Thursday, July 14, 2011

Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: An African Perspective on the World Order after the Arab Revolt


Siba Grovogui
Johns Hopkins University

There is much misunderstanding today about the decision of African Union (AU) to not endorse the military intervention in Libya undertaken by France, Great Britain, and the United States in conjunction with a few Arab States. Speculations abound as to whether the uniform decision coming out of Africa indicates that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across North Africa and the Arab World, or whether the absence of Africa in the battlefield of Libya suggests military ineptitude and political bankruptcy. In fact, the African Union has not been indifferent to the conflict in Libya. The AU opted for mediation and negotiated constitutional compact, with the aim of fostering a different kind of politics. The uniform refusal of the AU to endorse Western intervention has two main explanations. The first is the practice of consensus in decision-making which has a long history within Africa. The other is profound unease on the continent about the form and foundation of the intervention itself.

I suggest that there is continent-wide skepticism in Africa about Western leadership in the eras of global governance, the rule of (international) law, the status of international morality, and the future of global democracy. This development is the result of continental experiences with the modes of enactment and execution interventions in Africa. The African position arises therefore from doubt that the coalition of Western powers leading the military effort in Libya today can be trusted to not abuse legitimate anti-Gaddafi sentiments, to not instrumentalize international law and morality, and to not subvert UN procedures and the mechanisms of global governance in order to advance hegemonic agendas and parochial ‘strategic’ interests. In short, underlying the African objection to military intervention is a longstanding tension between international organizations that represent Africa and the self-identified West around the representations of the will of the international community, the resulting global democratic deficit in times of intervention, and their effects on international morality, including the principles of humanitarianism.

In relating this conflict, I do not speak for a uniformly-defined ‘Africa’ and/or for all African entities. Nor do I wish to conflate the official West with the sentiments and traditions of all constituencies of what might be called The West. I reflect on a widely held sentiment currently expressed in Africa that specific actions by Western powers with respect to Libya paradoxically undermine the spirit and practice of participative global governance. They also subvert what should have been a moment of transformation of politics at the local, national, and global levels. In short, this is a story of how the global democratic gap or what I call the global democratic deficit has widened precisely at the moment when the national democratic deficit has erupted into violent conflict. The paradox is that humanitarian concerns come once again to serve as pretext for widening the global democratic deficit and, in the case of the Middle East, re-inscribing the term of past imperial relations under new guises.

Today’s democratic deficit may be located in many registers, two of which are of interest here: the national and the international. The domestic democratic deficit is what has prompted street uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. The global democratic deficit resides in the structures of international organizations where states, regional organizations, and other entities necessarily occupy different positions commensurate with their powers, endowments, traditions and the like. However, structures do not necessarily produce deficit, they create the conditions for it. In the present case, one can trace the deficit to the processes of decision-making regarding Libya and the institutions and traditions to which they may be traced.

Few are aware for instance that the Western coalition on Libya decided to declare Libya Arab and not African and thus designated the League of Arab States as the primary address ‘in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region’ encompassing that country. The purpose it has become apparent was to remove any hindrance to an agenda that did not conform to UN mandates. The UN resolution currently implemented (Res. 1973) (PDF) has a number of stipulations that can be summarized thus: 1) ‘immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians’; 2) ‘the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people,’ aided by a Special Envoy to Libya and the Peace and Security Council of the African Union; 3) compliance by ‘Libyan authorities comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law’; 4) ‘to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.’

The AU understood the point of the resolution to favor a peaceful resolution but it has become apparent today the coalition had a different agenda from that stipulated in it. It has also become apparent that, on account of its position in the relevant international organizations and political and military endowments, the Western coalition was reverting to the imperial tradition of claiming the universal will for itself – and thus to exclude others from its expression. Having sidelined Africans and imputed all hindrances to the resolution of the conflict to Gaddafi, the Western coalition determined to change the regime in Tripoli which one issued from the ranks of the opposition in Benghazi: the Transitional National Council, or TNC. Since then, all measures recommended by Res.1973 have been exceeded. Specifically, NATO airstrikes have gone from forestalling Gaddafi’s aggression to destroying the nation’s infrastructure. In the process, the Western alliance has embraced assassination as a policy; Britain has sent special agents to the ground; and France had delivered weapons to the so-called resistance, despite the putative ban on weapons. The irony, as Gaddafi is finding out, is that to defy Western will is to expose one to a fate not unlike Gaddafi’s answers to those who rebelled against him.

