Tuesday, August 05, 2003

A Moral Failure - Norman Geras
I found the following snippets from Geras' article particularly worthy of highlighting, so closely does it reflect my own views about the case for external humanitarian intervention, even if it means violating the sovereignty of other nations:

Let me now focus on the question of humanitarian intervention. There is a long tradition in the literature of international law that although national sovereignty is an important consideration in world affairs, it is not sacrosanct. If a government treats its own people with terrible brutality, massacring them and such like, there is a right of humanitarian intervention by outside powers. The introduction of the offense of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trial after World War II implied a similar constraint on the sovereign authority of states. There are limits upon them. They cannot just brutalize their own nationals with impunity, violate their fundamental human rights.

Is there then, today, a right of humanitarian intervention under international law? The question is disputed. Some authorities argue that the U.N. Charter rules it out absolutely. War is permissible only in self-defense. However, others see a contradiction between this reading of the charter and the charter's underwriting of binding human-rights norms. Partly because the matter is disputed, I will not here base myself on a legal right of humanitarian intervention. I will simply say that irrespective of the state of international law, in extreme enough circumstances there is a moral right of humanitarian intervention. This is why what the Vietnamese did in Cambodia to remove Pol Pot should have been supported at the time, the state of international law notwithstanding, and ditto for the removal of Idi Amin by the Tanzanians. Likewise, with regard to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq: It was a case crying out for support for an intervention to bring the regime finally to an end.

Just think for a moment about the argument that this recent war was illegal. That something is illegal does not itself carry moral weight unless legality as such carries moral weight, and legality carries moral weight only conditionally. It depends on the particular law in question, on the system of law of which it is a part, and on the kind of social and ethical order it upholds. An international law--and an international system--according to which a government is free to go on raping, murdering and torturing its own nationals to the tune of tens upon tens, upon more tens, of thousands of deaths without anything being done to stop it, so much the worse for this as law. It is law that needs to be criticized, opposed and changed. It needs to be moved forward--which happens in this domain by precedent and custom as well as by transnational treaty and convention.

I am fully aware in saying this that the present U.S. administration has made itself an obstacle in various ways to the development of a more robust and comprehensive framework of international law. But the thing cuts both ways. The war to depose Saddam Hussein and his criminal regime was not of a piece with that. It didn't have to be opposed by all the forces that did in fact oppose it. It could, on the contrary, have been supported--by France and Germany and Russia and the U.N., and by a mass democratic movement of global civil society. Just think about that. Just think about the kind of precedent it would have set for other genocidal, or even just lavishly murderous, dictatorships--instead of all those processions of shame across the world's cities, and whose success would have meant the continued abandonment of the Iraqi people.


Let's now model this abstractly. You have a course of action with mixed consequences, both good consequences and bad consequences. To decide sensibly you obviously have to weigh the good against the bad. Imagine someone advising, with respect to some decision you have to make, "Let's only think about the good consequences," or, "Let's merely concentrate on the bad consequences." What?! It's a no-brainer, as the expression now is. But from beginning to end something pretty much like this has been the approach of the war's opponents. I offer a few examples.

The crassest are the statements by supposedly mature people--one of these Clare Short, Britain's former international development secretary, another the novelist Julian Barnes--that this war was not worth the loss of a single life. Not one? So much for the victims of the rape rooms and the industrial shredders, for the children tortured and murdered in front of their parents, and for those parents. So much for those Human Rights Watch estimates and for the future flow of the regime's victims had it been left in place.

More generally, since the fall of Baghdad critics of the war have been pointing (many of them with relish) at everything that has gone, or remains, wrong in Iraq: the looting, the lack of civil order, the continuing violence and shootings, the patchy electricity supply, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Is this fair enough? Yes and no. Yes, because it has to be part of any balanced assessment. But also no if it isn't set against the fact, the massive fact, of the end of a regime of torture, oppression and murder, of everything that has stopped happening since the regime fell. And typically it isn't set against this massive fact. This fact is passed over or tucked away, because to acknowledge it fully and make a balanced assessment won't come out right for the war's critics. It just won't stack up--this, this and, yes, also this, but against the end of all that--in the way they'd like it to.

Or else your antiwar interlocutor will freely concede that of course we all agree it is a good that that monster and his henchmen no longer govern Iraq; but it is too stupid a point to dwell upon, for it doesn't touch on the issue dividing us, support or not for the war (on grounds of weapons of mass destruction, international law, U.S. foreign policy, the kitchen sink). Er, yes it does. No one is entitled simply to help himself to the "of course, we all agree" neutralization of what was and remains an absolutely crucial consideration in favor of the war. One has properly to integrate it into an overall, and conscientiously weighted, balance sheet of both good and bad consequences.

I've only given a small portion of Norman Geras' article here, and the entire thing is well worth reading. In fact, I'd go further and say that his article is a must read for anyone who wants to think seriously about morality in the context of international politics.

What can we take from reading this article, other than that the concept of national sovereignty cannot be elevated to the status of a supreme law rendered immune to any compromise? I believe it also indicates that where we see inhuman actions unfolding before our eyes, and we have the power to put a stop to them at no great cost to ourselves, it is not only open to us to act, but an obligation. This means not just in Iraq, but in places like Rwanda, Liberia and even the Congo. After the Holocaust, the common cry to be heard was "Never Again!"; and yet, when faced in our own times with mass criminality, in choosing to do nothing, how are we different from those of that earlier age who we so freely condemn? They, at least, could say in their favor that they lacked the benefit of a recent historical precedent to draw upon, which we certainly cannot.