Might or Right
by Peter Singer
New Internationalist magazine, January / February
No government can justify the mass murder of its own citizens.
But we have yet to evolve international institutions that can
intervene to prevent it. Peter Singer lays down some ground rules.
The aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks dramatically
highlighted the way in which state sovereignty has ceased to be
a sacred principle of international relations. Compare US demands
on Afghanistan with Austria-Hungary's demands on Serbia after
the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914
- the incident which sparked the First World War.
In both cases, there was strong evidence that the terrorists
had come from, or been trained in, the countries under threat.
But Austria-Hungary had much better evidence of the involvement
of elements of the Serbian Government in the plot than the s US
had in the case of the Taliban. The Bosnian Serb conspirators
were trained and armed by members of the Serbian intelligence
forces, who aided them up to the point at which they crossed the
border to carry out their criminal act. Austria-Hungary presented
the evidence to Serbia, demanding that it bring those responsible
to justice and allow Austro-Hungarian monitors.
Despite the evidence of Serbian complicity, Austria-Hungary's
ultimatum was condemned in the US, France, Russia and Britain
as merely an excuse for going to war. 'The most formidable demand
ever imposed on one state by another,' British Foreign Minister
Sir Edward Grey called it. Austria-Hungary and its backer, Germany,
have thus been seen by historians as bearing a large measure of
guilt for the First World War.
The Bush administration's demands of the Taliban were as stringent
as those in 1914, but were made without presenting any evidence
to link Osama bin Laden to the attacks of 11 September. Yet the
US demands, far from being condemned as a mere pretext for aggressive
war, have been endorsed by a wide-ranging coalition of nations.
The idea that national sovereignty cannot extend to harboring
terrorists builds on a notion unknown in 1914: that there are
'crimes against humanity' which no-one, not even a sovereign government,
may commit. Since terrorism indiscriminately kills innocent people,
it is a crime against humanity. As we struggle now to envisage
a world without terrorism, and to consider what are legitimate
means of achieving this goal, we are broadening an earlier struggle
to create a world without crimes like those committed in Nazi
Germany, in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda. What kind of institutions
and structures would we need to bring such a world about?
An international court
Just as, at the domestic level, those who commit crimes know
that they risk punishment, so too at the international level,
those who commit crimes against humanity should know that they
can be punished.
We are beginning to develop international criminal law that
is effective and enforceable. Tribunals authorized by the UN to
try those guilty of crimes against humanity in Rwanda, East Timor
and former Yugoslavia are now building on the precedent set by
the Nuremberg Tribunal in its trial of Nazi war criminals.
So far these international tribunals have been one-off arrangements,
set up to try those responsible for particular atrocities. The
planned International Criminal Court, to be associated with the
UN and situated in The Hague, will be permanent, with a prosecutor
who can charge individuals with genocide, war crimes and crimes
An international treaty establishing the International Criminal
Court has, at the time of writing, been signed by 139 states,
and ratified by 43. Ironically - and to its shame - the US has
said that it will not ratify the treaty. The court should set
a standard for procedures, the jurisdiction of which every nation
confidently accepts. If the Court had been in existence in 2001,
it might have provided an acceptable way for Osama bin Laden and
his associates to have been tried in a truly international court
that was not dominated by the US.
Punishing the criminals after an atrocity has occurred is
something that most people would support. But prevention would
be even better. Those forms of prevention that do not involve
military force are to be preferred. The long term goal must be
to build a global culture that promotes respect for others and
peaceful resolution of disputes. But for the foreseeable future
there will be circumstances in which nothing but military intervention
will suffice to stop atrocities.
Accepting the legitimacy of military intervention across borders
is much more dangerous than setting up an international criminal
court. The difficulty is to specify the circumstances in which
military intervention should take place, so that humanitarian
and anti-terrorist reasons will not slide into excuses for militarily
strong nations to exert their power over weaker ones. How should
this be done?
The moral importance of protecting the lives and well-being
of people does not depend upon the national boundaries they live
within. National sovereignty has no intrinsic moral weight. What
weight it does have comes from the role that respect for national
sovereignty plays, in normal circumstances, in promoting peaceful
relationships between states. It is a useful rule that sums up
the hard-won experience of many generations in avoiding war.
Deciding on the circumstances in which national sovereignty
must yield is, therefore, a matter of weighing up the risks of
distinct evils: on the one hand, reducing the constraints against
war, and on the other, allowing crimes against humanity to continue.
Every case needs to be considered on its own merits - no abstract
formula can replace a detailed examination of the facts of the
We can, as the international tribunals have done, make it
a condition of intervention that it is designed to stop crimes
against humanity. There is, however, another condition that is
equally crucial. Military intervention for humanitarian purposes
usually costs lives, and sometimes does not even achieve its goals.
No intervention can be justified unless it can reasonably be expected
to do more good than harm.
For example, assume that Russia committed crimes against humanity
in Chechnya comparable to those that Serbia committed in Kosovo.
Even so, since the costs of military intervention against Russia
would have been far higher than those against Serbia - and the
chances of success much smaller - intervention against Russia
could not have been justified, whereas that against Serbia may
A role for the UN
But who is to decide when crimes against humanity have taken
place and when the expectation of success is sufficient to justify
There are dangers in having individual nations make such decisions,
as Tanzania did when it invaded Uganda to depose Idi Amin, and
Vietnam did when it moved against the murderous Pol Pot regime
in Cambodia. Nor should the decisions be left to regional organizations
like NATO, which have their own agendas.
The United Nations is, for all its faults, the only global
body that could conceivably develop an authoritative framework
for specifying when intervention is justifiable. Within the UN
only the Security Council could reach a decision on intervention
with the necessary speed. But the present structure of the Security
Council makes it difficult to see it as having the necessary moral
authority for this task. The Security Council has five permanent
members - the US, Britain, France, China and Russia - corresponding
to the major powers that were victorious in the Second World War.
Although there are ten additional members elected by the General
Assembly for two-year terms, no substantive decision can be
taken against the overt opposition of any of the five permanent
There can be no justification today for giving special status
to states that were great powers in 1945, but are no longer so
today. Why should France or Britain have veto rights, and not
Germany or Japan, or for that matter, Brazil or Indonesia? Why
should China be a permanent member, and not India? Why is there
no permanent member from Africa, or Latin America or from anywhere
in the southern hemisphere?
The UN has been looking at reform options since the mid-1990s
but the process shows no sign of coming to fruition, though India
and Japan, in particular, have recently been campaigning hard
for permanent membership. To expand the number of permanent members
with veto rights would risk making the Security Council unworkable.
A better idea would be to eliminate the veto and allow a three-quarters
majority of an expanded membership to reach decisions. In the
long run, it is hard to see that giving special privileges to
a small group of states will be the best way to maintain either
the authority of the UN or world peace.
Whether or not the UN is reformed - and I would also advocate
an elected assembly as part of its regeneration (see Page 12)
- it needs more resources to carry out its decisions. It should
not have to beg nation-states to allow their troops to serve under
the UN flag. It should have the ability to maintain its own well-trained
forces so that the interventions it authorizes can be carried
out rapidly and effectively.
My picture of a possible future does not require us to dream
of a world in which everyone is good and no-one commits crimes.
It is a vision of global governance for a world with human beings
in it who are much like human beings today. That we could move
slowly in the direction of this vision is not an impossible dream.
Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton
University in the US.
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