There’s been some really interesting posts here on R2P in the last few days. At the risk of kicking a dead horse – although I hardly think this horse is dead – I’d like to raise a few points. (I’ve actually been writing this post over the past few days, and was going to post it later in the week, but Obama’s speech tonight made me want to post it earlier. You know, because hasty blogging is always a good thing.)

Most of my thinking has been on the issue of consistency/inconsistency with regards to R2P. I think I agree with Charli, there is no consistency requirement when it comes to R2P. For better and for worse, the case presently being made for R2P in Libya is that the international community is acting where it can when it can. The better part of this is that it’s relatively easy to protect civilians from conventional military forces (tanks, planes, etc) and this is why I think we see the action in Libya. Boots on the ground are not required, and if they were, it’s clear that they’re probably not coming. As Obama said tonight, boots on the ground would entail a situation where the “dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.”

The worse part of this, as implied by Obama’s speech, is that it is still very hard to end civil wars/ethnic strife (such as that of Rwanda – which provoked so much soul-searching about humanitarian intervention in the first place). And this is why we aren’t really seeing any intervention in Côte d’Ivoire – because everyone knows it would be a hot mess.

This is unfortunate. As the International Crisis Group has indicated in a letter to the UN Security Council today specifying that things are going very badly, very quickly in Côte d’Ivoire.

The security and humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire is rapidly deteriorating. Civil war in the country has been reignited; we are no longer warning of the risk of war, but urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes.
… the Security Council should immediately authorise military action to ensure the protection of the population by UNOCI or other authorised forces and to support President Alassane Ouattara and his government in exercising authority over the armed forces and ensuring the territorial integrity of the state….
According to the UN, 440 people have been killed and 500,000 have been forced to flee their homes. This toll is still growing. There are reports of sexual violence, summary execution and individuals being burnt alive. Gbagbo’s militias continue to perpetrate violence and organise road blocks controlled by armed men, and elements in the Ouattara camp have also been implicated in targeting civilians.

I think this situation answers the question that Jon raises in his post as to whether a threshold to act has been crossed. (Incidentally, I also agree with his conclusions on Libya, that it was likely a mass-atrocity by Gaddafi forces was about to be raised.)

So how can we morally defend the inconsistency of intervening in Libya and not Côte d’Ivoire? Is Obama’s pragmatism really a sufficient answer?

Well, as suggested above, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire are very different conflicts. Libya has been determined to be a conflict that can be solved from 10,000 feet. This is something that Western militaries are far more comfortable with because it clearly is much less of a risk to them AND they can avoid the very bad and messy pictures of boots on the ground which lend themselves to critiques of imperialism – if not just more images of western troops in another Middle Eastern country.

But I wonder if this means that R2P only lends itself to this kind of conflict? That we’re good to go for interventions where western forces can effectively bomb a conventional army into oblivion, but conflicts that require more direct and inherently risky intervention become an entirely different proposition. I think this is an obvious point – but it does point to the fact that anyone who seeks to make R2P a consistent norm is basically out of luck? That our inclination to “prevent, respond, rebuild” is going to be determined by the nature of the conflict rather than the need on the ground?

Certainly this is a concern that Obama alluded to and sought to answer in his speech:

In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all – even in limited ways – in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home.
It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground…

The question is whether or not this then jeopardizes the morality of the norm. Obama’s pragmatism suggests that we have a responsibility to protect, but only where it’s convenient. Only where (American) lives are not at stake. What kind of norm is that? As one commenter argues:

If the “responsibility to protect” is a sacred principle, shouldn’t it be applied everywhere? What about those peaceful demonstrators who are being shot at by the Syrian army? What about the civilians threatened by the fighting between partisans of Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who was elected president of Ivory Coast in November, and those of Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election but refuses to leave? What about the Shia majority in Bahrain whose aspirations to social equality are brutally repressed by a Sunni dynasty with the help of Saudi Arabia?

In this sense, I think many of our (their) hesitations about R2P are about consistency. We worry about consistency because we like check-boxes. We like certainty. Perhaps it offers predictability. Or, as guest-Duck blogger Chris Brown has written (in his collection of essays) “one of the reasons why so many people look to developing rules that will constrain action is precisely because they do not trust the judgment of those who hold the great offices of state in the Western democracies” (adding that after Iraq, there are understandable  reasons for this mistrust.)

Worries about inconsistency suggest that we’re actually really worried about something different – than rather than circumstances, R2P occurs because of different motivations. Libya has oil and Côte d’Ivoire has cocoa. It’s not surprising that there are accusations of something fishy going on here.

I’m not sure what to say – is this a sorry comfort kind of post? We can only intervene where we can be responsible; only where it’s pragmatic. Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re probably out of luck. Fans of Obama and R2P are going to have to work out the very difficult morality of that.

Ultimately, for me, just because no one is likely to do anything in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean Libya is illegitimate. However, the fact that another bloody and brutal war is clearly getting underway in another poor African country is also reminder of the very real limits of R2P, which neither compels states to act nor solves many of the central problems of HOW, WHEN and WHY we carry out humanitarian intervention. And that such interventions are never going to be consistent.

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