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ROBERT FOWLER: I think there are circumstances which could be defined fairly easily, which are so appalling, where the security of human beings is so trammeled that the world is required to act. And if that isn’t the case, then I don’t really know what the United Nations is about.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, defining humanitarian intervention.
PENELOPE WENSLEY: And the real disappointment at the moment is that the ambiguous—to put it gently—relationship, and the adversarial, to put it more forcefully, relationship between the US and the UN is really having a negative impact on the capacity of the organization and of the international community generally to deal with problems across a whole range of issues.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Humanitarian crises are springing up across the globe at an alarming rate. But deciding when and how to respond to those crises remains an ongoing debate for members of the United Nations. Jeremy Greenstock is Great Britain’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Penelope Wensley represents Australia, and Robert Fowler is Canada’s outgoing representative to the UN. All three agree defining humanitarian intervention is difficult and open to vast interpretation. We begin today’s discussion with Ambassador Penny Wensley of Australia.
PENELOPE WENSLEY: I think it’s very difficult to give a definition because it’s a relatively new concept and there is still a great deal of incomplete debate and discussion at the national and international level on it. But my own sense is that it is an intervention that involves overriding concerns about national sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of states, in order to deal with a calamitous emergency which involves gross violations of human rights.
MCHUGH: Robert Fowler?
ROBERT FOWLER: For Canada the whole concept of humanitarian intervention is wrapped up in our interest in human security. And human security for us is a doctrine which holds that we now, in our world and in our institutions have to start worrying about people and not just about states. And so when people’s rights, when people’s lives are being grossly abused, we believe that the international community must—it doesn’t have a choice—it must engage to defend that security.
Now obviously the way I’ve put that requires a lot of discussion, as Penny just suggested, about what the criteria for intervention are and when are gross abuses simply intolerable and require such action. We understand that state sovereignty is still the name of the game as it, as the game is played in the United Nations, but that there are circumstances, and unfortunately in recent years we’ve seen quite a few of them—there are circumstances which demand broader action to cease such abuses.
MCHUGH: Jeremy Greenstock
JEREMY GREENSTOCK: The UK sees it as collective international action to respond to massive violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity. And you need force by definition if the government responsible for that area is either unwilling or unable to take action itself; either has to be moved out of the way or is just incapable of looking after itself and its people. It has to be collective, otherwise it’s too arbitrary. And it has to be in response to a massive violation, otherwise the bar is set too low and you feel like interfering in everything that’s going on, which you have to perhaps use other mechanisms for.
MCHUGH: Would you say that military intervention is more popular today than it was ten years ago, in terms of major countries getting involved in humanitarian crises?
GREENSTOCK: I think it’s more controversial now. I think that civil society and NGOs and people who worry about violations of human rights, now that there is much more global activity on human rights and to further the conventions in international humanitarian law, are very keen that it should be done. States are very often very keen to protect their sovereignty and not to have the international community coming and messing them up. So it’s more polarized than it was before. It’s not more popular; it’s more polarized.
MCHUGH: Robert Fowler?
FOWLER: I agree with Jeremy. I think the key element these days is that we have so much more information. The CNN factor is a reality that we’re all coming to terms with. The institution we all work in, the United Nations, has still not fully understood the implications of something like CNN—a global instant awareness of everything that’s going on, more or less. There’s very little that we’re not aware of. And that has created a thirst for engagement, if you will, on behalf of many of the organizations Jeremy mentioned, particularly nongovernmental organizations. And so it’s those pressures that are requiring our governments to worry, if not to act; in some cases to act.
MCHUGH: Penny Wensley.
WENSLEY: I agree with Jeremy’s comments, but I also think that the pressure on governments to act is probably the most telling thing. Some of that has to do with the CNN factor, but not everything, because after all we’re still living in a world where there are gross and unacceptable disparities between rich and poor, and where there are a great many millions of people that don’t have access to CNN and televisions. But there is increasing pressure on governments, particularly because of the forces of democratization, to become involved and to do something. And I think that there is also a yearning for action, but undefined. And a great uncertainty about who should assume the responsibility for that. And that is where there is a great deal of debate at the moment which engages the three of us in particular in our governments, about the role of the UN. And your question really seems to me to raise much more the issue of not so much, is it more popular, but if there is an impulse to act—and I think all of us in our own ways have acknowledged that there is—then who should take that action? And that’s a very difficult question at the moment.
