A Poggean Approach to Mass Atrocities: Political Will for Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect

Abstract: Humanitarian intervention and R2P have been plagued in practice by a pervasive lack of political will to action. To overcome this situation and supply determinacy for international responses to global manifestations of mass atrocities, a two-stage approach is required. Firstly, increasing political will via the development of a new and encompassing moral edict, where humanitarian intervention and R2P are recognised as unavoidable obligations upon the international community. And secondly, increasing political will via an achievable reform agenda that lowers political/material barriers, and diminishes the size and scope of future humanitarian challenges. An approach that fundamentally represents the creation of restructured global paradigm, whereby the ‘ethics vs. politics’ decision-making equation is tilted to the point that future emergent humanitarian emergencies will predicably and consistently meet with timely and decisive intervention. Such an approach is achievable, predominantly through an adaption and expansion of the work of cosmopolitan philosopher Thomas Pogge.

The challenges humanitarian intervention suffers, are from practice, rather than theory. That of ‘shadow imperialism’, ‘political hypocrisy in its implementation’, and its ‘operational limitations’. However, misappropriation in practice does not degrade an underlying theory, nor does inconsistent or selective application of a principle lessen the moral good that is achieved on occasions when the principle is applied, and as rationalised by National Security Advisor to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, “if you can’t intervene everywhere, you don’t conclude that you interfere nowhere”
During the 1990’s, civilians came to bear the brunt of conflict more than ever before, with a full one percent of the total world’s population displaced by conflict, and a further one percent having their lives disrupted beyond function or dignity. The subsequent selective, and disjointed nature of international responses indicated that the majority of conflicts were slipping into the theoretical void between best ethical practice and the norm of non-intervention. Hopes for a normative understanding to move the international community, in practice, beyond the theoretical dimensions of the ‘humanitarian-sovereign dilemma’ did not eventuate; rather uncertainty became the norm of humanitarian intervention, with at-risk segments of humanity paying the price.
In spite of a principled consensus, and R2P changing the language of the debate over humanitarian intervention, the doctrine has persisted as an indeterminate principle. R2P has come to dominate the language of intervention without uniformity or weight of force being attached to that meaning, leading Gareth Evans to label the international community as having “buyer’s remorse” concerning the development of the doctrine. International indecision and institutional reluctance concerning human security challenges post-R2P, indicate that a disjunction exists between the normative language of acceptance, and the political reality behind the language. Existing as an empty doctrine, R2P has been diluted by its “clearly inherent malleability”, and scarred by its empirical failures to the point of “terminal decline”.
The failures of humanitarian interventions, (or R2P interventions), are reducible to a singular factor, that “states choose not to undertake them”. In cases where operational limits are surmountable, states once capable of significant imperial liabilities, are now proving unwilling to shoulder such burdens for humanitarian principles. There is a global absence of political will for humanitarian intervention and R2P; a pervasive political desire not to accept responsibility for mass atrocities and human suffering.
As an expedient pathway to universal acceptance, Pogge focuses not on whether we have a duty to aid people in need, but rather on ensuring that we did not cause them to be in need of aid in the first place; a duty not to harm as opposed to a duty of assistance. To revisit Peter Singer’s pond, rather than simply not helping the drowning child (violating a positive duty to help), a circumstance where we are actively holding the child’s head under the water (violating our negative duty not to harm), is undoubtedly more morally concerning. Expressed by Pogge, “Failing to save lives is not morally on a par with killing”.
Though moral truth is a project of reason, moral acceptance is a project of emotion. And an unaccepted moral principle, is meaningless in practical terms. To achieve such emotional acceptance, and despite a primary focus on global poverty, cosmopolitan philosopher Thomas Pogge developed a minimal standard of global justice: a universally agreeable moral standard, so as to ensure universal adherence. Pogge did this by re-crafting the moral bedrock of responsibility, by claiming, fundamentally, that justice merely requires that we don’t inflict harm upon others; that we don’t violate our negative duties not to harm by causing human rights deficits.