The balance between State’s sovereignty and foreign humanitarian intervention is one of the most debated issues in international relations. A number of historical benchmarks helps to understand the widespread vision in the West (see infographic):
- The Treaty of Westfalia established in 1648 the Nation-State sovereignty and the international limits in this regard. Any intervention from other state or states in its territory is considered an attack to the Nation-State.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. It establishes the fundamental human rights. After the humanitarian catastrophes, genocides, etc. in the second half of the 20th century (Rwanda, Balkans, Cambodia, Somalia …) the international community continued to question the limits of State’s sovereignty when its civilians are at risk.
- The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was created in 2000. It is an independent body which in 2001 submitted a report to the UN General Assembly. The report establishes that the State has the responsibility to protect its population and when a State fails or is not able to do so, the responsibility to protect its own civilians shifts to the international community: the “responsibility to protect”, or R2P, is established as a concept in international relations.
- In 2005, at the United Nations World Summit, the UN General Assembly endorsed the responsibility to protect, always on a case-by-case basis.
- UN Secretary-General released a report in 2009 ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, recommending the UN General Assembly to consider how to take their commitment to R2P forward.
- In 2011, a letter from Brazil to the UN Security Council introduced an issue already discussed in the international community, the ‘responsibility while protecting’: a principle applicable by the international community to interventions under the R2P.
On the other side, the Nation-State sovereignty and the R2P are two concepts that, in certain cases, have been used to justify interventions against human rights and dubious in the light of international law. There are many examples in which the State itself has acted against its civilians and has used the principle of the State’s sovereignty to avoid foreign intervention. There have also been cases in which R2P has been used to justify a questionable intervention by several states in a third state. This makes the balance between state sovereignty and R2P a very sensitive issue.
The international community is confronted with the crimes undertaken by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq. In the difficult balance between the state’s sovereignty and the protection of the Iraqi civilians attacked by the Islamic State, the R2P comes into play.
Several facts should be taken into consideration in the debate about the application of the responsability to protect R2P in Iraq:
- The recent history of Iraq shows there is a difficult coexistence between ethnic and religious groups and minorities: Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Yazidis, Turkomen, Kurds, etc. (estimated figures in the infographic).
- Islamic State’s activities have been characterized by systematic violence. Their target has been anyone who does not adhere to their ideology. They have undertaken slaughters, tortures, sexual violence, forced marriages, sexual slavery and have forced population to choose between conversion and death. International organizations have reported a huge number of victims, both civilians and security forces (see graphic). The Islamic State also uses extortion and illegal taxation in the conquered areas (e.g. toll payment for road use).
- Since the beginning of 2014, there has been more than 1.7 million displaced people, mainly due to the Islamic State’s activities.
- The scenery in conflict is a territory previously occupied by United States. Any foreign intervention is perceived as particularly intrusive following the rupture of the coexistence arising from the 2003 intervention and the subsequent strategic mistakes.
- Nuri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, recognized his inability to ensure civilian protection and stepped down in August 2014. This decision was welcomed by the UN. Haider al-Abadi was elected by the President to constitute a new government. His priorities would be the formation of a more inclusive cabinet, including Kurds, Sunnis and Shia, and combating the Islamic State. Al-Abadi asked for international support to defeat the Islamic State.
- Inability of the Iraqi State to ensure the fundamental rights of a great part of its population and to avoid the ethnic cleansing, the religious prosecution, etc. The Iraqi population belonging to minorities has fallen sharply over the past year.
- After several months of persecution of civilians, the UN has classified ISIS’ activities as attempted genocide.
At this point, let us remember the prudential criteria, or criteria of legitimacy, to exercise the responsibility to protect (see summary image):
- The seriousness of the threat justifies a military response.
- The response has a primarily humanitarian motive, to halt or avert the threat.
- No lesser response is likely to be effective (armed force is the means of last resort).
- The response is proportionate to the threat.
- The intervention would be effective and do more good than harm.
In view of these facts, and on the basis of the criteria to exercise the responsibility to protect, a foreign intervention to guarantee the Iraqis’ survival and fundamental rights would be within the limits of the R2P and would be justified from the international community’s point of view.
At this point, a number of aspects should be analyzed. Firstly, if a US-led intervention is convenient from the point of view of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, due to the mentioned historical reasons. Secondly, if an intervention mainly based on airstrikes and the shipment of weapons to the Kurds is the most appropriate intervention. Thirdly, a holistic approach is required to tackle the problem and avoid fuelling radicalism. It is a conflict with deep roots, foreign financial support and some ideological advocacy in the region. But all these aspects, due to the complexity of the analysis, will be discussed in future blog posts.
* Religion pie chart from www.ft.com. Some icons in the R2P criteria from www.un.org.