Mass Atrocities in South Sudan

Since December 2012, state security forces in South Sudan’s Jonglei state have “repeatedly targeted civilians” in a “series of unlawful killings” that have killed scores and displaced tens of thousands, a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

The report documents 24 incidents of unlawful killing that left 70 civilians and 24 ethnic Murle members of the security forces dead—and those are just the incidents HRW was able to document. In situations like this, the actual numbers of victims are almost always substantially higher than what groups like HRW can verify.

In academia’s grim typology of political violence against civilians, this episode doesn’t yet qualify as a mass killing, but it seems to be headed in that direction.

This episode also happens to fits the most common scenario for state-sponsored mass killing, in which security forces attempting to suppress an insurgency end up killing large numbers of civilians in areas where rebels are thought to operate or to enjoy popular support. As the HRW report discusses, the violence in Jonglei is part of a counterinsurgency campaign against a rebel group led by David Yau Yau, an ethnic Murle who took up arms against the government of South Sudan after failing to win a seat in 2010 elections, back when South Sudan was de facto but not yet de jure independent. Ironically but also typically, the army’s abuses are proving counterproductive. As HRW notes,

Murle civilians told Human Rights Watch that an abusive army disarmament of  civilians in 2012 in Pibor county fuelled the rebellion as Murle men, angered by abuses and unwilling to give up their guns, joined Yau Yau.

The fact that the atrocities are occurring in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign doesn’t mean that the insurgency is the only cause of the violence, however. As Caelin Briggs describes in a recent blog post for Refugees International (RI),

Other likely causes of violence have little to do with Yau Yau. NGOs told RI that SPLA soldiers frequently do not receive salaries, and that they are told by commanders that goods looted from civilians count as ‘payment’. As a result, looting of both civilian and NGO property is now one of the most visible abuses perpetrated by the SPLA in Jonglei. Impunity for these crimes is so extreme that soldiers are reportedly using stolen equipment inside their own barracks. The SPLA has also deliberately vandalized NGO property – perhaps, some NGOs say, with the express purpose of making it more difficult for international staff to return.

For better and for worse, this episode of atrocities was also foreseeable. Way back in the March 2012 issue of its bimonthly R2P Monitor (PDF), the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) noted that efforts by the government of South Sudan to stop communal violence in Jonglei state by forcibly disarming local militias could have troubling side effects. “Several prominent NGOs have documented human rights abuses carried out by the SPLA during past disarmament campaigns,” the report noted. More recently, in a set of statistical forecasts I produced using data from the end of 2012, South Sudan showed up as one of the 10 countries worldwide at greatest risk of an onset of state-sponsored mass killing in 2013.

R2P Is Not the New COIN

The foreign-policy blog Zenpundit asserted today that”R2P is the new COIN.”

This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope.

I think this comparison is useful, but I reach a different conclusion than Zenpundit does. In my opinion, R2P stands no chance of becoming the next COIN because attempts to make civilian protection a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy will be resisted stiffly by the U.S. military.

The specific collection of beliefs and ideas we now call COIN (link) became ascendant in the latter half of the 2000s because it spoke to the needs and desires of civilian and military leaders alike. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. and its allies appeared to be losing the wars they had started a few years earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least not winning them. Policy-makers responded to the risk of failure by groping around for fresh ideas on how to tip those messy and costly wars toward “victory.” COIN took shape in response to this demand. COIN gave military leaders new things to try in place of the old ones that were failing, and it fanned policy-makers’ hopes for a way to bring those costly wars to some successful end. (NB. Never underestimate the power of desperation for new ideas when things aren’t going how the U.S. governments wants them to go. In that environment, “I don’t know” and “We can’t win” are not acceptable responses.) COIN’s emphasis on clearing insurgents from population centers and then sustaining security in those areas gave birth to the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, and the apparent success of that campaign was all the confirmation needed to cement many of the principals’ beliefs that COIN could finally put those wars on winning tracks.

By contrast, R2P doesn’t have that same cross-cutting appeal, and it won’t get it any time soon. Some influential civilian advisors in the Obama administration have vocally advocated for more emphasis on civilian protection in U.S. foreign policy, but the doctrine doesn’t speak to any problems the country’s military leadership needs or wants to solve. If anything, the opposite is true; R2P threatens to pull an exhausted and potentially shrinking military into even more fights with a more ephemeral connection to core U.S. interests. On this point, I found remarks former defense secretary Robert Gates made to a congressional committee considering  U.S. military intervention in Libya to be especially telling. In March 2011, Gates said:

There is a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. That is the way it starts…It is a big operation by a big country.

Gates was probably one of the most popular civilian leaders of the U.S. military ever, in part because rank-and-file soldiers felt like he had their backs. When Gates resisted policy-makers’ efforts to pull his guys into yet another fight of questionable relevance to U.S. interests, it said a lot about the reaction we can expect from the U.S. military to similar situations in the future–especially ones involving forces more formidable than Gaddafi’s.

I think the military’s skepticism of R2P will be enough to prevent its ascendancy to COIN-like status, but it’s worth noting that civilian support for R2P as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy may be weaker than Zenpundit suggests, too. A year from now, the week after Libyan rebels seized Tripoli with NATO air support will probably mark the apex of R2P’s influence on U.S. policy. The ensuing complications in Libya; the continuing failure of tepid international efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria; and the resurgence of violence against protesters in Yemen will all serve as painful reminders that civilian protection does not come cheap or easy. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s economic woes are likely to curtail its adventurist impulses, and politics on the U.N. Security Council–which must approve military interventions under R2P–are only going to get more complicated as the U.S. and Europe increasingly depend financially on rising powers that are deeply skeptical of Western interventions.

