Are regional organizations the future of humanitarian interventions?

The meeting room of the Arab League, a regional organization of Arab states in and around North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Southwest Asia. Photo by: Alyssa Bernstein / CC BY-NC

EDITOR’S NOTE: Regional organizations are becoming increasingly visible in humanitarian interventions like ECOWAS in Mali, but are they really the panacea? Andrew Reddie, research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses their role in past interventions and challenges they will face in the future.

The U.N. Charter advises that “the Security Council shall, where appropriate, utilize such regional arrangements or agencies for enforcement action under its authority.” The degree to which regional cooperation represents a sine qua non for international action was made abundantly clear in the recent uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, as the Arab League sanctioned a no-fly zone over Libya, followed promptly by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. But are regional organizations the future of humanitarian intervention?

The answer is complicated. While regional organizations have risen to the fore in recent decades, situations such as the current conflict in Syria appear to be far beyond the capabilities of their respective regional organizations. It is worth reflecting upon the role of regional organizations in past interventions and contemplating their limits, before viewing them as a panacea.

The logic embedded in Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter, that regional authorities have more at stake in conflicts that are closer to home, is sound; as is the principle that regional players better understand the context of fighting, grievances, and potential pathways to peace. These advantages, however, must be weighed against the potential for states to take advantage of the plight of their neighbors and the varying capabilities of the regional organizations that could be called upon to act in the event of humanitarian crises.

Historically, neighboring states have become involved in conflicts that threaten regional instability or spillover. One of the most successful examples of regional, humanitarian intervention took place in the 1990s within Liberia and Sierra Leone, following repeated coups and civil wars in both countries linked to Charles Taylor’s administration of Liberia and the rise of the Revolutionary United Front. The intervention in Sierra Leone — which took place after a ceasefire was brokered and then broken — was led by ECOMOG, the armed monitoring group of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with the help of British troops in Operation Palliser, and eventually led to elections in the country. The fact that this intervention secured a UN mission that was under grave threat, and solidified a peace in such a way that Sierra Leone has eventually returned to peace, suggested that regional participation could confer legitimacy upon humanitarian interventions.

In the years that followed, ECOWAS embarked upon subsequent interventions in the Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea on the grounds of “collective self-defense,” and not always with Security Council approval. The African Union and the South African Development Community also began to play a role in furnishing peacekeeping forces in Lesotho, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, and the Comoros. Importantly, these interventions have been characterized as legitimate by individual states in the region. This has been important given the skepticism regarding the role of international forces in recent humanitarian interventions by both states and their populations. However the weaknesses associated with African Union-led interventions to date have stemmed primarily from their reliance upon states or organizations for both fiduciary support and human capital — for instance, in Somalia, the African Union’s AMISOM was approved by the UN and received substantial funding from the European Union.

As well as funding operations in other regions, the EU was also involved in its own peace operations in Europe and fundamentally altered geopolitics in the Balkans following conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. EU involvement in the peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction of Kosovo, in particular, offers an example of the degree to which a regional organization confers technical assistance and resources that reshape domestic politics and enforce peace.

In the past, armed interventions on the basis of humanitarian imperatives have also organically developed among neighboring states rather than being fostered by a regional organization. The best example of this phenomenon is provided by the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) that involved Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and five other Pacific Island states. Intervening in response to increased violence and unrest caused by land-claim disputes in 2003, these neighboring states helped restore law and order and, in the years following, provided peacekeeping and police forces to enforce peace and support elections in 2006. RAMSI is expected to be dissolved in September 2013, after a decade in the country.

The Arab League, Organization of American States, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for their part, have had little to no interest in intervening in the sovereign states that comprise their respective memberships. These organizations remain primarily interested in external relations between states and harmonizing standards and regulations that reduce transaction costs and ensure sustained cooperation. The role that institutional or geopolitical weakness plays in privileging sovereignty over humanitarian norms also serves to strengthen the notion that regional organizations are not designed to perform humanitarian intervention and instead should be focused on other issues.

In Syria, the reluctance of the Arab League to choose sides in the civil war has severely detracted from its ability to influence the conflict. Moreover, the Arab League, unlike the African Union, has no standby force to call upon for peacekeeping should it have decided to intervene earlier in the conflict. The geopolitical realities in the region also overshadow any regional organization’s (whether the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council) ability to serve as an arbiter. Consequently, the Arab League has been limited to calling for peace talks and supporting the halting progress of the UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The simple conclusion from this narrative is that regional organizations have become increasingly important players in humanitarian interventions over the past two decades. But while regional organizations have considerable value in providing context-specific intervention strategies, the continuing debates concerning sovereignty and the appropriateness of regional intervention, alongside institutional weakness, can severely limit their effectiveness. Furthermore, international organizations and states continue to play key roles in mandating, legitimating, and providing resources for peacekeeping missions. Regional organizations, then, do not, by themselves, represent the future of humanitarian intervention.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

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