This piece, written by Danny Hirschel-Burns, from Swarthmore College STAND, originally appeared on his blog The Widening Lens.
Ever since Tuareg rebels defeated Malian forces to create the de-facto independent Republic of Azawad in Northern Mali, foreign military intervention has been on the table. Though it has not happened yet, the UN Security Council laid the groundwork for intervention a few days ago. While most policy makers have stuck to stressing the need to fight extremism, commentators have also highlighted human rights violations by Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Due to these human rights violations, R2P has also entered the picture (it may well not be cited if an intervention happens, but due to the possibility, its applicability should be analyzed). However, despite numerous executions, destroyed cultural sites, and refugees, the situation in Mali has not reached the level of genocide or a mass atrocity, forcing us to either reinterpret Responsibility to Protect’s (R2P) mandate or discard it as an analytic framework.
The second pillar of R2P states that the international community has the duty to help states protect their citizens. But in Mali, which state does the second pillar refer to? Bamako has no control over Azawad, but the international community does not recognize the legitimacy of the Tuareg state. So who does the international community have a duty to assist when in comes to protecting civilians in northern Mali? By sanctioning an intervention under the guise of R2P, the international community would assert Bamako’s claim to Azawad, and that the Malian government alone can protect civilians in what used to be its territory. An intervention would unwittingly reinterpret the doctrine as not only a mandate for civilian protection, but also one for territorial integrity.
This interpretation, however, has its priorities in the wrong place. It implies that only “legitimate” governments (i.e. recognized) have the the ability to protect civilians. This is not realistic in Mali’s case. It is not as if a small rebel group temporarily seized a few towns; Bamako has fully lost control of northern Mali, and is no longer the governing power there. While seeing Bamako as the government in Northern Mali doesn’t match up with realities on the ground, there are still other problematic implications with this view. The perception that Ansar Dine is inherently dangerous to civilian populations falls back on the idea of the Islamist bogeyman, where Islamists are universally opposed to democracy and human rights. To be sure, Ansar Dine is a brutal organization that has committed egregious human rights violations, but its presence in northern Mali does not equate to a genocide waiting to happen. Secondly, the idea that a military intervention (also known as a war) is necessary to reestablish the control of a government (in which the leader of a recent military coup still holds power) over a territory it lost so that it can reclaim its role as the legitimate protector of civilians is so ludicrous it doesn’t merit further examination.
If R2P mandates an intervention to retake northern Mali, then that implies that not only does the the international community have a duty to help states eliminate a group within their borders that are committing mass atrocities, but that it also has a duty to regain territory held by a group that might commit mass atrocities in the future. This precedent would lend “legitimate” governments, which includes a lot of brutal dictators, justification for crushing separatist forces, as they might kill civilians in the future. Given the current debate over R2P vs. RwP at the UN, the doctrine doesn’t need any more problems that will hamper its ability to protect civilians.
Applying R2P to Mali implies that governments must control their territory so that they can protect their own civilians, and that if they lose territory, the international community has the responsibility to help governments regain it whether or not mass atrocities have been committed. This interpretation does exactly what R2P isn’t supposed to: it uses R2P as a justification for military actions without an intent to protect civilians. It’s better for the future of R2P if we call the intervention in Mali what it is: an intervention to remove Islamists as part of the global war on terror.