The latest reports of a massacre of dozens, perhaps 300, ethnic Yazidis by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State has again raised fundamental questions about what can – or should – be done to protect this ethnic minority. The question is all the more pressing as while the Yazidis have been threatened with genocide, the IS has similarly targeted for extermination Iraq’s small Christian community, Shias and any other group that does not immediately submit to its medieval beliefs.
The United States has made some inroads into the IS advances by attacking i from the air. This has, in turn, allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to slow the IS advance. But, having been bloodied for so little reward following the 2003 intervention, the US, like the UK and other allies involved in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ are deeply reluctant to again deploy ‘boots on the ground’.
The problem with the IS, though, is that while hardened Peshmerga fighters may be able to hold the IS from further northward advances, the IS continues to persecute other minorities and even those of its own Sunni faith in both Iraq and Syria that do not subscribe to its fanatical beliefs. Should the IS manage to consolidate, it has further designs on Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the north of Saudi Arabia.
As UK Prime Minister David Cameron has, among others, noted, the IS represents a threat not just to those fleeing from its immediate terror, but much more widely. The IS could be understood as a more radicalized version of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which supported Al Qaeda.
US air strikes against the IS are, with the blessing of the floundering Iraqi government, necessary. However, the United States is again either casting itself or being cast as the world’s policeman.
The role of the world’s policeman is not one the US is necessarily comfortable with. The country has, since the late 1800s, vacillated between asserting its international authority and retreating to an introspective cocoon.
Having taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and manufacturing the 2003 Iraq war, the US under President Obama has been reluctant to again become directly engaged in external conflicts. The US chose not to act in Syria in 2013, which created the opening the IS was looking for there, and it has stayed similarly aloft from Russia’s unsubtle interventions in Ukraine.
It is at such a time, then, that the world appears to require an alternative, legitimate strategy for confronting the IS, and the possible rise of other threats like it.
In 2005, the United Nations voted to endorse the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Following the genocides of Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia, the destruction of East Timor, the mass deaths of Darfur and many others, the United Nations endorsed the shared deployment of mechanisms, if necessary including military force, to prevent the possibility of further genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The conditions of invoking the Responsibility to Protect were onerous, so much that since it was agreed to it has not yet been invoked, despite numerous examples of humanitarian crises it was intended to prevent. The two critical features that have stymied its use have been a fear by some distasteful UN member states that it could be used against them, and that it requires the endorsement of the UN Security Council.
The UNSC’s five permanent members have veto power on any Security Council decision which ensures that there can be no agreement on any issue that one or more permanent members have a strategic interest in. In 2009, China and Russia ensured there was no action on Sri Lanka, leading to the deaths of some 40,000 ethnic Tamils. Last year Russia vetoed any intervention in Syria, allowing that bloodbath to continue unabated.
However, none of the permanent five member of the UNSC has an interest in the progress of the IS. Indeed, Russia would be keen to see the IS disappear, given its own problems with Islamist rebellions on its southern flanks. China, if somewhat disingenuously, is also concerned with the Islamist character of Uighur separatism in its north-west Xinjiang province.
The invocation of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle would allow genuine coalition of world powers to address the Islamist mutation that is the Islamic State. It would require boots on the ground, but they would be so universal and so overwhelming that IS would effectively disappear.
The end result in Iraq would, no doubt, be at least some reorganization of the state, which appears critically necessary in any case. It may also end up with the recognition of an independent Kurdistan, not least since neighboring Turkey, with its own militant Kurdish minority, now appears to be coming to terms with that idea.
Ultimately, the application of such a principle would also have to address the difficult issue of the IS in Syria, in which Russia has a vested interest. A resolution, though difficult, may also still be possible there.
Perhaps the US will prefer to continue to act not just as the world’s policeman, but as its ‘Lone Ranger’. But for the US to extricate itself from a deepening enmeshment in another protracted war, and addressing a problem that much of the world finds increasingly alarming, invoking the Responsibility to Protect could well ensure it does not get involved in another wear alone, and would bring a sense of global responsibility to international problems.