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Pure Onsense

Intervention in Civil Conflict

Scott Zuke

(April, 2011)  The conflict unfolding in Libya underscores that the issue of international intervention in civil conflicts within sovereign nations is among the most important unanswered questions of our time. Are nations legally and morally allowed to intervene in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations? Conversely, are nations sometimes morally obligated to do so, and if so, what proper means are at their disposal to carry out the necessary intervention? These and many related questions have been an undercurrent in national and international dialogue since the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s, and huge gaps still remain in our ability to answer them either from an ethical or legal framework.

The result has been a growing history of glaring inconsistency in intervention policy since the end of the Cold War, from Somalia to Rwanda, from Kosovo to Iraq, and recently throughout the Middle East, where our responses to Iran, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya have all taken different form for various reasons as difficult to justify as they are to explain. And of course there is Sudan and probably dozens of other serious conflicts that have gone neglected, or just plain ignored.

There are any number of context-specific explanations for differences between the US and international handling of Libya now as opposed to Iraq in 2003 and all the other crises mentioned above, but there's also a fundamental tension that underlies them all. On one hand, we hold a commitment to national sovereignty, the belief that a country's internal affairs are its own business and, as long as it doesn't impact third parties, they should be left to sort it out themselves. This belief has been around a long time, but has had special significance since the creation of the United Nations and the end of the Cold War.

On the other hand, globalization has made it next to impossible for a nation's internal conflicts to go unnoticed or remain isolated. Not only do nations now have more direct interest in each other's affairs due to their impact on trade relations, etc., but the international community has also come to recognize certain moral imperatives to protect vulnerable people against human rights violations committed by their own governments. They see a "responsibility to protect" those who suffer under governments that are either unwilling or unable to secure basic human rights. Rwanda remains one of the clearest examples: once the international community recognizes genocide is occurring, the nation's sovereignty is void and outsiders have the responsibility to intervene. If they don't they are morally complicit in the atrocity.

Consider an analogy of domestic spousal or child abuse. In America we recognize a certain "sovereignty of the household," a belief that what people do inside their homes is their own business. Unfortunately in the past this meant that police would turn a blind eye to clear cases of domestic abuse. But since the 50s and 60s we've come to recognize that household sovereignty has limits, and that when domestic abuse is recognized, the community (through its police force) has a moral duty to intervene. Does not the same principle apply when foreign governments abuse and kill their own citizens? Are they not acting upon the same violent, patriarchal impulse? Who else is there besides the external community to protect the abused against their more powerful oppressor?

The analogy demonstrates an important point about how communal moral values evolve over time. Just as police used to be able to ignore domestic abuse, the international community used to be able to ignore civil conflicts in foreign lands. Some have rightly argued that the Founding Fathers never intended the US to have the level of international entanglement that it does now, but on this point, we must recognize that that past is behind us. Isolationism is no longer morally defensible in a world where new media and mass communication allow atrocities to become public knowledge within hours.

Where the analogy doesn't quite fit is also instructive. Who are the "police force" in international intervention? The way things currently run through the UN Security Council or NATO, there isn't really any dedicated police force, but rather a coalition of armed states utilizing their own militaries. This would be more analogous to vigilanteism, like a raiding party composed of the fathers and sons from neighboring households going in to set the abusive husband straight. Somehow this doesn't seem right, perhaps in the same way it feels wrong to send American troops into harms way to fight a battle that has no direct impact on US national security or well-being. But if we're not willing to do what we agree is morally required, then who will?

Police forces were developed out of a need for security that goes beyond an individual's ability to defend himself through gun ownership. There needs to be an external force composed of individuals who volunteer to put themselves at personal risk for the benefit of the communities they serve. When they were first instituted they lacked the organizations and legitimacy they have today, and there will always be paranoia about their ability to abuse power to impinge on individual rights. Nevertheless, they are rightly viewed as a necessary feature of a just and secure community. Does this also say something about how we ought to view the United Nations? Should we support the creation of a truly international, volunteer military force with the specific purpose and authority to prevent, intervene in, and mediate civil conflict?

It's a question that understandably evokes caution and skepticism, but as the "global community" becomes a reality, it may only be a matter of time until moral attitudes change and solutions to the problems of intervening in civil conflict become a necessity for protecting human security. In the meantime, there truly will be no action that the President or the international community can take in places like Libya that will not receive strong and valid criticism from many angles.

Read other article by Scott Zuke