Based on these considerations, I’m pretty sure we’ve already seen the local maximum for R2P’s influence on American policy. As laudable as the doctrine’s ambitions may be, and as much as we “nattering nabobs” might like to debate it, I don’t think R2P is going to alter substantially the practice of U.S. foreign policy any time soon.

A Note on the (Raging) Debate over R2P, Sovereignty, and International Order

Debate over NATO’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war has spurred a fascinating and important discussion among close observers of international relations on the merits (or demerits) of the United Nations’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. You can find links to important entries in the current debate at the end of this post, but I’m going to react here to one part of it. In a rejoinder to her critics, including IR student and Slouching Towards Columbia blogger Dan Trombly, Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter casts R2P as an instrument for positive change in the international system, a wrench that ratchets the world closer to the liberal ideal of government for the people on which, she claims, the contemporary notion of sovereignty is based. For The Atlantic, she writes:

It is international law itself — or rather the governments that bring it into being — that is in the process of redefining the international definition of sovereignty (e.g. the conditions on which you can be a player in the international system) to include a responsibility to protect (R2P) their citizens. Trombly argues that this conception of sovereignty “essentially strips its value,” because the whole point of a sovereign is to protect individuals from each other, in return for which it can and must demand absolute obedience. In the R2P world, by contrast, the sovereign “protects and serves.” Strips its value? Really? I may be an international lawyer, but I’m also a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Monticello and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Last I checked, “protects and serves” was his definition of domestic sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, argues that all men have inalienable rights and that governments exist “to secure these rights … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Protects and serves” is how all liberal democratic governments define their relations with their citizens; and I would wager the majority of the world’s autocracies at this point as well.

To my mind, though, R2P’s power as an instrument of positive change in the international system is greatly weakened by its dependence on a process of selective enforcement in which the judges are effectively immune from the coercions they impose upon others. Strong supporters of R2P often justify selective enforcement in terms of opportunity, saying it’s reasonable to apply limited resources to cases where they might be expected to make the biggest difference, and to choose the instruments of intervention based on their expected costs as well as their benefits.

I agree, but that’s not the kind of selectivity that bothers me. On both moral and consequential grounds, the virtual immunity of the powerful is the larger problem. As Slaughter notes, R2P is rooted in liberal thought. The moral equivalence of individuals, and thus the right to equal protection under the law, is the core idea of liberalism. As long as application of R2P depends on political bargaining among powerful actors who are not subjected to the same coercion, I think the doctrine does as much harm to the normative foundations of a liberal international order as it does good. Targets and observers of R2P-based sanctions will see the national interests of the powerful, not the health of the international order or well-being of its constituents, as the engines of those interventions. (See this analysis, for example.) The ensuing cynicism does not reinforce liberal internationalism, it undercuts it.

To think about how a liberal international order might really develop, we can look at how liberal orders have arisen within states. Here, I think Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s recent work, Violence and Social Ordersis especially useful. In that book, NWW argue that contemporary states are founded on two types of order–natural states and open access orders–that represent different solutions to the common problem of controlling violence. “The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges,” they write (p. 18). By contrast, open access orders control violence through powerful, consolidated military and police organizations that are subservient to a political system, control of which “is open to entry by any group and contested through prescribed, and typically formal, constitutional means” (p.22).

Based on those two descriptions, it’s clear the international system we have today is more like a natural state than an open access order. The UN Security Council represents the dominant coalition, and the veto power of its members conveys the special privilege of virtual exemption from R2P.

For liberal internationalists, then, the crucial question is how to secure a transition from the one type of order to the other. On that, NWW write (p. 26):

The transition…has two stages. First, a natural state must develop institutional arrangements that enable elites to create the possibility of impersonal intra-elite arrangements. Second, the transition proper begins when the dominant coalition finds it in the interest of elites to expand impersonal exchange within the elite and institutionalize open elite access to organizations, effectively creating open access for elites. We call the conditions that may evolve in a natural state that enable impersonal relationships among elites the doorstep conditions. The doorstep conditions represent institutional and organizational support for increased impersonal exchange, as well as institutions consistent with the logic of the natural state that can be used in the transition to support open access orders.

According to NWW, the three doorstep conditions are: 1) rule of law for elites; 2) perpetually lived forms of public and private elite organizations, including the state itself; and 3) consolidated political control of the military.

As I see it, R2P advances none of these doorstep conditions. It does not create any new or expand any existing “perpetually lived” organizations, depending instead on existing (exclusive) organizations for decisions about enforcement. It does not consolidate political control of a non-existent international military force. Last and maybe most important, it tries to advance rule of international law, but it does so by appeal to an organization whose decision-making procedures are premised on elite bargaining and exceptionalism.

In short, I think R2P is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt to advance the liberal cause in the international system. Because it fails to advance any of the doorstep conditions identified by North, Wallis, and Weingast, I think it ends up reflecting rather than transforming the conflicted nature of the contemporary international order. Transformation will only happen when the most powerful states agree to subject themselves to equal scrutiny and sanction, and I see few signs of that happening any time soon.

Now, the background reading: Slaughter kicked off the debate I’m following with this entry in her new blog for The Atlantic. That post prompted ripostes from Dan Trombly (link , link, and link) and Joshua Foust (link). For the Dish, Zach Beauchamp weighed in on Slaughter’s side (link). Most recently, Slaughter responded with the post from which the quote above was taken (link). You can find excellent background information on R2P on the web site of International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (link).

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