My colonial agenda

Bill Easterly writes:

The UN Security Council decides on military intervention (“peacekeepers”) or a Great Power does it on their own. Two of the Council’s permanent members are authoritarian, most of the Great Powers follow their own geo-strategic interests most of the time, and none of them have any democratic rights for Bottom Billion citizens to make Security Council or Great Power foreign policy decisions. (Small caveat: There never has existed or will exist a benevolent and politically neutral international force that will rapidly deploy to surgically solve Bottom Billion problems.) Yet the Great Powers will decide according to Collier’s proposals whether an “area or people” are allowed to have elections, whether the elections are legitimate when allowed, and when to send in the military (which, despite the nice “peacekeepers” label, are in a purely technical sense made up of soldiers carrying guns that are aimed at people.) The dictionary definition of “colonialism” is “Control by one power over a dependent area or people.” I agree that permanent colonies are a thing of the past, but the above description sure sounded a lot like “control” of “a dependent area” by outside powers. Many may indeed think me way out of line to call Collier’s proposals by the inflammatory word “colonialism” just because of the technicality that they actually fit the definition of “colonialism.” But us dissenters will persist anyway because the Bottom Billion deserve better than control by a development expert with an army, they deserve democratic rights just as much as all the other Billions.

I believe in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). I believe that sometimes —very rarely, and only when a very strict set of criteria are met– military intervention in warranted to stop imminent or ongoing atrocities on a large scale. I believe that peacekeepers and international administration can lessen the suffering of civilians after civil war. As much as I want local leaders everywhere to look out for the wellbeing and reflect the real interests of their people, I know that is not always the case and that local elites  who claim to speak for this group or that group in divided societies often speak for and care about only themselves.

I also know many people who have lived through state failure and civil war, and they have told me very frankly that it’s all well and good to shout from the ivory tower about local ownership and the evils of “neo-imperialism” and the inherent democratic deficit in international administration –and there is truth to those charges, for sure– but refugees, IDPs, war orphans, disabled veterans and former child soldiers, survivors of wartime sexual violence, and preyed on minorities really don’t give a flying crap about any of that. They care about basic things, food, clean water, dignified housing, protection from predation, medical treatment, and an opportunity to pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild. At an even more basic level, all development, all progress is contingent on people being alive. If local authorities cannot or will not protect the very lives of their citizens, it is not unethical for outside actors to step in — as a last resort, temporarily, and using means that maximize human security.

If believing that makes me a colonialist, so be it.

3 thoughts on “My colonial agenda

  1. But where do you draw the line? And who should decide where the line is? Should we intervene in Darfur? Burma? What about DRC? These situations are murky. Easterly is merely taking the safe route by saying we, the Ivory Tower-ers, shouldn’t be the ones deciding how and when to intervene. And he’s justifiably skeptical of the Great Powers That Be in the Security Council doing just that. I agree that we should get our act together as an international community and come up with a better way to make these difficult decisions, but until then, Easterly’s cautious approach seems preferable.

    • The “line” in terms of just cause –that is, the level of killing– isn’t clear. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty left that grim calculus to others. However, the ICISS report states, with regard to the threshold:


      4.18 Calls for intervention for human protection purposes have in the past been made on a wide range and variety of grounds, involving and in response to a wide range of circumstances and conditions, and many different criteria for intervention were suggested during the course of our consultations. The Commission’s view is that exceptions to the principle of non-intervention should be limited. Military intervention for human protection purposes must be regarded as an exceptional and extraordinary measure, and for it to be warranted, there must be serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur.

      4.19 In the Commission’s view, military intervention for human protection purposes is justified in two broad sets of circumstances, namely in order to halt or avert:

      * large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or
      * large scale “ethnic cleansing,” actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.

      If either or both of these conditions are satisfied, it is our view that the “just cause” component of the decision to intervene is amply satisfied.

      4.20 It is important to make clear both what these two conditions include and what they exclude. In the Commission’s view, these conditions would typically include the following types of conscience-shocking situation:

      * those actions defined by the framework of the 1948 Genocide Convention that involve large scale threatened or actual loss of life;
      * the threat or occurrence of large scale loss of life, whether the product of genocidal intent or not, and whether or not involving state action;
      * different manifestations of “ethnic cleansing,” including the systematic killing of members of a particular group in order to diminish or eliminate their presence in a particular area; the systematic physical removal of members of a particular group from a particular geographical area; acts of terror designed to force people to flee; and the systematic rape for political purposes of women of a particular group (either as another form of terrorism, or as a means of changing the ethnic composition of that group);
      * those crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war, as defined in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols and elsewhere, which involve large scale killing or ethnic cleansing;
      * situations of state collapse and the resultant exposure of the population to mass starvation and/or civil war; and
      * overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened.

