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Misinterpreting Mali: The Uses and Abuses of R2P

As argued in this space recently, there are sound legal and political justifications for the intervention of French and West African troops in northern Mali. Further, the apparent achievements of the operation so far lend support to those who argue it is feasible to defeat the Islamist insurgency. But lasting success will depend on the extent to which the recapture of territory is coupled with genuine efforts to accommodate the legitimate grievances of northern Mali’s Tuareg population.

However things develop, it is important that the legal and political basis for the French intervention be properly understood, since its ultimate success or failure will be invoked in debates for or against future interventions. In this regard, we should be sceptical of claims that the intervention in Mali is supported by the notion of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). The R2P concept is being loosely  invoked in relation to this crisis in an effort to encourage Canada and others to provide greater support to the French and Malians (e.g. in two pieces in the National Post, and by Senator Romeo Dallaire in iPolitics). Yet to invoke this principle in this context is to misunderstand its purpose and, indeed, undermine its legitimacy.

When a state’s inability to halt mass atrocities in its territories is at issue (as opposed to its unwillingness, usually because it is implicated), R2P is needed only when that inability has not led the state to seek UN or outside assistance.  

R2P holds that when states are unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocity within their borders, the UN has a duty to step in—including by authorising the intervention of foreign troops as a last resort. In the wake of the UN’s failure to intervene to halt genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, R2P was elaborated to overcome the idea that deference to state sovereignty should outweigh a concern to prevent mass crimes. As the doctrine was endorsed by UN Member States, only the UN Security Council can authorise the use of foreign forces to stop or prevent such crimes. (Some of the more strident R2P supporters, however, would waive this requirement if, as in the Syrian crisis, it appears that one or two Security Council members are blocking action simply to defend an ally.)

Now consider: the deployment of French and West African troops in Mali came in the wake of an express invitation by the Government of Mali. Although the UN Security Council passed two resolutions envisaging and authorising such action, in a strictly legal sense these resolutions are unnecessary. Any sovereign country has the right to combat a domestic insurgency; if it chooses to do so by inviting foreign forces to assist it, then that is its prerogative. (Canada’s presence in Afghanistan was justified on the grounds that the elected government of President Karzai had asked for NATO assistance, and only secondarily on the basis of UN resolutions supporting ISAF’s presence—resolutions that also stressed the support of the Afghan Government.)

The fact that using foreign forces in a civil war is potentially destabilising and (depending on where these troops come from) threatening to neighbouring states suggests that UN endorsement might provide added and useful legitimacy for their intervention. But in many cases such assistance is given without UN authority. Invoking R2P in relation to the French presence in Mali is therefore superfluous, since that doctrine is intended to justify intervention in the face of objections by a sovereign government. When a state’s inability to halt mass atrocities in its territories is at issue (as opposed to its unwillingness, usually because it is implicated), R2P is needed only when that inability has not led the state to seek UN or outside assistance.

But why shouldn’t states like Mali be able to invoke R2P to add moral support and international legitimacy to their already lawful request for foreign forces to assist them?  Consider the implications.  Since civil wars invariably entail human rights abuses, any beleaguered regime could call for outside assistance. Moreover, whereas normally Security Council authorization is needed to invoke R2P and override state sovereignty, no such authorization would be required if we allow a state itself to invoke R2P to seek foreign assistance to quell domestic insurgency. Thus, one of the most important checks on the misuse of R2P is removed. What would prevent Syria from invoking R2P to call on the Russians (or Iranians!) for assistance in fighting the Islamist insurgents who comprise a significant element of the rebellion?

Those wishing to invoke R2P in Mali might argue that an important qualification remains: R2P can be invoked only in the case of mass atrocities—that is, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide perpetrated on a widespread scale. However, while the Islamist insurgents ruled repressively in northern Mali, it is not obvious their abuses were so widespread as to meet this threshold. Indeed, their rule there is likely no worse than that of the armies of some of the countries contributing troops to the African force, including Chad and Cote d’Ivoire.

Humanitarian issues were of secondary importance in the French intervention. The case for taking on AQIM in northern Mali was the fear that AQIM’s threat to destabilize and criminalize an entire region would be much closer to realization were it to hold so vast and central a territory. If such a threat is serious, then security justifications alone (e.g. self-defence, regaining control of territory) provide ample cause for a military response by Mali and its allies.

To confuse or equate the R2P doctrine – properly understood as grounded in an impartial concern with civilian suffering – with the struggle against Islamist terror would expose R2P as being no more than what its critics have long feared: not a universal response to mass atrocity regardless of the politics of perpetrators or victims, but a tool deployed by the West to counter perceived threats to its security.

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