Fri, Aug 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

British left splits over US neo-cons' pursuit of geo-political goals

By David Clark  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

At a superficial level, the split in the British left over Iraq reflects a long-standing divide between those who, in certain circumstances, are prepared to regard war as a legitimate instrument of policy and those who have often come close to opposing it in principle. With rare exception, the latter group has always formed the minority, and on this reading the current row will peter out, leaving the British Labour party largely unaffected.

In fact, something altogether more serious has occurred. For the first time, a significant section of the mainstream left has been forced into open defiance of its leadership over a decision to go to war. Many of these, typified by the resigning UK ministers Robin Cook and John Denham, were committed humanitarian interventionists who had supported the war in Kosovo. Pitted against them were many of their former allies, using many of the arguments they had developed together. It is the split within this camp that threatens to have the most enduring consequences.

Before Sept. 11, there was substantial agreement between them about the principles that ought to underpin a progressive foreign policy. There was consensus on the need to move beyond narrow realism by accepting wider humanitarian obligations as part of a responsible global citizenship. There was a belief that it was time to act on the promises contained in the universal declaration of human rights. And there was a willingness to use military force, in extremis, to achieve these objectives.

Moving from rhetoric to reality would have radical implications for the state system as it had been historically conceived. If individuals as well as states had rights in international law there could be no place for the absolute inviolability of state sovereignty as a bar to the enforcement of those rights. What had been invented as a means of protecting weak states from the predatory interventions of stronger rivals had instead become a license for despotic governments to brutalize and oppress their citizens with impunity.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia into state-sponsored ethnic violence during the 1990s acted as a spur to this debate and convinced most of the mainstream left of the need for a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention to prevent the large-scale abuse of human rights. But the machinery of the international community proved unequal to the task. By the time the "ethnic cleansing" had spread to Kosovo, the call for action in the security council had run up against an immovable Russian veto. The intervention that followed therefore took place without formal authorization.

The rights and wrongs of this have been hotly debated, but the interventionists were at one in maintaining that the values of the UN charter should be upheld even if it meant bypassing its institutions, and they were right to do so. Those who opposed them indulged in a form of procedural fetishism by which the sanctity of a discredited veto system was considered more important than the prevention of crimes against humanity. They also relied on a narrow and static interpretation of international law that ignored its tendency to evolve in accordance with custom and practice.

The international system must be capable of adapting in situations where those seeking to act against the worst human rights violators find themselves unreasonably constrained by the existing rules of diplomacy. That does not mean that humanitarianism should be allowed to degenerate into a free-for-all of subjective judgements backed by the principle of raison d'etat. There is a need for what the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) has called "threshold and precautionary criteria" to impose limits on the right to intervene.

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