the Disillusioned kid: War For Humanity?
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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

War For Humanity?

The situation in Darfur, western Sudan has been propelled into the media spotlight with the launch of the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. This is definitely a good thing, the situation is serious and merits attention. Nonetheless, much of the media coverage has been quite superficial and at times confusing. Fortunately there has also been some excellent reporting. Probably the best article I have read looking at the situation, its background and considering possible responses is a piece by Alex de Waal, who is the director of Justice Africa, in The Observer.

For what it's worth I think that discounting the possibility of military intervention in the country would be a mistake. Certainly the consequences of inaction are stark. However believing in the need for some action should not be equated with accepting all possible responses. Although it's a facetious example, dropping an atom bomb on Khartoum might elicit the desired result, but would not (and I think this is more than just my opinion) be a morally justifiable response.

At this point regular readers might contend that this is at odds with my opposition to military intervention in Iraq, also justified by Blair & Co. on humanitarian grounds (although only, I would contend, once all other excuses had been demolished). Perhaps, but I think not. I still believe that military intervention is an instrument of dubious value, even if we accept our leaders claims as to their great moral purpose. It is simply my impression, that in Darfur, that the likely benefits outweigh the likely costs. In Iraq, it was my assessment that the opposite was true, which I believe has been borne out.

My assessment of the merits of intervention in this case assumes only a limited intervention. Probably one focused primarily on protecting aid convoys taking food to those in desperate need and monitoring a ceasefire. This would ideally be carried out primarily by Africans, possibly with financial support from the west, although I'm not in a position to comment on how realistic this is. The key issue is that any justified intervention would fall far short of "regime change". An Iraq style invasion and occupation would require Western powers to administer the entire country for sometime. Quite apart from the numbers of troops this would require, I doubt that such an effort would achieve even the levels of success that the occupation of Iraq has.

In thinking about this issue has been heavily influenced by Ted Honderich's After The Terror(McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal & Kingston and Ithaca, 2003), which I read recently. In this he considers the morality of war and terrorism in different contexts. He advances the "principle of humanity" as a standard and I find his framework compelling (although some of his conclusions are another matter). The principle of humanity holds that an act should be morally judged by the extent to which it saves people from "bad lives". These are those which lack access to the "great goods", those things, the desires for which he believes defines human nature: a decent length of life; material goods such as shelter; freedoms and powers; respect and self-respect; the satisfactions of human relationships; and a culture or way of living.

Clearly, widespread massacres and an at least partially engineered humanitarian crisis means that hundreds of thousands of people will not have a decent length of life and so will be prevented from having access to the other great goods. Therefore an intervention which was likely to substantially reduce the numbers of people dying might be morally justifiable, although the likely benefit would have to be weighed against the likely costs. Other factors must be considered, such as the effect on the north-south conflict which has ravaged the country for some twenty-years and was recently ended with a US-brokered ceasefire. That war is believed to have claimed the lives of 2 million people. If an intervention were likely to reignite it, with the human cost that would entail, this would have to be weighed against those saved in Darfur. The emboldening effect of a "successful" intervention (bear in mind that even in the best case scenario hundreds of thousands will have died) encouraging western governments to intervene elsewhere on spurious grounds, must also be remembered.

Liberals often cite Kosovo as the paradigm example of a humanitarian intervention, but this is not as clear-cut as it is often presented. Just to cite one example, a British government memo written in July after the NATO bombing says that 10,000 people were killed in Kosovo in 1999, while then-Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has confirmed that 2,000 of these occurred before the bombing, meaning that 4 times as many were killed after the bombing began than before. Additionally there is some evidence of attempts to exaggerate the extent of the situation in the region. A full-blown analysis of that conflict is besides the point. (If you're interested in pursuing this point see Z-Net's Resources on the Kosovo War, with analysis dating from the time, or Mark Curtis, Web Of Deceit, Vintage, London, 2003, Chapter 6.) The key issue which the Kosovo situation raises is that simply because those carrying out an intervention say it is being done for humanitarian reasons, it does not follow that it is. Such a claim needs to be proved and can be tested by looking at the actions taken and considering their likely consequences.

In many ways that anti-imperialist movements must confront issues such as this, is merely a sign of their weakness. If they were more powerful, the debate would be more important (because it would have real consequences), but other options might be available. It is possible to conceive of a response along the lines of the efforts of Peace Brigades International or the International Solidarity Movement, albeit on a considerably larger scale.

Quite apart from the "controversies" over military intervention, it seems to me that there are a number of actions which should be fairly uncontroversial. Firstly, a massive increase in government aid, both to support those in need in Darfur, but also to support Chadian efforts to look after the 1.2 million Darfurians who have fled to the neighbouring country. Secondly, a weapons embargo on both the Janjaweed militia, who are terrorising the population in the region, and the Sudanese government who government documents, uncovered by Human Rights Watch, demonstrate are actively supporting and arming the militias. The question of such an embargo has run into problems at the UN Security Council where it is opposed by a number of governments, including Russia who, entirely coincidentally, not only has weapons deals with Khartoum, but has even brought forward the sale of 12 MiG jets by five-months.

These are important issues. Skimming over what I've written I hardly think I've done them justice. I'm not even sure it's coherent. But I'm thinking on my feet here. Perhaps I'll write something more useful in the future. Or not.

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