Making “never again” a reality

Making “never again” a reality

Emerging powers like China and Russia can be persuaded to protect civilians in conflicts – but only if they believe that intervention is in their self-interest

By Adam Cooper

When the next Darfur, Rwanda, or Bosnia takes place, the fate of civilians won’t depend on armies in green or warlords seeing red. It will rest with the men in grey suits who gather on 1st Avenue in New York. In the backrooms of the United Nations, diplomats from the great powers will gather, wring their hands, and ask themselves: what should the international community do when a state massacres its own citizens?

Two groups of countries will huddle together in separate corners of those carpeted rooms to answer this question very differently. The emerging powers led by China and Russia will proclaim the principle of sovereignty and non-interference, which often means turning a blind eye to conflict. If we’re lucky, the voices from London and Washington will demand that we have a “responsibility to protect” those whose lives are at stake.

This debate sounds conceptual but matters enormously. Take Darfur as an example. For four years government-backed militias have waged a scorched-earth campaign, burning villages and raping those who try to escape. Some have labelled the conflict genocide. But China, concerned more about its oil investments than the fate of these civilians, has protected the Sudanese government in the UN Security Council and blocked any real intervention: two million forced from their homes and 300,000 dead is, we’re told, a country’s “internal affairs”.

Worryingly, this Chinese view is shared by most emerging powers, including large and influential democracies like India, South Africa, and Indonesia. To them, intervention led by the West smacks of the colonialism whose yoke they broke. More importantly, they see humanitarianism as a luxury they literally cannot afford – and so they resist anything that might damage their own economic interests, even when lives are at stake.

We in the West are finding it hard to counter this logic. A recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Brussels-based liberal think-tank, makes for depressing reading. The Council analyzed voting patterns in the UN General Assembly to show that China and Russia enjoy the support of three quarters of UN members in downplaying humanitarian and human rights issues.

Of course the West doesn’t always occupy the moral high ground in the debate on intervention: the Iraq war and our inaction in Rwanda have shown that clearly enough. But we have domestic constituencies that genuinely care about the plight of others and are skilled at making our governments act, elevating humanitarian and moral concerns on the foreign policy agenda. The same can’t be said of China and Russia.

So how can we change their minds?

Firstly we need to put our own house in order. When we lose the moral high ground – in Iraq, Gaza, or Afghanistan – we give them one more excuse not to do the right thing.

Then we need to be clear about we’re talking about. It’s not “send in the troops” whenever there’s a crisis. The point of the “responsibility to protect” is that preventive and diplomatic action should be used to resolve conflict, with military intervention to be used only as a last resort. Last year’s power-sharing negotiations in Kenya led by Kofi Annan that ended the post-election violence there shows how effective this approach can be.

Certainly shrill denunciation alone won’t do. Rather than rely on moral arguments, the real task is to persuade countries that it is in their own interest to prevent and resolve conflict through forceful diplomacy. We must convince emerging powers that the cost of turning a blind eye to genocide or crimes against humanity is higher than the business they may lose.

This case can be made. Reputational damage aside, China has lost out economically by letting the conflict in Darfur fester: they face a large bill for UN peacekeeping operations and the conflict has put its supply of oil at risk. The costs of inaction are equally clear elsewhere: South Africa’s reluctance to force Robert Mugabe to concede power has caused millions of Zimbabwean refugees to stream across into their country.

So when the next crisis rolls around, we must appeal to the minds of leaders in Beijing, Moscow, and Johannesburg, more than their hearts. The fate of victims of future conflicts depends on it.

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