Islamic State (IS) fighters have captured a vast swath of territory across northern Iraq since seizing the city of Mosul in early June. With the Iraqi government flailing, the U.S. and its allies have rushed support to the Iraqi military and Kurdish paramilitary forces in order to halt the rebel advance. The White House’s initial response was a humanitarian rescue and assist operation for Yazidi civilians trapped by the IS in Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. It’s the most recent experiment with the politics of the responsibility to protect (RtoP).
RtoP is an international norm that obligates states to protect civilians from mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It rests on three pillars: First, states have a primary responsibility to protect their civilians from mass killing. Second, the international community has a responsibility to help states achieve this goal. The third is the most contested one: If a state fails to protect its people, the international community should intervene, using coercive diplomacy, economic sanctions, military force or other tools of statecraft. Since the United Nations adopted the norm at the 2005 U.N. World Summit, RtoP has guided, haphazardly, the international community’s response to mass violence. The crisis in Iraq and its international response thus far provide a rare view of the norm’s successes and its limits.
A history of violence
In early August, the IS killed an unknown number of Yazidi civilians during a paramilitary offensive in Sinjar, a mostly mountainous region near the Iraq-Syria border. Many civilians in the town of Sinjar fled north to Mount Sinjar, where they remained trapped for several days. Tens of thousands of Yazidis — many women and children — faced slaughter by IS fighters if they attempted to leave the mountain or death by starvation if they stayed. While the crisis at Mount Sinjar has largely been resolved, Yazidi refugees in Sinjar continue to face significant challenges.
The IS threat of mass violence is but the most recent episode in the Iraqi Yazidis’ history of displacement and destruction. In the late 1930s, shortly after Iraq gained independence from Britain, Baghdad’s national conscription efforts led to consecutive Yazidi uprisings, prompting the declaration of martial law in Sinjar and its surrounding province. As a result, Yazidis faced massive dislocation as state violence chipped away at their livelihoods. Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s regime forcibly relocated Yazidi and Kurdish minorities, often across Iraq’s porous border with Syria, to make way for the regime’s loyal patrons.
The current plight of Yazidi civilians has been compared to former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s threats against civilians in Benghazi. The parallel arises from the immediacy of the two crises. In March 2011 the killing of tens of thousands of Libyans in Gaddafi’s counterinsurgency campaign appeared imminent; earlier this month, the deaths of Yazidis in northern Iraq as a consequence of IS violence were almost assured. Both events met the criteria for international intervention under RtoP.
This peculiarity of immediate mass killing as a prerequisite for large-scale international response is among RtoP’s clearest shortcomings. The basic idea of a mass atrocity implies continuous violence. Mass death at an ever larger scale is always just around the corner. Despite the imminence of violence from Gaza to Syria, as in in Benghazi, the mass starvation or massacre of Yazidis in Sinjar prompted international intervention.
In investing so heavily in both the Iraqi government and peshmerga resistance against the IS, the US and its allies may only deepen the current violence against Iraqi civilians – Yazidi and non-Yazidi alike.
On Aug. 8, the United States and United Kingdom organized a small, military-backed operation to rescue Yazidi civilians. The humanitarian basis for the intervention, which included an airdrop of food and other supplies to fleeing civilians, was beyond dispute. But the delivery was short-lived. Less than week later, amid warnings of ongoing need from Yazidi officials and international humanitarian organizations, President Barack Obama announced the hasty end of the humanitarian effort in Iraq. Even as he made the announcement, Yazidi leaders said as many as 50,000 civilians remained stranded at Mount Sinjar. If the administration’s initial response was motivated by RtoP, it is hard to see how that responsibility was fulfilled.
NATO’s involvement in Libya and the latest U.S. mission in Iraq underscore the limits of international intervention. In 2011, NATO’s Libya operation was advertised as a limited military action to halt Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi. Similarly, the mission in Iraq was billed as a limited humanitarian effort to relieve the immediate suffering of Sinjar’s displaced Yazidis. Both objectives appeared modest and attainable at first. But in reality, neither the Libyan intervention nor the assist and rescue mission in Iraq was confined to its original goals. The nature of war is unpredictable, and international intervention is only another form of war-making. In Libya and Iraq, as the political objectives of war expanded, so did the interventions’ scope. In Libya, NATO forces enabled the insurgents’ final assault against Tripoli, hastening the fall of Gaddafi’s four-decade-long regime; in Iraq, U.S. airstrikes continue to aid Kurdish militias’ pushback against IS territorial gains.
Risks of capacity-building
NATO’s strikes in Libya have been described as a textbook case of RtoP’s third pillar, which preserves international intervention — military and otherwise — as a final bulwark against mass civilian violence. The Obama administration and its allies intervened in Libya despite Gaddafi’s obvious objections, while the effort in Iraq received a rubber-stamp approval from the central government in Baghdad. The distinction is important. The Iraqi government’s approval leaves intact what little sovereignty Baghdad possesses after more than a decade of civil conflict.
With Baghdad’s approval, the U.S. intervention has become a second-pillar operation under RtoP. The violence of the U.S. government’s partners in Iraq is perhaps less gruesome than the IS’, but continued U.S. cooperation risks furthering civilian violence. The Iraqi government has perpetrated its own abuses against civilians in the wake of the IS invasion. The U.S. government faces a similar dilemma in its support for Kurdish paramilitary forces. The Kurdish peshmerga, paramilitary forces that have flourished with the oil revenues of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish province, boast ongoing resistance against the Iraqi state. Their effectiveness as a shield against the IS — even if a result of political convenience rather than of the altruism of their fighters — has given them more legitimacy. However, as a recent report by The New Republic’s Jenna Krajeski suggests, the peshmerga thrive on a corrupt politics that resembles the broader rot of Iraq’s political institutions.
Over the last 12 years, RtoP’s implementation has expanded beyond the murky politics of humanitarian intervention. As the Libya case makes clear, external military intervention may prolong civil conflict, and an intervention’s alternative to the initial mass violence is often more violence in a different form. But the capacity building of the second pillar, as in Iraq’s case, is no less fraught with moral complications than are the third pillar’s military interventions. In investing so heavily in both the Iraqi government and peshmerga resistance against the IS, the U.S. and its allies may only deepen the current violence against Iraqi civilians — Yazidi and non-Yazidi alike.
As with many modern institutions charged with preserving the rights of civilians, RtoP seeks to make war more humane. But in the end, the protection of civilians through better violence is a fool’s errand.