Waging wars: Who gives the 'foreign powers' the licence?

Beyond boundaries

Empirical evidence over millennia should suggest that the yearnings for peace and at the same time, the occurrence of wars are perhaps an inherent part of the human condition. Isn’t it true that Mahabharata and Ramayana show us how wars came about despite the best intentions and the diplomacy of no less a personage than Sri Krishna?

If wars are thus a perennial part of history and are linked to the fate of humanity, it is natural that philosophy with the task of asking fundamental questions should examine it. There are many aspects of war which merit a philosophical enquiry, but I restrict myself to only one here — the justifications for wars.

It is one thing to talk of wars, another to talk of its causes. In the case of both our epics, the root cause could be termed as ‘injustice,’ the refusal to share power on the part of Kauravas  and the abduction of Seetha by Ravana, to summarise crudely. In modern times, the classic justifications for war are blatant aggression as in the case of Saddam against Kuwait in the first Gulf war, or self-defence after aggression as in the case of the US against Japan after the Pearl Harbour incident, or more controversially against the Taliban regime which was sheltering al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. These are generally accepted justifications for waging war although what constitutes aggression can be a tricky question.

Doctrines in international relations evolve, however, though they may evolve slowly and imperceptibly. Should a country wait for aggression, if the after-effects of such aggression are going to be catastrophic? Is self-defence acceptable only after the use of force or with imminent threat? To take preemptive action against the supposedly deadly threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction was the stated reason for the second Iraq war, though other reasons were alluded to from time to time by those who started the war. In the last decade newer concepts and notions are being developed and discussed: ‘to protect civilians’ is the most significant doctrine which is currently in play in the case of Libya. ‘To effect regime change’ is another controversial idea that is yet to be stated explicitly. How should we think about these ideas?

The protection of civilians in a country whether during war or at peace time seems to be a straightforward requirement. But the question that arises is “whose responsibility is it to protect citizens?” Before answering, some traditional notions in international relations theory and practice need to be underlined such as sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of one state by another. For over three centuries  the ‘State system’ ie independent nations coexisting together and normally at peace with each other has rested on some assumptions: a nation and its government are sovereign. It has the ultimate power and authority within its territory. Whatever happens within a country is its business and that of no other country.

Role of international community

The steady evolution of human rights as a universally accepted concept poses a challenge to this traditional doctrine. If human rights are basic and are inviolable, but if a government refuses to accept them, is there a role for other countries, the so called ‘international community’ in cases of massive violations? When there is a conflict between the rights of the individual including the most basic — the right to life, and the will of the authorities in a state, do foreign governments have a justification to interfere? In cases like the genocide of over eight hundred thousand Tutsis in Rwanda or of large scale suffering in Sarajevo, these questions were posed dramatically.

There are no simple answers. Yes, one may be tempted to say, massive human suffering inflicted by a regime in a country cannot be ignored and governments should not be allowed to use the shield of sovereignty to harm their own citizens. This instinctive sympathy is well intentioned but the realities are more complex as an examination of any of the current conflicts would show.

First, by whom and at what stage can a determination be made that a country is not protecting its citizens, is either unwilling or incapable, and on the contrary is harming them, and therefore others countries should step in? The prevailing belief is that only extreme cases of genocide or crimes against humanity provide a plausible justification for ‘humanitarian intervention.’ It is also believed that the UN Security Council alone can make such a judgment, but any one who knows the UN system concedes that it is driven primarily by political dynamics.

Second, whether the international community steps in with regard to every case or only selectively. The world has too many trouble spots and there is very meager capacity for such a ‘right of intervention’ to become a normative ‘duty’ in each case. Third, the consequences of such action: do they ultimately help or harm civilians and which section of them. It is a difficult call especially in civil war like situations. And then there is the even more controversial issue, currently being debated: is the aim the protection of the vulnerable, or the removal of the perceived oppressor, in other words, an argument for a regime change.

From a diplomat’s perspective as well as that of a political philosopher, there are no absolute rights and wrongs in all this. Times change and so do practices and percepts. A rigorous debate on the evolving concepts and its implications for India are warranted.

(The writer is Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at bspraka@gmail.com)

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