MCHUGH: Well, governments are normally very quick to speak out about humanitarian crises but I’m curious, are everyday citizens recognizing that there are humanitarian crises all around the world?
GREENSTOCK: I think everyday citizens respond to the meeting. So it’s very selective. Where the cameras got into or where a story is got out from—we’ve spent 20 years looking at the civil war in Sudan, which is a misery for the people, particularly in the south, and the international community have done not very much about it. And I think the man in the street, if you like, doesn’t really worry about it. He needs to be primed up in some way. That’s by the media normally. But the NGOs and civil society generally, is watching out for these things—are our eyes and ears of conscience, if you like, since governments don’t often want to get involved in the resource issue of dealing with these questions. So there needs to be a primer. And that often is very selective.
WENSLEY: I believe that there has actually been a dropping away of interest in the part of many countries and citizens of many countries in international action. The jargon describes it as compassion fatigue, but the statistics that point to dropping levels of development assistance by governments all throw up the fact that increasingly there is a sense of insularity, complacency, preoccupation with one’s, the immediate reality of one’s lives. And I’m very struck by that living in the United States. This is the world’s richest country. It is an extraordinary country, a country that stands up and champions many of the ideals that all of us live by. And yet there is a complacency and an insularity—not isolationism, but just an insularity that I think doesn’t lead to that pressure that is needed to really galvanize the international community to take action in these things. And whether the people like it or not, the fact is that the US is the superpower and it is the country that many of us look to to show leadership in these areas.
GREENSTOCK: I think that’s a very important issue. Just to put a number to it, if you took Australia, Canada, UK, together and took their average of overseas assistance, it would be seven or eight times higher per capita than the United States. It’s that degree of difference. Which we feel is wrong even though the United States does so much in the world. It can easily afford to do a little bit more. It is very low in the international table.
MCHUGH: Bob Fowler?
FOWLER: I think, again we’re still coming to terms with the dark side of globalization, if you will, with the fact that horror stories abound. That the public interest is fickle. And frankly, that it’s an interest that can be manipulated from time to time for all kinds of purposes. And we’re just, we’re learning about manipulation and when we are and when we’re not being. Let me just give you one story that I found enormously poignant. It was in the middle of the genocide in Rwanda, and this is a situation where 10,000 people a day were being killed every day for a hundred days. And I visited there, it was a very small UN contingent which was then a little over 300 people, in the middle of the genocide. And the commander happened to be a Canadian. And I was asking him, “Why doesn’t the world pay more attention to this? Why?” I mean, obviously this was frustrating him enormously. And his reaction to this was, “You know, from time to time I’ve thought about sending one of my soldiers up to the volcanoes to shoot a couple of gorillas. Because then the people would care. Then people would notice what was going on here. But shooting tens of thousands of people every day doesn’t seem to matter.”
PORTER: Coming up, more with ambassadors Wensley, Greenstock, and Fowler on the role their countries and the US play in responding to humanitarian crises.
FOWLER: This idea that you can have effective international engagement at zero cost, either financial or military, is an ass. It make no sense.
MCHUGH: What should the US role be in international humanitarian crises?
GREENSTOCK: We all recognize that being the superpower carries a special responsibility and vulnerability.
MCHUGH: Again, this is Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
GREENSTOCK: A lot of people out there in the world outside, would like to have a crack at an American soldier. And the American government has to protect its military in that way. But we’re having a lot of trouble at the United Nations getting quite ordinary peacekeeping exercises financed and organized on a scale that deals with the problem. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance; in Sierra Leone, which have been big issues in the year 2000; we have had terrible trouble trying to get a decision from the US government, both executive and legislative branches, for the financing and administration of those programs. We do not feel that the United States is either so resource-poor, or so vulnerable in the outside world, that they cannot contribute more strongly to the real needs, particularly in Africa at the moment, ’cause Africa is in trouble—and the American people, we would like to see more outward looking. Globalization has come out from the United States and is spreading, and the United States gets a return from that in terms of business. There needs also to be a responsibility to keep the world stable for trade and for political calm, which eventually will blow back on the United States if these things are not looked after. So there’s a long-term interest for the American people which is not being served, we think at the moment, by the US government as a whole.
MCHUGH: Bob Fowler?
