Should Britain Invade Libya?

Posted on March 4, 2011

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Muammar al-Gaddafi

The title I have chosen is somewhat disingenuous. I do not support armed intervention in Libya, and so my intention in blogging on this subject is not to voice support for military action. Neither, however, do I oppose it. But the suggestion that the West might use force in the Arab world has once again made the idea of humanitarian interventions a subject of public discourse.

The philosopher Peter Singer, in a recent article here, laments the inability of the U.N. even to place consideration of possible action against Libya on its agenda. It is perhaps the first time that I have found myself agreeing – even if only partially – with Singer, who is better known for his stomach-churning views on infanticide and bestiality, amongst other unmentionables.

Singer draws attention to a set of principles known as the ‘Responsibility to protect’, formulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (I.C.I.S.S.) in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Based on social contract theory, these principles hold that a responsibility to protect its citizenry is a natural compliment of the right to rule which any government assumes over a particular nation. Should it fail to fulfil this responsibility, foreign States may have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of the people – a course of action usually forbidden by the U.N. due to its adherence to the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign States.

To understand what has gone wrong here we must go back a little in time. It is the theory of the Just War which provided the impetus for the development of internationally accepted laws governing armed conflicts. This set of principles was first formulated systematically by scholastic theologians and canon lawyers in the middle ages. The insights being systemised, however, were not on the whole distinctively Christian, but rather widely accepted as far back as Greco-Roman times, and conveyed to medieval Christendom via the medium of the early Church Fathers.

Much of the rhetorical garb of the Theory has been retained in the modern era. The I.C.I.S.S. report listed six criteria which must be fulfilled for an intervention in the internal affairs of a foreign State to be justified. Remarkably, despite the passing of the centuries, these criteria adhere to the very language of the traditional Theory: ‘right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects’. This gives the impression that the Theory itself still provides a moral framework for decisions on whether to go to war.

But arguably, despite the retention of the traditional language, its principles have been seriously undermined by certain trends in modern thought. Crucially for our discussion of humanitarian intervention, whereas the traditional view rested upon a conception of the political authority of States which consisted in a responsibility to protect the peace, and promote the common good, of a particular community, the more recent view has tended to see political authority as conferring an almost unlimited right to rule over particular geographical territories, and by extension over any persons who reside in those areas.

The Flag of the United Nations

Such a concept of political authority underpins the principle of non-intervention in the affairs sovereign states affirmed by the U.N. which, by definition, makes any intervention – humanitarian or otherwise – in a foreign country very difficult to justify. The fact that the U.N. was established in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with its many atrocities, makes this even more puzzling. But for those who cleave to the more traditional view, arguably the only coherent and humane one on offer, humanitarian intervention is not a ‘problem’. In a 1992 speech Pope John Paul II, who was known for his resolute opposition to unnecessary military conflict and could hardly be accused of warmongering, stated that humanitarian intervention can be ‘a response to a moral obligation to come to the aid of individuals, peoples or ethnic groups’ who have been denied fundamental rights. Yet according to the U.N., no such duty exists. Even after endorsing the recommendations of the I.C.I.S.S., the most it will concede is that States may intervene to stop genocidal atrocities if they feel like it, but that they are not obliged to do so.

One might argue that the idea of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is doomed because it is founded on a deficient philosophy – the Social Contract Theory – but, despite serious defects, it is at least a small step in the right direction. Yet, if the international community is ever to solve the problem of humanitarian intervention which, through its own blindness, it has created for itself, it must realise that this step in the right direction comes only after so many steps in the wrong direction have been taken that it has become increasingly difficult to remember where we began.

So it is difficult to agree with those who see the formulation of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ as a sign of real moral progress. On the contrary, the fact that so many seem to have ignored for so long so basic a moral imperative as the need to stop insane tyrants from committing genocide, and are only now feeling the need to reformulate this most rudimentary of principles, is perhaps one of the most damning indictments of the ethical vacuum in which many governments and international decision-making bodies operate, and of the murderous orgy of destruction which was the twentieth century. Some would foolishly have us believe the last century was the dawn of a great era of true progress.

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