the first “humanitarian intervention” took place in Bulgaria in 1876, when Ottoman troops attacked villages killing thousands of civilians. Outraged, the British public demanded action, and indeed European Powers mobilised to require the Sultan to protect the Christians living in Eastern Europe. Former PM Gladstone famously campaigned for intervention echoing “the moral sense of mankind at large”. Western Europe intervened. Eastern European Christians were to be protected.
Last Thursday, President Obama announced that he had authorised “limited air strikes” against the combatants of the self-named Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It was the first American military action in the country since 2011. But this is not 2003, and President Obama did his best to “make this perfectly clear”: It is a “humanitarian intervention”; it is “at the request of the Iraqi Government”; “we have a mandate to help”; “we cannot turn a blind eye”; “we must prevent the total destruction of innocent Iraqis, which would constitute a potential act of genocide”. America intervenes. Iraqi Christians (and Kurdish Yazidis) are to be protected.
It can hardly come as a surprise that the US is leading this mission with no end date for the time being. So far, the UK Government has only pledged the delivery of humanitarian and medical support. Meanwhile, le Quai d’Orsay has been trying to push its European counterparts to agree on something on the matter. The EU Political and Security Committee recognised on Tuesday that individual members states are free to send weapons to the Kurdish militia, but did not reach an agreement on any EU-level intervention.
The words carefully chosen by President Obama last week remind the language used by the supporters of the “Responsibility to Protect” (also known as R2P). Coined in 2001, R2P firstly means that states are obliged to protect their citizens from international crimes. This is not new, because in essence protecting the people within the national jurisdiction is what International Human Rights Law has been all about since 1948. However, R2P also claims that if a state fails to protect its people, the international community has the responsibility to intervene, using force if necessary. This, if it could be a norm, would constitute a major change. But it is not a norm.
It cannot be a norm because to this day it is not yet clear whether R2P is an attempt to bypass the hassle of the Security Council or a mandate to this Council to act in a certain way if it does not mind. The idea behind the first option is that what is illegitimate cannot be legal. Morality trumps law, international law in this case. We have the responsibility to intervene in order to prevent massacres wherever they occur, even if the Security Council and/or the Government of the country do not agree with us (not applicable in the case of ISIS because the Iraqi Government requested the US to intervene). The problem with this logic is this: Who is We? Who makes that decision? And how do we make sure that Iraq Junior does not turn into Iraq Senior? The second interpretation is that R2P provides some guidelines to the Security Council about how to interpret its mandate to secure peace and stability via Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which authorises military interventions. What is illegal cannot be legitimate. However, if we opt for this interpretation, the obligation to act in a certain way would be binding only when the subjects who are supposed to be bound, the Security Council itself and through them all UN Member States, decide so. Would not it be nice to pay taxes only when one believes taxes ought to be paid?
I do not mean to simplify the choices and consequences of this or any military action. It is too easy to judge from the luxurious position of not being hungry or afraid for me or my own. A military intervention like the one authorised by President Obama last week may directly benefit the suffering people on the ground. There may be very good reasons to carry it forward from a strategic or a national-interest perspective, and to support it from a genuinely cosmopolitan and caring one.
Yet, America has mobilised its forces to protect the local population in Northern Iraq, a population that happens to be mostly Christian just like the Bulgarians of 1876. Meanwhile, Gaza remains besieged and Syria drowns in blood. Let’s just be honest about it: Western powers intervene manu militari when it suits them. Humanitarian concerns play a role in sparking a domestic demand for action from the general public, but Western powers act inconsistently, which exposes their hypocrisy, as eloquently put by Carne Ross. Some people may benefit from this. Some others do not. But in any case it pays lip service to those who think that R2P is an international norm in the making.