A Victim-Centred Foreign Policy

Darfur shows the need for a victim-centred foreign policy and the reform of international law, argues Brian Brivati of the Euston Manifesto Group.

A progressive foreign policy should be different from a conservative or reactionary foreign policy. It should be based on universalist principles rather than simply on considerations of national interest. At the heart of a progressive foreign policy is the victim of gross human rights violations, wherever that victim is found. We shape a progressive foreign policy by being forthright about our victim-centred approach to the world.

A conservative foreign policy, which can be practiced by any political party, is one that will place national interest always and everywhere above anything else. If we believe that this is the beginning and the end of the foreign policy question then we should accept that the attempt to construct an ethical foreign policy is impossible. It is worth pausing on this question for a moment. Is social democracy about building walls around our own polity to defend ourselves and keep our people safe from various threats? If so we should venture out from this little island only when material threats exist to ourselves. When civil war breaks out in Yugoslavia we should be with the Tories and do nothing. We should leave the Iraq people living under a genocidal dictator. Today, we should be arguing hard against any form of intervention against the Khartoum government. If that is really what progressives want, then let us say so.

A conservative foreign policy defines national interest in terms of security but also in terms of the economic interest of a broad entity called "the west." Therefore it will pursue intervention in pursuit of the control of resources, particularly oil, because of the pressing political and economic need to deliver stable supplies. While it would naïve to believe that in the realist world of the global economic and the competition for resources that economic interests never influence foreign policy choices, economic interests should not be the deciding factor in making progressive foreign policy choices.

A conservative foreign policy is one that will act unilaterally or, more often, work hard to stop collective action through the United Nations when it does not see vital economic or strategic gains for the United Kingdom. Ideally a progressive foreign policy should be conducted through the United Nations and in line with international law and international humanitarian law. I say ideally because the responsibility to protect and the rights of victims to be saved from gross violations of human rights are more important in certain circumstances that the mechanisms of international law. We should also see the responsibility to protect as a umbrella concept that involves not only prevention of harm and rescue but also a long term commitment to reconstruction.

So we shape a progressive foreign policy by putting victims first, by understanding our national interest in terms of promoting, protecting and enforcing human rights around the world and by working through the mechanisms of international law and the United Nations.

Then we come up against cases. Take Darfur. We all agree that gross human rights violations in Darfur should be stopped, but how?

The African Union (AU) force that has pushed the Janjaweed back does not have enough money or equipment to do the job properly. They do not have the planes to enforce the no-fly zone. They are constantly being attacked by the rebels and by the government's militia. According to one report, they do not have sufficient funds to withdraw.

The best option is for a United Nations force to replace the AU peace keepers. But this is real dilemma the UN system faces us with. Resolutions have authorised the sending of a peacekeeping force to the Darfur region. That force cannot go to Darfur unless the Khartoum government agrees to its entry. This government — which is a coalition and not an Islamic government but which is targeting its African population in Darfur — has broken many agreements. It is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of both the victims and the perpetrators in Darfur are Muslims. Yesterday, Kofi Annan sais, "the message I have tried to get to the Sudanese government is that the international community is not coming in as an invading force, but basically to help them protect the people … If the government had been able to do it itself, I don’t think we would be having this debate".

The rebels fighting the government who did not sign the peace agreement have committed their own atrocities. In response the Khartoum government is organising a force of 10,000 to move south. A Human Rights Watch report on the 6th September stated that the government was indiscriminately bombing civilian-occupied villages in rebel-held North of Darfur. The African director of the HRW Africa said: "Government forces are bombing villages with blatant disregard for civilian lives, "A penalty for indiscriminate bombing in Darfur is U.N. Security Council sanctions, which should be imposed now." But would the impositions of sanctions make the deployment of a UN force more or less likely?

The HRW reports goes on: "Firsthand sources report flight crews rolling bombs out the back ramps of Antonovs, a means of targeting that was often practiced by government forces in their 21-year civil war with rebels in southern Sudan. This method is so inaccurate that it cannot strike at military targets without a substantial risk of harm to civilians. International humanitarian law prohibits such attacks, which can constitute war crimes. Deliberately attacking civilians is in all circumstances prohibited and a war crime."

So here is the rub — the government that plans on ethically cleansing part of its territory as a "counter-insurgency" operation is the government that can say yes or no to a UN force intervening to stop the genocide.

A progressive response should be that international law needs to be enforced, that the structures exist and need to be used, these need to be made to work.

That is what was said in Rwanda in 1994. Then we had a Tory government indifferent to the fate of the Rwandans and instrumental in blocking intervention. Now we have a Labour government that is deeply concerned with the fate of the people but is not prepared to go down the NATO road again, although this has been suggested by the US administration in the past. What should a progressive think — that it is ok for between 250 000 – 400 000 Muslims to die while the legal structures that should deal with this situation are not allowed to work?

In this case these seems to me to be a need to square the circle and that is to accept that some states can sacrifice their sovereignty when they fail to protect their own citizens or when they are attacking their own citizens. The ethical debate for progressives should be about what the threshold of violence that should mean that a state no longer has the right to agree or disagree to intervention. The ICC could be the institution that makes such a decision. And this does not then lead to full-scale invasion — there are many measures that can be taken short of that, but they must be taken in line with international law or else, like Kosovo, they will not be repeatable.

This is the key — the victim-centred progressive foreign policy we need is one that is permanent, repeatable, enforceable and predictable. Only international law can give us these things and the only way international law can be made to work is if it recognises that some states do not belong in the community of nations.

Brian Brivati is Professor of Contemporary History and Course Director of the MA in Human Rights at Kingston University.

To post a response to this article contact Alanjohnsonsdf@aol.com.

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