Spent nearly three decades at the United Nations working on the staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and later as senior adviser to the secretary general. He was also the under secretary general for communications and public information. He is a former minister of state for external affairs in India. He is currently a member of Parliament representing Thiruvananthapuram.
Years ago, while I was toiling at the United Nations, the international community — gathered together at the level of Heads of State and Government at a Millennium Summit in New York — endorsed the idea that they had a collective responsibility to protect civilians whose own governments were unable or unwilling to do so. Sovereignty was all very well, the world leaders agreed, but it came with certain duties to the people in whose name it was exercised, and if sovereign governments couldn’t prevent massive human rights abuses (or worse, inflicted them on their own people), then the world had the duty to do something about it. The new doctrine was immediately dubbed “R2P”, short for “responsibility to protect”.
This was a twist to the earlier arguments for “the right to humanitarian intervention”, turning the issue on its head: the principle was no longer about the right of foreigners to intervene in third countries for humanitarian purposes, but rather their responsibility to protect people, if necessarily through intervention. The evocative image behind R2P was that of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when perhaps a million people died in a mass slaughter conducted by machete-wielding Hutu militia — a horror that could have been prevented had the international community taken on such a responsibility, and intervened with a few thousand troops, instead of withdrawing the UN Blue Helmets who already happened to be there.
It all sounded very noble and altruistic. The UK’s telegenic and hyper-articulate Prime Minister, Tony Blair, memorably declared that in the future, the West would go to war in the name of its values, not just of its interests. The wars of the future, Blair and his acolytes argued, would be fought for peace and human rights, not over something as crass as national interests, oil (perish the thought!) or imperial lust for territorial aggrandisement. The only catch in all this was in applying the principle to an actual case. As Rwanda had revealed, governments were all-too-unwilling to risk blood and treasure for the sake of foreign lives. Would armies actually intervene out of disinterested humanitarianism, or only do so when such declared intent in fact masked more cynical motives?
Indeed, the first major military intervention after the Millennium Summit — the Iraq war in 2003 — was initially sought to be couched in the language of humanitarianism by its proponents. But this was hotly rejected by the votaries of R2P, who argued that the war was squarely anchored in Washington’s geopolitical interests rather than in any real concern for suffering Iraqi civilians. Blairite altruism never quite recovered its credibility in the aftermath of Iraq.
R2P has suddenly come to life this year, though, with the ongoing aerial military intervention by NATO forces in Libya. Since the UN Security Council resolution that authorised the action permitted countries to use “all necessary means” to stop the assaults by Gaddafi’s forces on Libyans rising up against his oppressive regime, the bombardments were described as humanitarian in intent, aimed at saving Libyan lives. The idea was supposed to be to level the playing field so that a peaceful settlement could be negotiated by the contending parties, as had happened in Egypt and Tunisia. This was meant to be a war for peace.
It hasn’t worked out that way. The Western air forces did not simply stop their action once they had neutralised Gaddafi’s attacks on rebel-held Benghazi. They went on pounding ground targets, causing considerable civilian casualties. An attack on Gaddafi’s compound, which killed one of his children, suggests that the objective has moved well beyond the imposition of a “no-flight zone” to protect civilians on the ground to getting rid of Gaddafi himself — in effect, regime change.
My American writer friend David Rieff, who was once an enthusiastic interventionist in the civil war in Yugoslavia but has since recanted (see his book, At the Point of a Gun) now criticises, “the messianic dream of remaking the world in either the image of American democracy or of the legal utopias of international human rights law”. This is not just because it isn’t easy to do, nor that it involves taking more lives than it saves. It’s also, simply, because Rieff, and gradually other Americans, are coming around to the view that intervention isn’t right in any circumstances. He even told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd that “Gaddafi is a terrible man, but I don’t think it’s the business of the United States to overthrow him. Those who want America to support democratic movements and insurrections by force if necessary … are committing the United States to endless wars of altruism. And that’s folly.”