Responsibility to Protect or Right to Punish? Humanitarian Intervention and Its Critics

Written By

Mahmood Mamdani

The following article is drawn from Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, by Mahmood Mamdani, Pantheon Books, New York, 2009.

When World War II broke out, the international order could be divided into two unequal parts, one privileged, the other subjugated: on the one hand, a system of sovereign states in the Western Hemisphere and, on the other, a colonial system in most of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Postwar decolonization recognized former colonies as states, thereby embracing state sovereignty as a global principle of relations among states. The end of the Cold War has led to another basic shift, heralding an international humanitarian order that promises to hold state sovereignty accountable to an international human rights standard.

Many believe that we are in the throes of a systemic transition in international relations. The standard of responsibility is no longer international law but has shifted, fatefully, from law to rights. As the Bush administration made patently clear at the time of the invasion of Iraq, humanitarian intervention does not need to abide by the law. Indeed, its defining characteristic is that it is beyond the law. It is this feature that makes humanitarian intervention the twin of the War on Terror.

This new humanitarian order, officially adopted at the U.N.’s 2005 World Summit, claims responsibility for the protection of “vulnerable populations.” That responsibility is said to belong to “the international community,” to be exercised in practice by the United Nations and, in particular, by the Security Council, whose permanent members are the great powers. The new order is sanctioned in a language that departs markedly from the older language of law and citizenship. It describes as “human” the populations to be protected and as “humanitarian” the crisis they suffer, the intervention that promises to rescue them, and the agencies that seek to carry out the intervention. Whereas the language of sovereignty is profoundly political, that of humanitarian intervention is profoundly apolitical and sometimes even antipolitical. Looked at closely and critically, what we are witnessing is not a global but a partial transition. The transition from the old system of sovereignty to a new humanitarian order is confined to entities defined as “failed” or “rogue” states. The result is once again a bifurcated system whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The Westphalian coin of state sovereignty is still the effective currency in the international system. It is worth looking at both sides of this coin: sovereignty and citizenship. If “sovereignty” remains the password to enter the passageway of international relations, “citizenship” still confers membership in the sovereign national political (state) community. Sovereignty and citizenship are not opposites but associates: The state, after all, embodies the key political right of citizens, the right of collective self-determination.

The international humanitarian order, in contrast, is not a system that acknowledges citizenship. Instead, it turns citizens into wards. The language of humanitarian intervention has cut its ties with the language of citizens’ rights. To the extent that the global humanitarian order claims to stand for rights, these are the residual rights of the human and not the full range of rights of the citizens. If the rights of the citizens are pointedly political, the rights of the human pertain to sheer survival; they are summed up in one word: protection. The new language refers to its subjects not as bearers of rights -and thus active agents in their own emancipation - but as passive beneficiaries of an external “responsibility to protect.” Rather than rights-bearing citizens, beneficiaries of the humanitarian order are akin to recipients of charity. Humanitarianism does not claim to reinforce agency, only to sustain bare life. If anything, its tendency is to promote dependency. Humanitarianism heralds a system of trusteeship.

This language came into its own in 2006 when 150 heads of state and government met as the General Assembly of the United Nations in its sixtieth-anniversary year and unanimously resolved: “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity….We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it.” They then went a step further, promising to surrender sovereignty should they fail to protect their populations from mass violence:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII…, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

This declaration enshrined “the responsibility to protect” as a doctrine integral to the new post-Cold War international order. In a flush of enthusiasm, the new African Union (AU) overturned the principle of noninterference of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), declaring that Africans can no longer be “indifferent” to war crimes or gross abuses taking place on their continent and that claims of sovereignty should not be a barrier to addressing them. Not surprisingly, there were afterthoughts, leading the president of the International Crisis Group to lament: “There has since 2005 been some backsliding from this highpoint. One doesn’t have to spend too much time in the UN corridors, or in some Asian Capitals in particular, before hearing expressions of regret, or even denial, that so far-reaching a doctrine could possibly have been agreed to by national leaders.” What could have been the grounds for these afterthoughts?

It is not incidental that the “expressions of regret” arise in those parts of the world where states have increasingly developed the capacity to defend national sovereignty. It takes no great intellectual effort to recognize that the responsibility to protect has always been the sovereign’s obligation. It is not that a new principle has been introduced; rather, its terms have been radically altered. To grasp this shift, we need to ask: Who has the responsibility to protect whom under what conditions and toward what end?

