Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How Responsible Are We?

And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence
-Bill Clinton

Since the onset of the Second Congolese War in 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have died as the result of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The US Government did essentially nothing to address the situation. This raises the question:

-As a state, are we morally required to act in the face of massive deprivation of human livelihood within foreign countries?

It is generally agreed upon that international military intervention is permissible and even required when humanitarian crises are so extreme as “to shock the conscience of mankind,” including genocide, massacre, ethnic cleansing, etc. When states are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from large-scale loss of basic rights, such as the right to life, then the international community must collectively intervene on the basis of numerous treaties, common humanity, and a commitment to human rights. However, this does not solve the problem. It seems obvious that someone should do something, but who and in what way?

Nobody would expect the Salvadoran Government to protect Congolese citizens from rebel forces, but why not? El Salvador is utterly incapable of leading such an intervention. The actors that are most capable (given their military and economic strength as well as their strategic advantage) assume the moral imperative to act once the general need to act is recognized among the international community. Consider the following situation:

A man begins to choke in a restaurant and falls to the ground. The entire restaurant turns to look and see that he is having difficulty breathing, it appears he will die if nothing is done. If there were an emergency physician in the restaurant, would he not have the most responsibility to help the suffering man, given his capability as a trained doctor? If the doctor sees too many risks (lawsuit, personal health, etc.) involved and refuses to help, isn’t the duty to act then passed on to the next most capable individual, perhaps a nurse? Everyone in the restaurant should help the best they can, maybe by calling 911 or helping with crowd control, but it is the most capable individual(s), the physician, who ought to orchestrate the effort.

I would argue that the general principle here of “capability-based obligation” in crisis situations applies in international society as well.

The most powerful nations and organizations of the world have a duty to act because of their capabilities. There is no better or more appropriate body than the United Nations Security Council to authorize military intervention for humanitarian purposes. However, if the Council is unwilling to act in a timely and effective manner to stop genocide or ethnic cleansing, the burden of protection is transferred to the next most capable power, which is arguably the United States. Of course, other members of the international community are also required to act in whatever way feasible; it would be unfair to expect the hegemon to be the sole provider of relief in every humanitarian crisis. However, the hegemon (similar to the doctor) has the duty to lead the collective effort. We, the United States, had (have) the capability and thus the duty to orchestrate a multilateral intervention in the DRC to prevent mass crimes against humanity.

The United States has continually shirked responsibility to protect from large-scale loss of basic human rights abroad. To be blunt, we have a racist foreign policy; no country in Western Europe would undergo that sort of damage without a strong response from our government. Until the American people internalize responsibility for their global brothers and sisters and demand that our government affirm the humanity of all people, we will continue to have an overly narrow and unfortunate articulation of our national interest.

Joe Biden mentioned the DRC during his VP debate; I hope he was for real. What do you think? Do we have a duty to act in these situations? If so, will an Obama administration be less likely to shirk?


ac said...

I won't speak to the Presidential Candidates' abilities to enact interventions, because I don't think I have enough information to make that kind of judgment. However, if you haven't come across it yet, I think the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is incredibly relevant to your post. Could you respond to some of its key tenets, namely the idea that once a country fails to protect its people, it forgoes its right to sovereignty?

Dave said...

Yeah, the ICISS R2P document is seminal and I agree with almost all of its major points. When it comes to sovereignty, the idea that states have absolute sovereignty and have complete autonomy to rule as they please is quickly going out of fashion. I think states temporarily forgo their sovereignty if they cannot protect their people from mass atrocities.

Perhaps a more interesting question w/ sovereignty is that people might say "As the US, it is our sovereign right to not intervene." I think I disagree.

In every humanitarian intervention to date, the principle of sovereignty has been temporarily suspended for the sake of human rights, there is strong precedent for this practice. If human rights atrocities are horrible enough to override the sovereignty of the state within which the crisis is taking place, then such a situation should also result in a temporary suspension of the sovereign right of third party states to remain neutral. That is, if absolute sovereignty does not exist for the state within which atrocities are occurring, why should onlookers retain the absolutely sovereign right to be a bystander and resist obligation? If protection against large scale loss of basic human rights is assigned more value than the preservation of sovereignty, then the same value structure ought to apply to a third-party actor’s decision of whether to intervene.

ac said...

Hrm, okay, now you have me thinking (though at nearly 1am I'm unsure of how coherent I can be)...

So if I understand you correctly, you're suggesting that since essentially states can lose their right to sovereignty by failing to protect their own people, that other states can also lose their right to choose not to intervene precisely by not intervening?

I'm unsure if I can accept that argument, though I like the general idea. What about this: what defines a human's right to be protected? Something simple and concrete as the borders in which they are born? (So that someone over There does not warrant our protection so much as someone over Here?) Or is the abstract concept of humanness (whatever that may be) sufficient to warrant protection?

If the latter is all that matters, then is it ever acceptable for ANY country to invoke a sort of "right to abstain from intervention (RAFI)" rule just because the rights violation occurs outside its borders? If so, when?

Or does the fact that the violation itself pertains to human rights force all capable countries to intervene?

I don't know if these questions made sense. Let me know if they didn't.

Mo said...

I believe that your arguement is predicated on the fact that the United States is most capable and in terms of military might, that is hard to refute. Without taking anything away from the horrific acts being perpetrated on the Conglolese (which I am just starting to learn about), I will mention that the U.S. has consistently lagged behind nearly all industrialized countries in measurements such as human development and poverty. Is a country that has been leaving behind its own citizens, perpetuating countless "soft" acts of violence to our fellow Americans, in fact the "most capable" to step in? Of course, this is not on the scale of genocide, but is it feasible to expect the U.S. to step into situations like these without international support and especially in the context of its human rights violations on its own citizens?

Dave said...

Mo, interesting point. I agree that we fall behind much of the West in basic human development indicators, but I am not sure how that changes our responsibilities abroad. Instead, I think it means we need:

1) Greater commitment at home to basic social needs and

2) Still a greater commitment abroad to securing basic human rights.

While we surely have our own human rights problems, that large-scale atrocities that I am speaking of do not compare. No way could genocide happen in this country in this era. It's the events that "shock the conscience of mankind" that I am referring to when discussing our duty abroad-

Adam, you might have a thought on this, but does it make sense to treat states as people, as ethical actors, in the first place?

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you that something must be done by someone, it is hardly fair to expect the US to solve all the world's problems. That would drain American forces and resources, needed to face some real threats as they arise from time to time (e.g. Afghanistan). I'm not saying the US should be oblivious to other peoples' tragedies, but that, much like the Iraq war, it's better if you have a wide international coalition behind you when you choose to intervene militarily in other people's business.

If not the US then whom? Well, there are other very well armed countries who are close by but don't really care about anything but stockpiling arms, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have billions of dollars worth of tanks, jets, ships and ammo, as well as hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Or how about China? Or Canada? Or Russia? Are they not powerful?

In the specific case of the DRC, I think the most appropriate country to send military aid would be Belgium, who's responsible for the contrived political division of the DRC in the first place (as was the case in Uganda and Burundi).

Similarly, the UK should handle Sudan/Darfur, since they are the ones who insisted on putting a huge minority of non-Arabs under the rule of their mortal enemies as they "decolonized." They did the same thing in Palestine/Israel, and those guys are still at each other's throats. Europe has enjoyed an American defense umbrella for a very long time, but the security of the world is as much their responsibility as it is America's.