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NZ's Responsibility To Protect In Afghanistan

A Word From Afar: New Zealand and the Responsibility to Protect in Afghanistan

A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

By Paul G. Buchanan

New Zealand’s first combat death and questions about NZSAS involvement in the transfer of prisoners to a notorious detention centre in Afghanistan have elicited predictable debate about whether it should continue its contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting to stabilise that country.

The debate falls along ideological lines:

    Left-leaning observers want the NZDF out of what many see as an imperialist occupation in support of corporate interests and a corrupt puppet regime (conveniently forgetting what precipitated the invasion of Afghanistan or the implications of a Taliban return to power there),

    Right-leaning pundits either want New Zealand to honour its commitment to its allies in ISAF or to withdraw because there is no military-strategic reason why New Zealand should have gotten involved in the first place (thereby neglecting the issue of Afghan self-determination, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the fact that strategic planning involves “shadow of the future” implications of current conflicts that transcend immediate interest).

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The Left see the NZDF mission as hopeless and not in line with New Zealand support for democracy, human rights, sovereignty and self-determination. The Right sees the mission as critical to international security and the war on Islamicist terrorism or a waste of precious military resources in a forsaken place.

Left-leaning people tend to see New Zealand’s foreign relations in idealist terms, founded on and oriented towards promoting universal principles such as multilateralism, non-proliferation, peaceful conflict resolution and human rights. Right-leaning people tend to be isolationist or see New Zealand’s international affairs in realist terms, focused on power balances, alliance commitments, and the inevitability of hostilities between competing actors in a global system lacking in an overarching system of governance, much less shared values. Opinions on the NZDF mission in Afghanistan encapsulate the fundamental difference between these views.

Both sides miss a critical reason why New Zealand contributes troops to ISAF and other conflict zones such as East Timor and the Solomon Islands. That is its support for the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine that is now part of the UN mandate (for example, see UN resolution A/RES/63/308). R2P states that it is the international community’s responsibility to come to the aid and protection of populations that are unable to defend themselves against the depredations of their own governments, other sub-national non-governmental actors, or transnational armed organizations. Born in response to the Rwandan genocide and proposed by Canada (a country that New Zealand has used as a model for its approach to international security affairs), the R2P doctrine is at the heart of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan.

New Zealand is a member of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICR2P). The ICR2P has its origins in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, in which an overwhelming majority of UN member states accepted individual and collectively responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from four specific crimes—genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ratified by UN Security Council resolution 1674 of April 2006, R2P rests on three conceptual “pillars:” state responsibility, assistance to states and timely and decisive action by the international community. Specifically, the three pillars maintain that it is the responsibility of each state to protect its people from mass atrocities; of all states to assist others in enhancing that capacity; and of the international community collectively to take timely and decisive measures to prevent or halt atrocities when the state in question is manifestly failing to do so.

Critics argue that R2P is an infringement of state sovereignty, but in the 2009 UN General Assembly debates on the issue the majority view was than human rights outweighed sovereignty and that states that were unable to defend vulnerable elements of their populations were not exercising the responsibilities that went along with the right to sovereignty. Moreover, the UN considers that sovereignty resides in the people of a state from which government authority emanates. In other words, sovereignty is lost when state R2P is ignored or violated. R2P can thus be seen as an ally of sovereignty, in that it deters or responds to failures in upholding the full responsibilities that come with statehood. The R2P also sees mass atrocities and the commission of the four specific crimes as threats to international peace and stability, in no small measure because they have the potential to infringe on other state’s sovereignty.

Concerns about unilateral intervention under R2P and the ill-defined nature of the “trigger” for R2P intervention are overcome by the UN requiring General Assembly debate on specific cases and a UN Security Council resolution to invoke the R2P as a reason for multilateral action in defense of vulnerable populations. Unilateral intervention and non-UN sanctioned “trigger” justifications are explicitly excluded from R2P protocols. Both UN General Assembly debates and UN Security Council resolutions occurred in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2001 multilateral military intervention in Afghanistan. It is therefore not a US “war” of occupation but instead an activity ordered and sanctioned by the community of nations as institutional manifest in the United Nations.

This is why the UN-sanctioned, NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan conforms to R2P precepts, and is why New Zealand, as a party to the R2P, is involved in it. So long as the political and security situation in Afghanistan leaves elements of the population vulnerable to atrocities—say, for example, the Shiia ethnic Hazaras who are the majority in Bamiyan province and who suffered outright repression and subjugation under Sunni Pashtun-dominated Taliban rule—then it is the international community’s responsibility to protect them so long as the Afghan central government cannot. In other words, R2P is the primary justification for ISAF’s continued mission in Afghanistan.

The issue is broader. The Taliban are a coalition of irregular armed non-state actors whose objective is to overthrow the elected central government in order to impose a medieval social order and political dictatorship in Afghanistan that provides safe haven to, and logistical support for, violent ideological extremists seeking to launch terrorist attacks abroad. Although the Karzai government is deeply flawed and has limited scope of authority, it is the lesser evil when compared to a Taliban movement that commits war crimes as well as collective crimes against minorities or those unwilling to obey their ideological precepts. Preventing a Taliban return to power, either by force, persuasion or negotiation is ultimately what the ISAF mission is all about under its R2P obligations.

The issue is not that the Taliban themselves pose a threat to the West—they do not. But they do pose a physical threat to minority communities in Afghanistan, an irredentist threat to their immediate neighbours, and a distant threat to the rest of the world in the measure they offer Islamicist internationalists’ safe harbor, training facilities and material support. All of these are reasons why the R2P doctrine has been applied to the Afghan conflict by the UN.

Other geostrategic concerns notwithstanding, this is the most compelling reason why New Zealand sent troops to Afghanistan. Realists may see no strategic merit in R2P beyond alliance obligations, and idealists may find fault with many aspects of its implementation by occupying forces, but as a staunch supporter of the UN mandate in Afghanistan and committed advocate of multilateral military responses to atrocities committed against innocents, New Zealand has both pragmatic and idealistic reasons for committing its troops to the R2P efforts in that country.

To abandon the project would demonstrate a lack of New Zealand confidence in the ISAF, and in the principle of R2P itself. That in turn not only will contribute towards undermining the ISAF, but also the use international institutions in defense of human security issues that transcend traditional notions of state interest and strategic concern. An NZDF withdrawal from Afghanistan would signal a return to a self-interested foreign and international security policy unmitigated by humanitarian concerns or international consensus, in a reversal of two decades of committed multilateralism. There should be compelling reasons of state for that to happen. If there are no compelling raisons d’état, and until ISAF decides that its R2P obligations in Afghanistan have been accomplished or are impossible to achieve, member states who are signatories of R2P protocols have a political and ethical obligation to support it.

That is why New Zealand has a military stake in Afghanistan. It is upholding its role and reputation as an international citizen committed to the active defense of universal human rights, by multilateral force if necessary, under the R2P doctrine. But with an election year upcoming and public opinion divided on the issue of Kiwi troops in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen if upholding the commitment to R2P will prove stronger than the political urge to withdraw in pursuit of domestic electoral advantage.

Paul G. Buchanan is a former analyst and consultant for several US security agencies. A member of the Kiwipolitico weblog collective, he is the founder of Buchanan Strategic Advisors, Ltd. a political risk, market intelligence and strategic analysis consulting firm with a focus on Australasian-Western Hemisphere relations.


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