Idea: International War Crimes Prevention Force

by Alan Cohen

I just posted on why it is so hard to find ways to prevent war crimes – aside from all the internal politics of places like the UN and the Western powers, it is rarely possible to know with confidence what to do, or even to know that intervention won’t make things worse. I argued that two prerequisites for addressing these problems are (a) a strong disincentive for any rulers contemplating atrocities, and (b) a way to impose or implement a stable long-term government in conflict zones.

To this end, I propose the creation of an international body responsible for prevention and enforcement of mass atrocities. This body would have substantial diplomatic and military power and would be largely independent. It would be mandated to use its power in ways that would put real, meaningful pressure on governments to find peaceful long-term solutions to their internal conflicts.

What would such a body (I propose calling it the International War Crimes Prevention Force, IWCPF) look like? How would it work? Here is a tentative outline of key principles:

Not associated with the UN

The UN has had very little success in preventing impending international conflicts, at least as far as we can tell from media reports. The UN Commission on Human Rights is notoriously controlled by the most notorious human rights violators. In order for the IWCPF to be successful, it must be able to act quickly, decisively, and independently. This means no association with the UN.

Composed of countries with stable democracies

It is critical to make sure the countries participating in the IWCPF share its basic goals. The best way to do this is to restrict membership to countries meeting a series of criteria for good governance. For example, countries could be required to have had at least three consecutive democratic transitions between governments, to meet certain standards in terms of human rights and corruption, etc. The IWCPF could be expensive; wealthier nations would be more useful as members, but poorer nations should be welcome as long as they can show commitment to the core principles.

Distribution of power among member nations

One of the problems with the UN security council, NATO, World Bank, and IMF is that too much of the power resides with a few very large countries, notably the US and sometimes China and Russia. This means that the actions of these bodies often serve the national interests of certain countries rather than the international interest. Unfortunately, since lots of funding is key for the success of such an enterprise, wealthy nations will need to contribute more, and will need to feel their interests are somewhat represented. I propose a compromise approach: a three-tier system. The highest level would be countries like the US, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and South Korea – countries capable of large financial contributions. These countries would get three votes each on the council. The second tier would be small but wealthy countries, or larger middle-income countries. This would include places like Denmark and Chile, and they would get two votes each. The lowest tier would be for very small or poor countries – Costa Rica and Estonia, for example. The tiers would be as a function of financial and military contribution, meaning that the US could be in the lowest tier if its contribution was small.

Independence

Nations will only participate in the IWCPF if they feel it represents their national interests to some extent, but at the same time decisions of the IWCPF cannot be constrained by detailed negotiations among member nations, which can take too long and involve too much consideration of each nation’s particular interests in each conflict. Nations should participate because they feel international stability and prevention of atrocities helps them in general, not because they agree or disagree with a decision about any one conflict. In order to make independence a reality, the IWCPF will need a separate military and diplomatic corps. While the soldiers and diplomats would come from member nations, they would be responsible only to the IWCPF, not to their home countries. International volunteers could also be accepted.

Mandate

The mandate would be to use the threat of military force to dissuade governments from engaging in atrocities and to compel them to come to negotiated settlements with domestic adversaries that would result in long-term stability and power sharing. Democracy would NOT be an explicit goal because in too many conflict zones there are clear ethnic or sectarian divides, and democracy could result in the majority group having the power to commit atrocities against the minorities.

Principles of operation

The main operating principle would be that the IWCPF would have a strong enough military to invade countries committing atrocities, destroy their military capabilities, and arrest their ruling elites for trial at the Hague. Long-term occupation would be avoided; instead, repeated invasions and overthrows of governments would be used to dissuade a return to unacceptable practices. In reality, the goal would be to never (or almost never) actually use the interventions: the credible threat of a swift, effective intervention should be enough to force parties to come to the negotiating table and make real concessions. However, the threat must be real, and could include confiscation of all property pertaining to the upper classes. This threat would mean that the upper classes would put substantial pressure on the government to find a peaceful resolution so that they can preserve their status.

