The Search for Peaceful Transition

Stephen DeAngelis

April 2, 2008

With the news that Robert Mugabe, the tyrant who has run Zimbabwe into the ground over the past 28 years, may be negotiating a peaceful exit from power [“Talks May End Mugabe’s Rule in Zimbabwe,” New York Times, 2 April 2008], there is renewed hope that diplomacy may yet trump force when it comes to regime change in Africa. Although the talks of negotiation are accompanied by rumors that Mugabe and the military have held discussions about simply rigging the election to avoid humiliating Mugabe, things look grim for the man The Economist has labeled a “monster.” The real death knell for Mugabe may be the reports that the elites who have supported him for nearly three decades are ready to abandon him [“Mugabe Losing Support of Elites,” by Craig Timberg and Darlington Majonga, Washington Post, 2 April 2008]. Of course, peace in and between states has been a dream since Immanuel Kant first envisioned a world filled with perpetual peace in his 1795 essay, Project for a Perpetual Peace. Occasionally the dream has re-emerged, mostly after big wars. The League of Nations represented the dream as did its successor the United Nations. Although the dream remains unfulfilled, there have been a few encouraging developments in some parts of the world. New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Roger Cohen wrote about some of these developments the week that Fidel Castro stepped down as president of Cuba [“A Change to Believe In,” 21 February 2008].

“Fidel Castro has quit after a half-century in power. An African-American has become a serious contender for the U.S. presidency, winning a 10th consecutive victory over his rival for the Democratic nomination. A new European state, Kosovo, has been born. And that’s just in the last week. Communist dictators don’t quit. Blacks don’t have broad U.S. electoral appeal. European borders don’t shift without bloodshed. History has been upended. Change, as Barack Obama would put it, is something you can believe in.”

History may not have exactly been upended, but if Mugabe actually negotiates a peaceful exit, history may experience a topsy-turvy moment. Many observers expected (and probably still expect) a bloodbath in Zimbabwe if Mugabe is dethroned. It is preventing just such bloodbaths that Cohen addressed in his column.

“After the cold war’s end, and close to one million dead in the genocides of Bosnia (1992) and Rwanda (1994), and the digitally-induced dissolution of barriers and distances and hierarchies, some governments thought everything could remain the same. They thought wrong, and not just in Havana and Pyongyang. They believed that in the age of globalization the principles of the Treaties of Westphalia, dating back to 1648, would be enough. In places like Moscow and Beijing and Belgrade, they clung to the idea that state sovereignty — the unfettered power of a state within its own jurisdiction — was the inviolable basis of international law. Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, took this line at the United Nations this week, insisting that Kosovo’s independence ‘annuls international law, tramples upon justice and enthrones injustice.’ He’s wrong.”

Cohen is arguing that events, like genocide, that take place entirely within the borders of a sovereign country can no longer be ignored by the international community. In fact, his argument goes further and places an obligation on the international community to act in such cases. Ah, there’s the rub. Without a Leviathan power that can force free and independent countries to act, such interventions remain hit and miss. For every Serbia (in which NATO intervened), you can find two or three Sudans where rhetoric replaces response.

“After the above-mentioned genocides, one perpetrated by the late Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, both revealing a U.N. Security Council too divided to stop mass slaughter, NATO circumvented the council in 1999. It waged war for the first time to prevent Milosevic doing his worst again in Kosovo. The war, in the words of Thomas Weiss, a political scientist at the City University of New York, ‘had legitimacy even if its legality was questioned.’ This legitimacy stemmed from an evolving consensus that, as Tony Blair once put it, ‘acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter.’ Sovereignty, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, in a globalized world, was more than authority over territory and people. It was also responsibility. When that responsibility to protect was flouted, when a government abused the basic rights of its citizens through slaughter or ethnic cleansing, sovereignty could in effect be suspended. As Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general, put it: ‘State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined.’ For Annan, as Weiss has noted, ‘Human rights transcended narrow claims of state sovereignty.'”

Cohen notes that the concept that human rights trumps sovereignty was recognized more or less officially in 2005.

“In 2005, the World Summit adopted the ‘responsibility to protect, known by [the] acronym [R2P]. R2P formalized the notion that when a state proves unable or unwilling to protect its people, and crimes against humanity are perpetrated, the international community has an obligation to intervene — if necessary, and as a last resort, with military force. Member states declared that, with Security Council approval, they were prepared ‘to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner’ when ‘national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.’ An independent Kosovo, recognized by major Western powers, is in effect the first major fruit of the ideas behind R2P. It could not have happened if the rights of human beings were not catching up at last with the rights of states.”

The kicker is the statement “with Security Council approval.” Countries like China have long historical opposition to interventions of any kind. They generally are convinced to abstain from voting when such interventions come up for a vote. Otherwise, the Chinese would likely exercise their veto power. Often, waiting for Security Council approval is the excuse the international community uses to avoid getting involved in messy internal situations. As countries wait, people die. Cohen notes that a new organization has been created to help countries understand the importance of R2P principles.

“Backed by the Canadian, British and Dutch governments, among others, and with support from Ban Ki Moon, Annan’s successor, the … mission [of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect] is the spread of R2P principles. They need bolstering. The Iraq war has revived a 21st century sovereignty fetish exploited by Sudan to stall U.N. efforts to stop genocide in Darfur, where the government has failed utterly in its ‘responsibility to protect’ without provoking “timely and decisive” international action. Interventionism is increasingly seen in the Middle East and Africa as a camouflage for Western interests.”

Cohen, however, writes that he is sanguine about the future of R2P principles.

“I believe the tide will eventually turn. R2P will be a reference. It is part of what Lawrence Weschler has called ‘the decades-long, at times maddeningly halting, vexed, and compromised effort to expand the territory of law itself.’ The ‘territory of law’ is now also the universal territory on which human life is protected. Westphalian principles meet R2P. An R2P generation is coming. The prizing open of the world is slow work, but from Kosovo to Cuba it continues.”

Zimbabwe may yet give the international community an opportunity to back these principles. Somalia is another country that sits precipitously on the cliff of civil war. Internal strife has kept Somalia mired in poverty, destruction, and death for nearly two decades. If Robert Mugabe does the right thing and if the power sharing arrangement worked out by Kofi Annan works in Kenya [see my post Conflict Resolution in Africa] and if Raul Castro continues to ease civil liberties in Cuba and if Kim Jong Il follows through with many of his promises, then maybe we can start to discuss the upending of history. Until then, we still need the visionaries who can help us see a better way forward.