I have always been sceptical about external attempts to force regime change by boycott, diplomatic isolation or armed intervention. Six months before this article was published Prime Minister Blair in his Chicago speech sketched out the idea of conditional sovereignty (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/international/jan-june99/blair_doctrine4-23.html), in which he elaborated on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, on the grounds that Milosevic’s Serbia had been seeking to cleanse the territory of its mainly Albanian, Muslim population.
“The most pressing foreign policy problem we face”, the Prime Minister stated, ” is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non -interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily. One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim. But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”. When regimes are based on minority rule they lose legitimacy – look at South Africa.”
But how to select from a long list of countries engaged in such barbarous acts? Blair suggested five criteria: are we sure of our case? have we exhausted all diplomatic options? are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? If we get involved, are we prepared for the long term? do we have national interests involved?
Arguably, these criteria were not adequately applied in the diplomacy surrounding the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2002 to 2003. But they did represent a response to the experience of the genocides of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia or in Africa. They also challenged the traditional reading of states rights to be independent in the ways they ran their own affairs. The new notion of conditional sovereignty was predicated on the idea that sovereignty entails responsibilities as well as rights. The most famous application of this principle has come to be known as the “responsibility to protect.” The principle is that a state’s first responsibility is to protect those within its borders from atrocities. States that fail to fulfil that responsibility, through acts of either commission or omission, are accountable for their actions.(International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect , Ottawa, Canada: irdc, 2001).
In 2004 these principles were embraced by a UN panel to the effect that: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.” The inescapable problem flowing from this position is that if a state is not fulfilling its duties as a member of the club of sovereigns, then intervention in the internal affairs of the offending states becomes a duty to the members of the club, conveniently termed “the international community”. The members of this self appointed society tend to be self elected. As I argue here in the case of Iran and China, better to allow domestic evolution to run its course. The implication is that if judges in Iran stone women to death, there is little we can do; or if Beijing persecutes Tibetans, we should ask the Tibetans what they would prefer us to do. The answer, I am assured, is that they suffer if we kick up a fuss to satisfy our own righteousness, and would prefer us to be measured. In other words, to think before we act, and then act with a clear and limited intent. In short, to be aware of our limits.