Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Oxfam and bombing reputations

Oxfam has published an interesting report (plus an article by director Barbara Stocking) on international human rights protection post-Iraq. The report argues:

“The danger is that, after Iraq, UK foreign policy could lurch to a much more cautious approach, turning away from trying to solve the world’s worst crises, with potentially catastrophic consequences for people in them.”

It suggests that Iraq may already have compromised the UK Government’s ability to act:

“In November 2006, Sudan’s president was able to deflect criticism, and denounce the plans for a UN force to protect civilians in Darfur, a proposal strongly backed by the UK. ‘The impact’, he said, ‘[would] be the same as what is happening in Iraq.’”

It’s certainly true that world opinion of the UK and US governments has fallen because of what’s happened in Iraq. But there are a few issues that are worth untangling here.

First, there is an inescapable point not made explicit: just because a military action is unpopular, that doesn’t make it wrong. The negative reaction to Iraq may well make future humanitarian intervention with major US-UK involvement a very hard sell. But this doesn’t mean it would be wrong. Unpopularity (of whatever origin) shouldn’t be a barrier to stopping genocide.

Second, nor should legality be a barrier. Security Council resolutions represent confluences of national interests, and the lack of one endorsing the bombing of Yugoslavia did not make that action wrong. To say, as the report rather comically does, that “The UN probably would have authorised NATO’s campaign, had it not been for Russia and China’s ability to veto such a resolution” is to miss any number of points.

Third, international relations have less to do with moral authority than we might like. The fact that the Security Council has been so lacklustre in dealing with Sudan owes more to Chinese (and Russian) economic interests there than reputational damage to George Bush and Tony Blair; it owes very little indeed to Omar al-Bashir’s ability to engage in moral posturing about potential casualties, which everyone knows to be rank hypocrisy.

If indeed it’s true that forcible UN intervention in Sudan would lead to chaos even bloodier than the current situation, then that’s a reason for finding other options – regardless of whether al-Bashir can effectively taunt the would-be interventionists, regardless of what’s happened in Iraq, and regardless of anyone’s opinion about Iraq.

But these are mostly points of emphasis. It’s a decent report, thinking seriously about how to deal with trouble spots in the changed international atmosphere, and resisting the temptation to crowd-please by subordinating every issue to a loathing of the Iraq war.

A clear focus on outcomes (and yes, that includes changes in world opinion, but not overwhelmingly so) is vital.

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