FOWLER: I think what Ambassador Greenstock has said applies very specifically to the issue of humanitarian intervention. The United States is spending today virtually at the same levels on military expenditure as it was spending at the height of the Cold War, and no other country in the world is. That gives the United States even more capability, particularly capability to engage in some of the most difficult circumstances in the world. And the fact that the United States is so reluctant to engage casts a pall over anybody else’s decision-making. If the United States won’t engage, why should we? I think the most difficult thing for many of us to accept is that because the United States won’t engage in these UN operations, there is great criticism from Americans of those operations, I guess partly to justify the fact that they won’t engage. And that then puts the UN operations into a downward spiral and creates some of the problems we’ve been experiencing.
WENSLEY: Penny Wensley?
WENSLEY: I want to preface my response by noting that you’re talking to the representatives of three countries that are close allies of the United States; three countries that have a fundamental shared commitment to the same sort of values and ideals as the United States. So if we’re critical, we’re criticizing from that vantage point of being close friends and allies. And I think it’s an important point to make. We’re also representing three countries that have long been dedicated members of the United Nations, that see it as in our own national interests for this organization to work effectively. And the real disappointment at the moment is that the ambiguous—to put it gently—relationship, and the adversarial, to put it more forcefully, relationship between the US and the UN is really having a negative impact on the capacity of the organization and of the international community generally to deal with problems across a whole range of issues. We need a circuit breaker. So that’s a very important thing. But the second point is that we are not calling upon the US to act alone. What we need, to come back to Jeremy’s initial point, is collective action. We need burden sharing. And there will be a far greater willingness internationally to move in that direction, including to undertake humanitarian intervention, on a true basis of burden sharing, if there is that political will and indication from the United States.
MCHUGH: The UN is really the focal point for making the decisions about humanitarian crises in terms of intervention. But what prompts those decisions? When do we decide to go in and intervene?
GREENSTOCK: The United Nations is the only forum where all, virtually all countries of the world come together. But your audience needs to understand that the United Nations is not a separate agency like a hospital or a fire station that you ring up and ask for professional help. It is the member states agreeing in that forum to work together in a military force or in an assistance operation, or just in financing something. And the United States being a quarter of the world’s economy is billed a quarter of the United Nations’ regular budget and peacekeeping budget. The member states in the United Nations make their decisions on each particular case according to the view of their government in that government’s capital. So you don’t have a higher building block in the global arena than the national decision-maker.
This is why the United Nations is no threat at all to the United States. There’s no such thing as global governance. There’s nothing higher than the government in Canberra, or Ottawa, or London, asking us to get together with our colleagues in New York and make a decision collectively. And I think that needs to be better understood in the United States. Because the United States can contribute much more with no fear at all of a backlash or a threat from the United Nations.
FOWLER: In other words, blaming the United Nations for the failures in Rwanda or the failure in Srebrenica, or the ongoing difficulties we are all experiencing in Kosovo, is really a bum rap. We are it. There is no one else to blame. And if the Security Council chose not to respond to the genocide in Rwanda six years ago it’s because the member states, particularly the 15 member states on the Security Council at the time, chose not to do it. It isn’t some inchoate, separate United Nations that screwed up—it’s us.
MCHUGH: Do you always go in on genocide? Do you only go in on certain civil wars? Is there a blueprint that everyone says, “OK, we know this is an obvious situation that needs some intervention.” Or is not that easy?
GREENSTOCK: You’re never going to get away from a case-by-case treatment. You can’t. That’s the real politics of the world. And the UN has to stay connected with the real politics of the world. We haven’t actually yet had an instance of a humanitarian intervention that we’re talking about. In Rwanda the government of Rwanda wanted us to go in. In East Timor, in the end, the Indonesian government invited us in. In Sierra Leone, the government has invited us in. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo there is a peace agreement; the Kinshasa government is part of that, wanted us to go in. If you look at President Milosovec in Kosovo, the United Nations did not specifically authorize action then; NATO was taking action on a broader range of international law and international—and previous resolutions of the Security Council. We haven’t yet got that blueprint and I don’t think any blueprint will be more than a general approach. We will always be dealing with specific issues at a specific time, with specific decisions being taken collectively by a number of governments.
