An argument worth talking about – A Book Review by Martin Khor

THE world is in a terrible mess. And that’s an understatement.

The recent mess originated or worsened with military actions, mostly by Western powers, against a growing number of countries, ostensibly to protect the citizens of these countries from their own dictatorial governments.

But the military actions and their aftermath led to great suffering in the targeted countries. With the dictator gone and the state system in collapse, various political and sectarian forces have jumped in to fill the power vacuum, fighting one another, often committing atrocities, and with those controlling territories often behaving more brutally than the overthrown tyrants.

Such has been the fate of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, among others. The reasons given for intervention are always noble (to protect helpless citizens, to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, etc). The real reasons appear to be rather different: to achieve regime change, and further the self-interests of the intervening countries.

These issues have been discussed in Perilous Interventions, by an eminent diplomat, Hardeep Singh Puri, who had a ringside seat as permanent representative to the United Nations when India was in the Security Council in 2011 and 2012.

He also twice chaired the council when it was embroiled in the high drama of major powers battling over whether and how to intervene in Libya and Syria.

The author hopes to draw attention to how past interventions have gone disastrously wrong – and the syndrome of turning away from the scene of intervention once the vested interests of the intervening nations have been achieved.

The Security Council is the UN’s most powerful body, yet it operates in secrecy. It is the only body that can authorise countries to legitimately wage war, except for self-defence.

The use of force has invariably had unintended and mostly disastrous consequences, says Puri. At the heart of this are “perilous interventions” – taking decisions with far-reaching consequences without thinking through their consequences, and the urge to intervene through the use of force, often to achieve “regime change”, even when this is not the stated objective.

Policymakers do not prepare for preventing developmental, social, ecological and health loss and damage. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions have been internally displaced and sectarian attacks have caused 100 deaths a day in Iraq alone.

It was clear years ago that military intervention and the arming of rebels would create unprecedented chaos and result in the unravelling of countries, says Puri.

Many wise thinkers advocated caution and were ignored.

Where regime change has been effected, weak governments have been held hostage by sub-regional or sectarian militias and violent extremists and terrorists. The state and its institutions have broken down, replaced by a reign of terror. Development has been set back at least 20 years.

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi pleaded with the West to avoid military intervention, warning that al-Qaeda was gaining ground. His warning was ignored and soon after he was overthrown, most of Libya was conquered by groups linked to al-Qaeda.

The book describes the dynamics in the Security Council. What was defined in the resolutions authorising the use of force and how they were finally implemented were distorted in intent and practice, says Puri.

The book contains several propo­sals. First, there is at the very least a need for the international community to reassess the way it deals with such countries and situations in the future.

The UN and Security Council should not be used to give legitimacy to parochial interests and unilateral military actions. Instead, there is the need to counter the real enemies – violent extremism and terrorism – in a holistic way.

Puri dwells at some length on the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P), which helped open the road for UN-authorised interventions.

This doctrine, adopted in 2005 by the UN, arose from guilt that the UN did not act to prevent the mass atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the mid-1990s.

According to the R2P, if the Security Council believes there is reasonable evidence that mass atrocities are likely to occur, it can authorise intervention in the country.

Most developing countries had fears the R2P doctrine would provide an opening for reordering of societies from outside using military force, and these fears seem now to have been justified.

Puri advocates that R2P be accompanied by the principle of Responsibility while Protecting (RwP). This may include a mechanism to review implementation of the Council mandate, strict reporting requirement from member states implementing the mandate, and a commission of inquiry to investigate violations.

This book is most timely as there are recent signs that the lessons Puri is putting forward have not been learnt, as seen in the aggressive stance by the US President against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

Someone should give Donald Trump Perilous Interventions, or a two-page summary.

It may save a lot of lives – and even the world.

(The article was published on on October 9, 2017)

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