Responsibility to Protect?
A few days ago, a friend invited me to join her and one of her co-workers for dinner. The co-worker had spent some time in the military and was eager to meet another veteran and swap sea stories. About half way through the meal he stated he understood I wrote about foreign affairs and wondered if I was following what was happening in Mali. He said he had spent a lot of time in that part of Africa and still had many friends there. They were telling him things were getting bad there. There was a lot of fighting going on which was causing thousands of people to flee the country. Additionally some radical Islamists associated with al-Qaeda had taken over a portion of the country and were implementing strict religious law to include things liking cutting off the hand of a thief.
I had heard nothing about it. Curious, once I got home I did some research. It’s not my intent in this blog to do a comprehensive rundown of the Mali situation. Suffice to say starting around January there was a rebellion in the northern part of the country by ethnic Tuareq and a military coup in the south. In the north, radical Islamic extremists have apparently gained the upper hand and high jacked the rebellion. There are indeed reports of association with al-Qaeda. A 17 July BBC report gives an excellent rundown of the situation:
“…Islamist militant groups who have taken advantage of the coup and imposed Sharia in most of the key towns in the north. Music has been banned from local radios, women face being beaten if they are seen with their heads uncovered and people have been whipped in public for various misdemeanors. On top of that, northern residents suffer days without power, fuel and food shortages. Aid workers have also reported cases of cholera. ‘The entire local economy is gone. Everything has been torn down,’ said the mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cisse, who is Bamako to collect supplies.
He says he realizes that talking to a journalist may expose him, but the situation is “so desperate”, he wants to speak out. ‘There’s no more trade, no more banks. Administrative services are non-existent: Islamists have looted everything. Timbuktu is now a ghost town.’ Islamist militants of Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have also destroyed half of the World Heritage tombs and mausoleums in the name of radical Islam.”
On 2 August, a UN official stated that the situation has resulted in 257,000 seeking refuge in Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The UN says some 174,000 people are estimated to be displaced internally. While the eyes of the world are on the situation in Syria, Mali is apparently off the radar. At what point and under what circumstances should the international community intervene? I’m addressing the question not simply at Mali situation.
In 2005 the UN addressed this in 2005 World Summit document. Key portions are highlighted below:
“Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity
138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.
139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help 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, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
It seems to me there are two sets of circumstances that require intervention, humanitarian and national security. Some humanitarian efforts are pretty straight forward and include situations like natural disasters and usually are done at the request of the nation affected. Some are not. I will forever be haunted by the lack of international response to the Rwandan genocide in the 1990’s. I believe the international community had a moral obligation to step in. I suspect the UN “Responsibility to Protect” is an attempt to prevent similar situation from happening in the future.
National security interventions are situations like Libya and Kosovo. Debate about the situation in Syria is ongoing. Some of the reports coming out of there are disturbing such as al-Qaeda involvement on the side of the rebels and Iranian involvement on the Assad government side. I suspect US government officials on both the civilian and military sides are pulling their hair out on this one as they contemplate whether they should intervene militarily or not. I’ll give my two cents on this topic some other time.
The Mali situation concerns me on both the humanitarian and national security level. The situation with enforcing their own brand of religion on the population and destruction of historical sites smacks of the early days of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Simply looking at the national security aspect; al-Qaeda is our declared enemy. I’m of the mind wherever they pop up they should be dealt with. It’s a lot easier to take them out before they gain a firm toe hold. Many of the US’s counterterrorism efforts are cloaked in secrecy so perhaps the US is already involved. But I’m of the mind first course of action is see if the interim government is open to assistance with dealing with the situation, if they’re not, next step attempt multilateral UN involvement. If that doesn’t work, consider multilateral NATO involvement, if that doesn’t work and I admit I’m channeling my inner John Wayne…you get the drift. Can you say SPECIAL FORCES? Think I’ll end here. As always, my views are my own.
Gail Harris is a Truman Security Fellow.