FOWLER: I agree with Jeremy that there won’t ever be a perfect blueprint. In fact I would argue that we shouldn’t waste a great deal of time trying to find one. I know in my own country we’ve spent thousands of hours trying to define the criteria that ought to be in place before Canada would agree to a peacekeeping mission. And frankly it’s not been a very productive exercise, because, particularly since the Wall came down. Particularly as the world became different and rather harder to read than it had been in the past. That said, I think there are circumstances which could be defined fairly easily, which are so appalling, where the security of human beings is so trammeled that the world is required to act. And if that isn’t the case, then I don’t really know what the United Nations is about. If there are not levels of horror that we simply—we, the most capable, the most developed countries, we the countries that have so carefully articulated our sense of foreign policy values and participated in establishing codes of conduct in terms of human rights for the world—if we can’t agree that there are circumstances which require us to act, then I think the world is in a very difficult situation.
MCHUGH: Penny Wensley, any comment?
WENSLEY: It’s the year 2000. At the end of this year the UN is having something called the Millennium Assembly, where we’ll be taking a long, hard look at itself and members states will be asking whether the UN is equipped to deal with the problems that we’re confronting today and likely to confront in the future. I think this debate about humanitarian intervention is part of a much bigger examination by member states, not just of the UN, but about the changing world in which we live and the different challenges that are confronting us. They are tremendously different than when the UN was first established. I think that what we all need to recognize, including our own national governments that are focusing first and foremost on their national issues, is that we are living in a world where there are, there is such a proliferation of transboundary problems, of what Kofi Annan calls “problems without passports.” That we have to be trying to develop new ways of thinking, new ways of problem-solving, new ways of addressing problems. So whether you’re talking about thousands of displaced persons, transboundary pollution, pandemics like AIDS, or conflicts and humanitarian crises on a scale that are totally beyond capacity of any one government to solve, I think you are, in all cases, taking us in directions of saying, “We need different ways of collective action, and we need a regalvanized, revitalized, transformed United Nations to deal with it.” That’s what I think we’re really talking about.
MCHUGH: Should the response for intervention be different for a natural disaster versus a man-made disaster? And it sounds to me as if we really don’t know that answer.
WENSLEY: I agree absolutely with Jeremy’s point that every crises will have it’s own complexities, its own aspects. Whether you’re responding to floods in Mozambique, razing villages and a whole countryside in East Timor, or genocide in Rwanda, the overwhelming dimensions of the problem require collective action and a mobilization of the international community. I would say preferably through the existing institutions that we have—the UN being the paramount one. But again and again you would come back to saying each problem will have its own dimension, its own set of circumstances, and governments will make their decisions as to their willingness or capacity to contribute to the resolution of that problem in accordance with the particular circumstances.
MCHUGH: Robert Fowler?
FOWLER: I think we’re collectively pretty good at natural disasters. That doesn’t mean that the Mozambiques get the aid they need in as timely fashion, or as completely as they ought to perhaps, but they do, but we do pretty well. And we’re doing better all the time and there’s no doubt there’s a synergy here. That if we got rapid deployment right in, for humanitarian intervention or for peacekeeping we’d be better at disaster relief. But I don’t think disaster relief is really the problem. The reluctance comes when it engages risk. Risk to our pocketbooks and risk to our soldiers. And let’s face it, the risk in both circumstances is real. And all of us around this table have suffered significant casualties in peacekeeping. In my country we’ve had a 130 or so people killed in peacekeeping and I think the number is higher in Jeremy’s case, certainly. But each of us, and our governments and the people who elect them have decided that that is a price worth paying. In our military, and if I may venture I think in the United States’ military as well, they accept this. It’s only in government circles it seems harder to accept. This idea that you can have effective international engagement at zero cost, either financial or military, is an ass. It makes no sense. And it will not lead to a more stable world or a better administered world. A stable world benefits the economy of the United States more than any other. And therefore that makes the reluctance to pay that price or to engage at some risk, harder to understand.
GREENSTOCK: Let’s remember that peacekeeping, including humanitarian intervention when necessary, is only a very small part of what the UN does. The UN agencies are doing marvelous work all over the world in development and social affairs, gender issues, AIDS, and in other diseases, as well humanitarian relief, food programs, and all the rest of it. The UN is our only global institution. Its headline activity is peacekeeping. It’s the most difficult thing to get right. We are beginning to get it right. But we do need the committed contribution of the world’s superpower to make it even better and to make it work on every occasion. That’s what we’re asking for. That’s what our three countries are working for and we want the United States to be as onside as we are in the next century or so of international activity.
MCHUGH: That is Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. We also heard United Nations Ambassador Penelope Wensley of Australia, and Canada’s outgoing United Nations representative, Robert Fowler. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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