Legitimate intervention

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Feature by Diana Francis

Even for a lifelong pacifist it is hard in some circumstances to argue against military intervention.

The violence and brutality that are the fruit of thousands of years of militarismare so real that, in one situation after another, it is impossible not to long for aspeedy and effective solution. Military options are the ones we know best and that have the resources. The soldiers are ready and waiting, it seems. If they arenot sent in, we feel we have somehow connived in the slaughter, rape and displacement of innocents. It is hard to say no.

Yet what is the track record of militaryintervention? Is it a history of humanitarian action taken justly, as a last resort?Does it achieve the results ascribed to it, or is that wishful thinking?

Violence remains

NATO's war over Kosovo is regularly held up as an example of necessary andeffective intervention, yet no serious efforts were made to support and safe-guard the "ethnic Albanian" majority there by non-military means. Theirdecade of nonviolent action 1 received little international attention, let alone support. Their needs were disregarded at the time of the Dayton agreement. The cease-fire monitors eventually sent were inadequate in number (though their presence, even so, had a considerable if insufficient effect) and the Rambouillet talks werenot a serious attempt to reach a non-military solution.

The military action was indeed welcomed by the vast majority of Kosovo Albanians, but what did it achieve? It destroyed lives and infrastructure, causedterrible environmental pollution and economic hardship in Serbia and made way for the establishment of a huge US base in Kosovo. Moreover, it in fact precipitated the worst atrocities against the Albanian Kosovar population, rather than prevent-ing them. The atrocities that produced the columns of traumatised and desperate human beings that we saw on our TV screens took place after, not before, the bombing began. Later, most of the Serb and Roma people of Kosovo were alsoforced to flee for their lives.

Apart from its immediate impact, this"intervention" created a crater where civil life had been in Kosovo. This void wasthen filled with "peacebuilders", some of whom did important and needed work, but who collectively displaced local people and the functions they had fulfilled inproviding public services, administering local government and running the econo-my. It also displaced a large proportion of the (already weak) local economy.

The war widened and deepened thegulf between the majority population and the rest (an ever-diminishing number), making peaceful co-existence a forgotten dream and wiping it off the agenda of all but a tiny few. The majority population's love for the invaders has turned to resent-ment and the status of Kosovo remains undecided. Violence remains a sporadic and chronic reality and the threat of new, major outbreaks of fighting is real. The violence of extortion and illicit trading, particularly human trafficking, is wide-spread and endemic.

Crying out for change

This, then, was the "success story" that was used to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the impact of armed intervention has been even more disastrous. Clearly these countries were crying out for change, but bombing andoccupation are in themselves hugely violent, destructive and anti-democratic, whatever the motive. No one asks the dead how they rate the results and thepeople from those regions that I have met recently (who happen to have been women) see the outcomes as disastrous. International violence has released and"justified" new waves of home-grown violence (and also the violent, covert intervention of others).

Moreover, rather than affirming democracy, military "interventions" (attacks, invasions, wars) convey the message that might is right, that those who hold the military power "call the shots". They model not respect and co-operation but enmity and domination. While purporting to uphold human rights they flout them. Wars are made up of human rights violations, assigning people to life or death, mutilation or escape, not by theprocess of law (however brutal) but by uniform, by association, by chance or by military convenience. Rape used as a weapon of war reveals it for what it is--an expression of machismo and the cult of violence and control. Reliance on war consigns the weak to victim-hood and dependence on the "strong". It takes awaytheir dignity and autonomy. Those who fight and retain their sense of humanity are traumatised by the necessity of killing. 2

Supporting local initiatives

Many wish to see a strengthening of the international rule of law and the UN'scapacity to act as the world's benevolent police force. They might argue that thekind of motivation and conduct that have characterised the actions of the US andothers in these cases are very different from what they intend. They envision, perhaps, something along the lines of the British government's intervention in Sierra Leone, which seemed both well judged and well timed, and appeared to make apositive contribution in bringing the chance of peace to that tormented country. They would like to see the UN undertaking such a role.

In situations where a war is almost spent, and there is a widespread welcomefor an outside presence, there is indeed a role to be played by outsiders workingwith the local population. They may be able to assist in supporting the establishment of civil norms of behaviour and the rule of law; give help, where needed, with institution building; offer facilitation and where necessary mediation; help build bridges between estranged communities and monitor the establishment of human rights. (I use italics because the primary role must always be played by local people.) But these are essentially civilian functions that can be fulfilled not only bygovernmental or intergovernmental but also by non-governmental personnel.

In situations where violence is chronic, civilian activists, working on a small scale for organisations like Peace Brigades International, have offered protection togroups and individuals in particular danger. On a somewhat larger scale, theInternational Solidarity Movement is trying to limit the freedom with which Israeli forces visit violence upon the population of Palestine. These efforts seem pitifully small and could be much larger given funding and support.

