Wednesday, February 15, 2012

R2P and the new colonialism

In Foreign Policy, David Rieff points to the religious zeal of proponents of R2P ('responsibility to protect') currently ramping up the drumbeats for military intervention in Syria.

Welcome to the "End of History," human-rights style. Like Francis Fukuyama's famous argument, there is simply no basis other than our hopes and our preferences to make us think that though the road toward this radiant future, to use the old Soviet expression, will be neither straight nor smooth, nevertheless it only goes one way, and that is in the direction of progress, peace, justice, and rights.
It is this religious quality to the support for R2P that helps account for the odd reaction among those who believe that something must be done to stop the Assad regime's war against much of its own people despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Obviously, some of this is purely political posturing. But it is not only spin. The moral outrage, however misplaced, is real enough. In her contribution to the New Republic symposium, Suzanne Nossel -- formerly Richard Holbrooke's deputy when he was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, founder of DemocracyArsenal.org, former chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch, and now executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International -- illustrated this faith-based ethical triumphalism perfectly when she insisted that though the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the Security Council resolution had been "a sharp political defeat," it had also represented a "potent moral victory" and a "tectonic shift" in the advancement of a global human rights regime whose victory is now inevitable, no matter what kind of sovereigntist rear-guard actions the Russians and Chinese may continue to mount.
The implication is clear. Three years after the adoption of R2P by the U.N. General Assembly and more than a year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, not only is the Assad regime on the wrong side of history, but the Russians and Chinese are as well. In her New Republic piece, Nossel even goes so far as to imply that the Russians and the Chinese know this themselves. They cast their votes out of fear of this human rights-based future, she writes, claiming that the "bell of international condemnation and isolation tolling now for Damascus sounds an uneasy note in Beijing and Moscow." Even by the hubristic standards of the human rights movement, these are extraordinary claims. One doubts, however, that they will cause either Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao to quake in his boots as this owl of Minerva flies by, presumably with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights held in its beak.
I've been reading several critiques of 'human rights' ideology recently, critiques aimed at its impoverished philosophical basis or at their utility in  justifying humanitarian interventions with disastrous results. As an ideology, the theory of human rights is either very thin, too thin to support the  moral judgments we  make about how human beings ought or ought not to be treated, or too unsupported unless anchored to a theological framework. Bentham famously wrote that rights talk was "nonsense on stilts'.  By that he meant that when you dig into what is meant when people affirm rights, you find out that there isn't enough 'there' there. These days, when people affirm rights strong enough to justify military intervention for their protection, there might be too much 'there' there, but what is there is unable to be protected, and might ultimately be harmed, by military intervention by foreign powers, judging from the record of the last decades.

My suspicions of R2P, laid out in an earlier post, have only deepened since I started thinking about it. People being 'protected' by bombs and automatic weapons wielded by foreign troops tend to die more than flourish. True, the impetus is to protect ordinary folks from their local armies and militias now being used to terrorize and control them. But adding more armies to the mix hasn't tended to ramp down the violence and atrocities, except when they were already on a downward trend.

R2P seems like internationalized colonialism, supported by the same kind of religious missionary zeal the as its 19th century antecedents, (I don't have to quote Kipling here, do I?) and unlikely to secure for those whose rights are being 'protected' net benefits. I hope it doesn't lead to military intervention in Syria, though I fear it might.

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