Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Rules of engagement

Iraq demonstrates the need for Labour to build a progressive consensus on humanitarian intervention, says Leni Wild

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No war in recent memory has proved as divisive and controversial as the US and UK-led war with Iraq. Nearly three years on, debate about the legitimacy and efficacy of that intervention continues to rage. The government has lost support at home because of the war. It has also lost some credibility abroad. And progressive opinion was divided on this issue, both here and internationally. Rather than rehashing the arguments of the past, the mood should now shift to making a progressive contribution to global security issues and to global social justice, tackling the underlying causes of insecurity and building a new consensus on intervention.

Today, an exclusively national conception of security is neither politically nor intellectually tenable. Global interdependence is reducing the distinction between national and international security. More than ever before, ‘our’ security now depends on achieving greater security for others.

Development policy is an important way of addressing the root causes of insecurity. Labour has an impressive record on sustainable development issues. Since 1997, it has established a separate government department for international development, raised the development aid budget, pushed harder on fairer trade, and helped secure greater debt relief for the world’s poorest countries. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s leadership ensured that Africa was high on the agenda for the G8 in 2005. And the UK government has taken steps to ensure that its development policy is linked to its wider security policies, through its support for security-sector reform and for conflict resolution and management.

However, there remains a lot more to be done. Insecurity and violent conflict are still among the biggest obstacles to progress in many poor countries. Violent conflict destroys advances built up over decades, and poor people consistently identify insecurity as one of their top concerns. The UK needs to strengthen the links between development and conflict issues, and security policy should be much more effectively integrated with development priorities and human rights commitments.

The UK government and the international community need to do more to address weak and failing states like Afghanistan, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The costs of a fragile state are not only borne by its people. Failing states can become the base for terrorist movements, and centres for organised crime and the trafficking of drugs or arms, as we saw in Afghanistan.

Showing a strong commitment to building up state institutions through support for institutional reform means ‘putting our own house in order’, by tightening controls over small arms transfers to these countries, and ensuring that UK companies are not involved in corruption. Money stolen from weak and failing states is often laundered through western financial institutions. The chancellor has already indicated his commitment to tackling money laundering, but further action is needed.

The Post-conflict Reconstruction Unit is a new cross-departmental initiative being developed within government. This needs to properly co-ordinate all government activities in post-conflict situations and to provide adequate resources for reconstruction and rebuilding. Half of all ‘post-conflict’ countries fall back into conflict within five years, making it crucial that more support is provided to assist with peacebuilding and reconstruction.

The most contested area of security policy is that of intervention and military action. The UK saw its interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor welcomed at the time by many. But Afghanistan and Iraq have been much more controversial. The government should now focus its efforts on trying to build a new consensus on intervention for humanitarian purposes. While there were compelling arguments for opposing the Iraq war, critics had much less to say about how you help people living under repressive regimes. But there are cases – for example Darfur – where some form of intervention may be needed to prevent the massive loss of human life. When is this appropriate and how can future interventions be more effective than previous ones?

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty redefined sovereignty as ‘responsibility’: ‘Sovereign states have the primary responsibility for the protection of their people from avoidable catastrophe – from mass murder, rape, starvation – but, when they are unable or unwilling to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the wider community of states.’ Kofi Annan has given strong backing to these principles and, at the recent 2005 UN world summit, all of the world’s leaders, including Tony Blair, officially endorsed this concept.

The commission said that there were three responsibilities: to prevent, to react and to rebuild – and that the first was the most important. The UK government can play a significant role in leading the way in pushing for a re-examination of the political, diplomatic, economic and legal policy instruments available for preventive action when large-scale human rights abuses are imminent or are already underway.

In extreme cases, military intervention may be necessary. This would need much stronger principles, enshrined in international law, on when it is appropriate and legitimate to act. This requires much clearer thinking about the ‘how’ of intervention, ensuring that decent motives are not tarnished by inappropriate means. The ongoing insurgency in Iraq and the breakdown of law and order following its occupation, not to mention the massive loss of civilian and military life, highlight why this is necessary. It is much easier to bring down a rights-abusing regime than it is to build new democratic institutions.

It will also require different capabilities. A study group on Europe’s security capabilities produced a report in 2004, at the request of the EU secretary general, Javier Solana, calling for an integrated EU civil-military force of 15,000 personnel. At least one third of these would be civilians with various professional skills and experiences (including policemen, human rights monitors and aid workers).

The UK is well known for its peacekeeping responsibilities; however, moving towards forces which combine military personnel with skilled civilians should be a key progressive goal. This means better integration of military and civilian planning, possibly following the proposed EU model. Any military intervention must also involve a real attempt to minimise harm to civilians, sufficient long-term planning for reconstruction and development, and close co-operation with local reformers.

Understandably, the Iraq war has dominated the debate about UK security policy in recent years. Progressives will continue to argue about Iraq, what was done and what should be done now. But progressives – both opponents and supporters of the war – should be able to identify some common priorities for the UK government’s future security policy. These priorities must have global social justice at their core.

If a ‘responsibility to protect’ is to be upheld, long-term development and conflict prevention must be priorities. But a Labour government will also need to work much harder at helping to build a progressive consensus on intervention for human protection purposes. It will need to be both ‘tough on insecurity and tough on the causes of insecurity’ if it is to meet the threats and challenges of the 21st century.

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Leni Wild

is an associate manager at APCO Worldwide, a councillor in Lambeth and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. He writes in a personal capacity.

1 comment

  • The author exhibits an excellent awareness of the interconnectedness of global security and the UK’s responsibilities within that reality. She is conversant in the nuances of military capabilities and her piece remains as timely today as when it was written. The challenge of being “tough” while balanced and responsible remains as elusive as ever and Labour needs to develop consistent practices and be cautious of the precedents it sets.

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