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New world disorder and the humanitarian (R2P) case for killing bad guys

Trends in armed conflict worldwide since WWII. Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

Today is September 11, the 13th anniversary of that day in 2001 the U.S. suffered a catastrophe that other smaller countries suffer every day, if you just want to count bodies.

That’s not really the point, of course. The 9-11 attacks shocked America, and perhaps to some extent the world, mostly because we thought our nation was impervious to the kind of massive attacks and ideological/political killings that regularly happen in many other parts of the world. Or maybe just because crashing planes into skyscrapers was such a spectacular failure of national security.

Today is also year 13 of what we dubbed the War on Terror. Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is diminished which, so we’re told, are signs of progress. But has the global quotient of terror been reduced? Has the war against specific terrorists made progress? Is terror something only terrorists do?

Take Syria, for example, where nearly 200,000 people (many of them non-combatant women and children) have been killed in a war by that country’s government against its own people – a war that has gone on for a few years now without any intervention from the rest of the world. Or take Iraq, where some estimates put the overall death toll due to war – and to a lesser extent terrorism – over the past decade at nearly half a million people dead. These debacles rank right up there with the Korean War, or the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

And as the TV hawkers like to say: But that’s not all! There is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of course, various on-and-off-again conflicts in unstable African nations (South Sudan, Somalia, CAR, to name a few), China’s increasing belligerence with its neighbors, Israel’s extensive destruction of Gaza and so on. As the chart above shows, we may have fewer declared wars out there but the data show ‘intrastate’ warfare has been increasing over time.

Trends in armed conflict worldwide since WWII. Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

Trends in armed conflict worldwide since WWII. Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program.

We also have more people on the run today, as refugees or ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP) than we have had since World War II. As my colleague Tom Murphy wrote today, last year the world responded to humanitarian crises with a record amount of money – which still was woefully inadequate because of a record number of crises around the world.

The New World Disorder has finally became more than Americans could bear.

Obama DroneLast night, President Obama announced that the U.S. would initiate an attack of some sort on the brutal militants in Syria and Iraq that call themselves the Islamic State (or ISIS, or ISIL or whatever … ). Said the President: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

But people are always threatening America. What finally pushed the reluctant warrior-in-chief to act this time?

The only thing that changed in recent days, the geopolitical straw that broke the camel’s back, was ISIS cutting off the heads of two journalists, Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, and posting the horrific videos of the beheading along with standard hyperbolic and anti-Western rhetoric.

So that’s the kind of thing that finally gets us into taking military action in this crazy situation? Seriously?

As a journalist who has had my share of dangerous run-ins with wack jobs, here and abroad, I appreciate that the U.S. government takes it seriously when we are killed or otherwise abused for just doing our jobs. (It should be noted that the Obama Administration also abuses journalists here for doing their jobs. See the case of NYTimes’ James Risen, for example). But this is hardly a reasoned or sufficient reason for renewing our military exploits in Iraq, or for finally intervening in Syria.

No, what really changed is that the opinion polls say the majority of Americans are now ready and willing to go after ISIS-ISIL. So Obama and, probably, most members of Congress have become similarly hawkish. At least when it comes to ISIS-ISIL. We’ll see how this adventure goes, given that few would count our previous efforts to chase after those in Afghanistan and Iraq who we believed posed a clear and present threat to America as positive achievements.

Military interventions are not popular with the humanitarian crowd, perhaps because many of them live or work in these communities and can see first-hand the incredibly destructive and de-stabilizing impact of even the most ‘surgical’ of military strikes. Or maybe it’s just an ideological bent, a belief that warfare and killing can never accomplish anything positive because violence usually, historically, begets more violence.

Yet perhaps we’re at a point where a brutal reality must be considered – that killing the right people can be a humanitarian act. That is, arguably, the basis of a widely accepted (though hardly widely practiced) international doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect. Or in wonk speak, R2P.

The concept grew from the recognized failure of the international community to intervene in earlier atrocities, such as the Rwandan and Srebrenica massacres of  the mid-1990s. It emerged as a new doctrine at the turn of the new millennium as a means to make the international protection of human life trump national sovereignty. Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, said at the time:

“If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica — to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”

So what difference has R2P made so far? President Obama has dismissed Syria’s demands for notification in advance of any U.S. air strikes on ISIS-ISIL. Obviously, we don’t give a damn about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s claims of sovereignty. But the way this plays out also seem to indicate we care more about the loss of two American lives – or perhaps the way they were murdered – than the killing of hundreds of thousands of foreigners.

Do Americans truly believe in a responsibility to protect others, or only themselves? The global community often seems at a loss to take a stand on R2P, or even mention it lately, perhaps because the idea of using military force to achieve a humanitarian good sounds absurd or at least causes cognitive dissonance.

But given the new world disorder, it appears high time to at least dust off this notion and consider putting it to use.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.