The era of international humanitarian order is not entirely new. It draws on the history of modern Western colonialism. At the outset of colonial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading Western powers - Britain, France, Russia - claimed to protect “vulnerable groups.” When it came to countries controlled by rival powers, such as the Ottoman empire, Western powers claimed to protect populations they considered “vulnerable,” mainly religious minorities such as specific Christian denominations and Jews. The most extreme political outcome of this strategy can be glimpsed in the confessional constitution bequeathed by France to independent Lebanon.

When it came to lands not yet colonized, such as South Asia and large parts of Africa, they highlighted local atrocities and pledged to protect victims against rulers. It was not for lack of reason that the language of modern Western colonialism contraposed the promise of civilization against the reality of barbaric practices. In India, for example, the focus was on such practices as suttee, child marriage, and infanticide, whereas in Africa, it was on slavery in the nineteenth century, female genital mutilation (FGM) in the late twentieth century, and now genocide. The atrocities colonial archivists cataloged were not mere interventions but real and abhorrent practices. But all were cited to serve a particular political purpose. Whereas the crimes they denounced were real, the object of power was to turn the victims into so many proxies whose dilemma would legitimate colonial intervention as a rescue mission.

From this history was born the international regime of trusteeship exercised under the League of Nations. The league’s trust territories were mainly in Africa and the Middle East. They were created at the end of World War I, when the colonies of the defeated imperial powers (the Ottoman empire, Germany, and Italy) were handed over to the victorious powers, who pledged to administer them as guardians would administer wards, under the watchful eye of the League of Nations.

One of these trust territories was Rwanda, administered as a trust of Belgium until the 1959 Hutu revolution. It was under the benevolent eye of the League of Nations that Belgium hardened Hutu and Tutsi into racialized identities, using the force of law to institutionalize an official system of discrimination between them. Thereby, Belgian colonialism laid the institutional groundwork for the genocide that followed half a century later. The Western powers that constituted the League of Nations could not hold Belgium accountable for the way in which it exercised an international trust for one simple reason: To do so would have been to hold up a mirror to their own colonial record, for Belgian rule in Rwanda was but a harder version of the indirect rule practiced - to one degree or another - by all Western powers in Africa. This system did not simply deny sovereignty to its colonies; it redesigned their administrative and political life by bringing each under a regime of group identity and rights. Though one could argue that Belgian practice in Rwanda was an extreme case, it was certainly not exceptional.

Given the record of the League of Nations, it is worth asking how the new international regime of trusteeship would differ from the old one. What are the likely implications of the absence of citizenship rights at the core of this system? Why would a system of trusteeship not degenerate yet again into regimes that lack accountability and responsibility?

On the face of it, these two systems – one defined by sovereignty and citizenship, and the other by trusteeship and wardship – would seem to be contradictory rather than complementary. In practice, however, they are two parts of a singe but bifurcated international system. One may ask how this bifurcated order can be reproduced without the contradictions being flagrantly obvious, without its appearing like a contemporary version of the old colonial system of trusteeship. A part of the explanation lies in how power has managed to subvert the language of violence and war, so as to serve its own claims.

My point here is to show that the depoliticizing language of humanitarian intervention serves a wider function; “humanitarian intervention” is not an antidote to international power relations but its latest product. If we are to respond effectively to a humanitarian intervention, we need to understand its politics. The discourse on rights emerged historically as a language that claimed to define limits of power. Its political ambition was to turn victims into agents of resistance. Today, the overwhelming tendency is for the language of rights to enable power. The result is to subvert its very purpose, to put it at the service of a wholly different agenda, one that seeks to turn victims into so many proxies. It justifies interventions by big powers as an antidote to malpractices by newly independent small powers.

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the Departments of Anthropology and Political Science at Columbia University. He is also the Director of Columbia's Institute of African Studies. His previous books include Good Muslims, Bad Muslim; Citizen and Subject; and When Victims Become Killers.

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Ajayi Olutayo

Ajayi Olutayo

11. October, 2012 |

People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!

Marcus Edibogi Akor

Marcus Edibogi Akor

11. October, 2012 |

Thanks for this powerful article. I am very glad I read it. Keep up your great work and remain Blessed Law!

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