The negotiated settlements would follow the principle that power among rival groups (ethnic, religious, tribal, sectarian, etc.) would be shared in proportion to their populations, in such a way that minorities could retain some real influence. It would not be sufficient to have an ethnically representative parliament, since the majority group could still end up controlling the government. Rather, certain ministries should be set aside for each group, or better still, there could be enforced hiring of civil servants from all ethnic groups to ensure substantial mixing within the power structure.

In almost all cases, the threat of a severe military intervention should be sufficient to ensure that major concessions are made by all sides. Importantly, the military intervention could also be targeted against insurgent or rebel groups if they refuse to negotiate in good faith. A mix of small amounts of military intervention and diplomacy could be used together. For example, if one of the groups was failing to make sufficient concessions, air strikes could be used to destroy some of their military installations.

Decision making

Key decisions would be made by a governing body that was composed of one member from each participating country. Each member would have 1, 2, or 3 votes as described above. A supermajority (60%?) could be required to authorize the use of force.

Limits

Unfortunately, certain nations such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel have militaries that are sufficiently strong to make the threat of intervention unfeasible. The world is not a perfect place, and we would have to accept that the IWCPF would not be able to address these conflicts. (Note that I am not arguing for invading these countries even if it were feasible – but I do think that applying sufficient external pressure to, for example, both Israelis and Palestinians could force them to negotiate a stable, long-term peace agreement.)

Example 1: Syria

In the case of Syria, Assad retains his power because elites from his sect as well as Christians, Kurds, and secular Sunnis have a lot to gain from the status quo and have a lot of fear about what would happen if sectarian Sunnis came to power. They have little incentive to negotiate because the alternative seems like utter disaster to them. In this case, the credible threat of an intervention that would assure that they would lose their status could force them to remove support for Assad. At the same time, the negotiated settlement would not completely deprive them of power – it would result in power sharing. This combination of carrots and sticks could allow for a settlement in which Assad was removed from power (and ideally sent to the Hague for prosecution, but only if this did not endanger the overall accord), in which the minorities retain substantial power, and in which the majority Sunnis also gain substantial power.

Example 2: Bahrain

Bahrain underwent substantial protests during the Arab Spring, and repressed them with some violence, though nothing comparable to what was observed in Syria. The dynamic in Bahrain is tricky because there is a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni elite. A full democracy would result in a complete loss of power for the ruling elite and a government that would likely be strongly allied with Iran. The monarchy in Bahrain had previously appeared to be one of the more liberal and open governments in the region, but faced with the prospect of losing all power they cracked down relatively hard. Again, the solution is a negotiated power-sharing agreement, which could be accomplished with a credible threat of force.

Example 3: Rwanda

The presence of the IWCPF would likely have prevented the genocide in Rwanda because of the foreseeable military intervention that would have followed. Likewise, it could have resulted in a stable, multi-ethnic government – unlike what would likely have resulted if the intervention had come from Western powers under the current system.

Conclusion

I have no illusions that a body such as the IWCPF could solve all the world’s problems, but I do think it could make significant strides. The key to success is to abandon the perfect in search of the good (or at least the less evil). A few successful interventions would serve as a stark warning to nations contemplating inappropriate use of force, and diplomatic mediation services could be offered to countries requesting assistance in lieu of using force.

While the benefits of the IWCPF might not seem worth the military and monetary price at first, especially since it would require member nations to abandon direct control, in the long-run it would probably pay off. Aside from the moral issues involved, most conflicts are bad for the interests of Western democracies. In Syria, the West currently risks getting embroiled in a tricky conflict or leaving a major Iranian ally in place. US relations with Russia are suffering. In Sudan, oil supplies from the south are harder to access because of the continuing conflict. Failed states breed terrorism. If the IWCPF were seen as an effective long-term way to reduce conflict, the practical as well as moral benefits would probably outweigh the price.

What do you think? Would such a force be workable? Would countries sign up to participate? Do you have suggestions or modifications to propose? Would it be morally acceptable to have this kind of world police force?

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