There can be no doubt that the presence of monitors or witnesses has an effecton what people do. For instance, according to Lindsey Hilsum of Britain's Channel 4 News, speaking at a recent public meeting in Bristol, the African Union monitors currently in Dafur are playing a skilful role in discouraging human rights violations there. But interventions of this kind need to be well prepared and under-taken on a serious scale if they are to make the kind of contribution theypotentially could.

And while we need to find ways of acting in solidarity with people suffering violence, we should not underestimate the power of local populations to bring about change. Theirs must be the primaryrole if a just peace is to be achieved. Active nonviolence, while it remains under-recognised and under-developed, has nonetheless an impressive track record in displacing violent regimes: in India, in the Philippines, across the former Soviet Empire and, more recently, in Serbia.

In less dramatic ways, in every situa-tion across the world where people are confronting violence and oppression,there are groups organising and acting for change--on whatever scale and with whatever degree of openness. And littleby little things change. Many countries in Latin America, for instance, have seen a gradual transition from violent and exploitative regimes to greater democracyand in some cases to greater social justice.

The ideal UN?

Where a violent conflict or repression is still acute, or where existing establishedpowers are not in agreement, local activism may be all-but suspended, andcivilian intervention, beyond small and quiet forms of support, may appear next to impossible (though perhaps the idea of an unarmed, unaligned "people's inter-vention" should not be altogether ruled out). But in such a situation military"peacekeeping" is certainly impossible: the "peacemaking" role played by anarmy can only be to fight, or join, a war--with all that implies, and with thelikelihood of ongoing resistance, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, if we were to list the recent wars and the repressive regimes that haveseemed to cry out for intervention in recent decades--even currently--the listwould be long indeed. For the UN--or anyone else--to invade and occupy themall would simply not be possible--let alone good.

Furthermore, I would argue that the UN will never have the capacity tobecome a war-fighting agency, even if that were desirable (and I believe it isnot). Firstly, as long as war-fighting is the name of the game, those countries with the capacity to fight and win wars will always prefer to do that on their own behalf, according to their own judgements and in their own interests. Armiesare designed to enforce the power of one unit against another. They are part of acompetitive, control paradigm.

To envision an ideal UN that transcendsnational interests is to dream of another paradigm altogether. I share that dream-- but it is one that presupposes a radicaltransformation of culture and systems, not an adaptation of the system we havenow. It presupposes the creation of another world, conceptually and structurally, inwhich the ongoing struggle to compete and dominate has been replaced by co-operative attitudes and habits; where the notions of common security and sharedresponsibility are paramount--not for regimes but for people. We shall neverreach such a world through military action.

Take the power back

The essence of nonviolence's power to address violence is the power of ordinarypeople, wherever they live, to choose how far they co-operate with tyranny, at homeor abroad: to collude or to find ways to resist and transform, to stand by or to act insolidarity. Being a helpless victim is not nonviolence. (The slogan of a recentwomen's gathering in Colombia was "No war that kills us, no peace that oppressesus".) When people themselves take action to change their circumstances they areusing genuinely democratic means to assert their autonomy. When they depend entirelyon others, from outside, for their security, they are neither free nor indeed secure.

It does not help to delude ourselves that there is "an answer" to every situa-tion: one that somehow leaps over the bounds of current realities and magics us into a better future. Militarism does not have one and nor does nonviolence. It is inherent in the human condition that people can do terrible things to each other, and it is inherent in our current systems that the few have control over themany. The only way we can make ourselves and others less vulnerable is towork in every way we can to take back the power we have given away.

Put your own house in order

What, in the meantime, can "the international community"--our governments-- do in situations like that in Dafur? In the short term they can give all their attention to supporting local peace endeavours, exerting diplomatic pressure, offering political and economic incentives, and pro-viding "good offices" to help broker and consolidate the ending of direct violence and the safe return of refugees and internally displaced people.

What they could have been doing over many decades is helping support post-colonial and other countries in establishing the rule of law and good governanceand in developing healthy and inclusive economies. They could easily have found the resources if they had not been wasting a phenomenal amount of money on their own military exploits and arms race.

They could have assured those countriesthe economic base necessary for governance by establishing systems for fair trade rather than paying derisory prices for commodities and supporting the economics of wealthrather than social welfare. They could have modelled the peaceful management of conflict, rather than following their own predilection for military dominance. Theycould have foregone the ill-gotten gains of an arms trade that has helped fuel violence to the detriment of both peace and development. They could have begun to put their own houses in order.

Deconstructing militarism

We must require our governments to commit themselves, genuinely and consistently, to the values of peace and democracy: to start reducing their own reliance on militarism; get rid of their own WMD; dismantle the arms industry; set up demo-cratic systems for reaching fair trade agreements instead of exploitative ones;stop their own human rights violations; stop lying to their people; and make space for new forms of active democracy.

While the world and its resources are controlled by a powerful elite, the system of violence and counter-violence will continue. Rather than thinking about ways of taming the beast we need to build the resolve to change horses altogether.Deconstructing militarism and all it stands for is our first task, if we are to find genuine "alternatives". Domesticating it is not, I believe, an option.