Like the domestic democratic deficit against which Libyans rightly rose up, the global democratic deficit is both behavioral and structural. The connection between the non-democratic behavior of global hegemonic powers and the possibility of democratic politics at the domestic level is often direct. Take for instance the role of the West in the political culture currently brewing in the Libyan opposition. Since endorsing the TNC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, the Western coalition backing has remained silent as the organization grows intolerant by the day not only toward Gaddafi, his family, and allies but also toward Sub-Saharan African migrants accused of sympathy with the regime. Accordingly, the TNC has not only excluded negotiation with Gaddafi or his allies; it has snubbed all efforts by the African Union to mediate a political settlement. To either the West or the TNC, there could be only one solution: total and unconditional surrender of political opponents.

Africans are accustomed to a certain instrumentalization of reform by Western powers. One recalls for instance the policy of Constructive Engagement. During the Apartheid years, this official US policy was build on the assumption that effective politically mediation and settlement in South Africa rested in the capacity of mediators (honest brokers?) like the US to engage all parties even, in this case, a regime that was ideologically and politically bent on the total subordination of its local black population and the destruction of neighboring states. Africans are also accustomed to another certainty in Western interventions: this is that unsympathetic entities like the then Marxist regimes of Angola and Mozambique and the African National Congress of South Africa were directed by Western powers to necessarily accommodate opposing Western-friendly entities, whether states, corporations, or political organizations as a requirement for lasting peace. By contrast, it is also a certainty of political life in Africa that, upon Western interventions, reigning or ascendant Western-friendly entities need not accommodate unsympathetic opposing figures or entities. In other words, friends of the West need not bother with democratic niceties as the price for peace. Enemies or adversaries do the same or they are eliminated from the scene.

In the case of Libya one may even wonder why the TNC would want to negotiate, compromise, or reconcile when the largest armies in the world are committed to the destruction of the one obstacle to their own path to power? President Ahmadou Toumani Touré of Mali, an engaged democrat himself whose own behavior in power contrasts drastically with that of Gaddafi, gave an indication of his own sentiment about the situation in an interview granted to Radio France Internationale. Asked by the reporter why he would not join the West (again dubbed during the interview as the International Community), Touré gave the following answer, which I paraphrase: ‘We are asked to promote democracy in Libya against a man who holds power at the barrel of the gun and you want me to unseat him at the barrel of the gun and seat another group in his place. If Gaddafi’s unwillingness to negotiate and compromise is the problem today why is the other side relying on forced removal?’

Ahmadou Toumani Touré

The current intransigence of the West and the TNC has unnerved Africans because it reveals a culture of intolerance. A quick survey of the response of the West to the Arab Spring thus far tells a mixed story. There was no protest when, upon the departure of Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali, the old regimes essentially maintained themselves. Western reactions to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria contrast starkly with reactions to Libya. Here, the coalition has fomented and condoned intransigence on the part of the rebels against negotiated settlement. Significantly, with NATO support, the TNC is now on its way to Tripoli without any warnings from the coalition on the fate of civilians in that city if the rebels succeeded in overtaking it: the stated motivation of attacks on Gaddafi’s army.

I know of few people who would argue that the situation in Libya was tenable or that it should have been allowed to persist. I also know of few individuals who would pretend that an operation such as the one currently undertaken by the West could be carried out without mistakes or blemish. Yet, these are not arguments against global democracy and the reasonableness that is required in interpreting international law, particularly UN Resolutions. To paraphrase a dissenting opinion by Judge Kotaro Tanaka (PDF) of the International Court of Justice, ‘different treatment under international law should be permitted only when it can be justified by the criterion of justice’; thus, one may replace justice with reasonableness but only that criterion does not logically lead to arbitrariness. In short, even a doctrine of reasonableness required by pragmatism should not be allowed to do away with the questions of democracy and the morality implied in different treatment of similarly situated events and persons.

The idea that one can be excluded from the political compact simply because of one’s position in the global system or association within an undemocratic regime is a nightmarish scenario to generations of activists who have fought for human rights, constitutionalism, and democratic inclusion; as well as humanitarians who have tended to the social calamities caused by endless civil wars and leading to the collapse of peace and the failure of state. To those who are undeterred by the idea that Africans may actually formulate coherent views of international morality, including an aversion to war, consider these facts. In 2003, even after dispatching Colin Powell to Africa to seek support for the war in Iraq, the US failed to move a single one of them. This refusal to join the Iraq war effort came at the heel of great sympathy for the US following the 1998 US Embassy Bombings in East Africa and the attack perpetrated against the US on 9/11/2001. Further, for nearly 4 years, the US has failed to find a single state from fifty three to host AFRICOM (the US military Africa Command) even as all African states have endorsed the aims of US anti-terrorism programs. Today, none of the countries, and all of them African enlisted in the US initiated Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership, all of them poor and dependent on US aid, has endorsed military intervention in Libya.

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