      4.21 In both the broad conditions we identified – loss of life and ethnic cleansing – we have described the action in question as needing to be “large scale” in order to justify military intervention. We make no attempt to quantify “large scale”: opinions may differ in some marginal cases (for example, where a number of small scale incidents may build cumulatively into large scale atrocity), but most will not in practice generate major disagreement. What we do make clear, however, is that military action can be legitimate as an anticipatory measure in response to clear evidence of likely large scale killing. Without this possibility of anticipatory action, the international community would be placed in the morally untenable position of being required to wait until genocide begins, before being able to take action to stop it.

      4.22 The principles we have specified do not attempt to draw a distinction between situations where the killing or ethnic cleansing is caused by the action – or deliberate inaction – of a state, and those where the state in question has failed or collapsed. In a failed or collapsed state situation, with no government effectively able to exercise the sovereign responsibility of protecting its people, the principle of non-intervention might seem to have less force. But when it comes to the threshold “just cause” issue of determining whether the circumstances are grave enough to justify intervention, it makes no basic moral difference whether it is state or non-state actors who are putting people at risk.

      4.23 ;Again, the principles as we have defined them make no distinction between those abuses occurring wholly within state borders, with no immediate cross-border consequences, and those with wider repercussions. This reflects our confidence that, in extreme conscience-shocking cases of the kind with which we are concerned, the element of threat to international peace and security, required under Chapter VII of the Charter as a precondition for Security Council authorization of military intervention, will be usually found to exist. Security Council practice in the 1990s indicates that the Council is already prepared to authorize coercive deployments in cases where the crisis in question is, for all practical purposes, confined within the borders of a particular state.

      4.24 While our “just cause” conditions are broadly framed, the Commission also makes clear that they exclude some situations which have been claimed from time to time to justify the coercive use o military force for human protection purposes.

      4.25 First, the Commission has resisted any temptation to identify as a ground for military intervention human rights violations falling short of outright killing or ethnic cleansing, for example systematic racial discrimination, or the systematic imprisonment or other repression of political opponents. These may be eminently appropriate cases for considering the application of political, economic or military sanctions, but they do not in the Commission’s view justify military action for human protection purposes.

      4.26 Secondly, the Commission has taken a similar view in relation to cases where a population, having clearly expressed its desire for a democratic regime, is denied its democratic rights by a military take-over. The overthrow of a democratic government is a grave matter, requiring concerted international action such as sanctions and suspension or withdrawal of credits, international membership and recognition – and there might well be wider regional security implications such that the Security Council is prepared to authorize military intervention (including by a regional organization) on traditional “international peace and security” grounds. There may also be situations where the overthrown government expressly requests military support, and that could clearly be given within the scope of the self-defence provisions in Article 51 of the UN Charter. But the Commission’s view is that military intervention for human protection purposes should be restricted exclusively, here as elsewhere, to those situations where large scale loss of civilian life or ethnic cleansing is threatened or taking place.

      4.27 Thirdly, as to the use of military force by a state to rescue its own nationals on foreign territory, sometimes claimed as another justification for “humanitarian intervention,” we regard that as being again a matter appropriately covered under existing international law, and in particular Article 51 of the UN Charter. The same goes for the use of force in response to a terrorist attack on a state’s territory and citizens: to the extent that military action is justified, it would be supported by a combination of Article 51 and the general provisions of Chapter VII, as the Security Council has now made clear with its resolutions in the aftermath of 11 September 2001.

    • In regard to the UN and authorization, I’m with Ken Roth:

      There is considerable value in receiving the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council or another major multilateral body before launching a humanitarian intervention. The need to convince others of the appropriateness of a proposed intervention is a good way to guard against pretextual or unjustified action. An international commitment to an intervention also increases the likelihood that adequate personnel and resources will be devoted to the intervention and its aftermath. And approval by the Security Council, in particular, ends the debate about the legality of an intervention.

      However, in extreme situations, Human Rights Watch does not insist on Security Council approval. The council in its current state is simply too imperfect to make it the sole mechanism for legitimizing humanitarian intervention. Its permanent membership is a relic of the post-World War II era, and its veto system allows those members to block the rescue of people facing slaughter for the most parochial of reasons. In light of these faults, one’s patience with the council’s approval process would understandably diminish if large-scale slaughter were underway. However, because there was no such urgency in early 2003 for Iraq, the failure to win council approval, let alone the endorsement of any other multilateral body, weighs heavily in assessing the intervenors’ claim to humanitarianism.

      We recognize, of course, that the Security Council was never asked to consider a purely humanitarian intervention in Iraq. The principal case presented to it was built on the Iraqi government’s alleged possession of and failure to account for weapons of mass destruction. Even so, approval might have ameliorated at least some of the factors that stood in the way of the invasion being genuinely humanitarian. Most significantly, a council-approved invasion is likely to have yielded more troops to join the predominantly American and British forces, meaning that preparation for the post-war chaos might have been better.

      From the essay “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention.”

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