Democracy Lab

Saving Humanitarian Intervention From Itself

As Syria shows, the Responsibility to Protect hasn't delivered. Time to try something new?

In 2005, the world's countries endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a principle that holds countries to protect foreign citizens from mass atrocities, even at the expense of sovereignty. Syria's civil war, in which perhaps 110,000 people have died and over 3 million have been displaced inside and outside the country, constitutes the latest tragic example of the inability to implement R2P effectively. The use of chemical weapons has now sparked an intense debate in Washington and elsewhere over whether to finally intervene.

The idea of R2P was first advanced by a Canada-convened international panel in 2001. It gained currency throughout the early 2000s, including an endorsement by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005. Governments formally agreed to it at the World Summit that year, and the U.N. Security Council affirmed it in 2006.

R2P's adoption did not, however, end the struggle to square humanitarian needs with the legal and practical realities of intervening. Though noble and important, it has proved problematic in practice. Once atrocities occur, military means are often the only reasonably certain way to stop them. The cost of military campaigns and the dearth of alternatives frequently prevent countries from fulfilling their commitments. These days, as Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, "R2P clings to life support."

To protect populations more effectively, promote sound governance, and generate greater economic opportunity over time, leaders should instead embrace a new doctrine: The Responsibility to Participate.

This approach would identify situations where exclusion of populations from political participation or socioeconomic opportunity and a lack of accountability of leaders to their people have the potential to threaten national and regional security. Examples include Syria two years ago and Egypt last year, when evidence of discontent over deposed president Mohamed Morsy's accumulation of power began to mount. In such situations, outside powers would invoke the Responsibility to Participate as a framework of principles for action. They would encourage citizens and governments involved to ensure more popular participation in governance through clear, legitimate channels, with the goal of addressing grievances and thereby avoiding conflict.

In Egypt, for example, the Responsibility to Participate would have provided a useful context for trying to prevent the strife that recently turned violent. Under the doctrine, global powers could have called formally on Morsy to renounce his decree last November that placed his decisions above judicial scrutiny and to rethink the controversial constitutional referendum in December. The United States issued only tepid language on these points last year. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that "Egypt's recent declarations and the decision to hold a vote on the constitution, despite social unrest and a lack of consensus across Egypt's political spectrum raise concerns for the United States, the international community, and most importantly for Egyptians."

Although Morsy rescinded the November decree the following month, hearing demands clearly and collectively expressed by global powers might have encouraged further reform and given citizens the confidence to pursue their interests through the political system and not by supporting a military takeover, as many ultimately did.

Using the new R2P to boost popular engagement could take numerous forms. It could mean more pressure on governments to hold elections with an even playing field for all candidates. It could mean developing tools to allow minorities or other excluded groups to participate more fully in political debate or gain a fairer share of resources. It could mean liberalizing laws governing media or civil society. It could mean respecting rights to free speech, assembly, and religion.

These are already common refrains from the United States and other democratic powers. However, the Responsibility to Participate would bring the international community together coherently behind them, using a standardized set of tools to be applied when stability is under threat. Just as R2P has done with humanitarian intervention, the new doctrine would make conflict prevention through participation a distinct item on the global agenda.

Shortages of participation and accountability are amenable to a range of tools far more palatable than military ones. Diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and targeted foreign aid (or the withholding thereof) can all have an effect. Countries such as Russia and China would undoubtedly see these steps as thinly disguised Western interference. But these ideas stand a chance of attracting global support if packaged more coherently as an alternative to outright violations of sovereignty. This would build on successful lessons of the past, such as the effort to secure a re-run of the bogus election in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004 or the pressure applied to President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal to step down in 2012.

To be sure, the Responsibility to Participate raises the question of why leaders would agree to reforms that would empower their citizens at their own expense. Many surely would not.

But there are grounds to hope that others would. By definition, the doctrine would come into play when governments are under pressure. Although leaders such as Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, and North Korea's trio of Kims still get away (at least so far) with repression and violence, more and more rulers are facing trial -- or, like Muammar al-Qaddafi, a violent death at the hands of those they once oppressed. The Responsibility to Participate would provide a framework for increasing accountability and freedom, allowing leaders who oblige to stay in office. It would function, therefore, as a way to avoid such fates.

This raises another question. The Responsibility to Participate, if accepted, could allow leaders to substitute small reforms for deeper steps -- perhaps including their own departure -- needed for their people to enjoy true freedom and opportunity. But they can already do so, with or without the doctrine. Moreover, even modest improvements can be preferable to stagnation or revolutions that struggle to replace autocracy with something better, as in Egypt today.

Creating a new R2P framework could ensure that these improvements stick. Even if leaders allowed greater participation and accountability, their rule would undoubtedly remain imperfect. Citizens could put themselves at risk by exercising new rights promised by the regime. This makes it essential to maintain vigilance over time and to continue supporting political parties, independent media organizations, civil society groups, and other progressive bodies operating in non-democracies.

Finally, the Responsibility to Participate should not apply in all situations. For leaders responsible for atrocities, such as al-Assad, there can be no alternative to leaving office and facing justice. In addition, once citizens have entered the streets en masse and their leader's legitimacy has clearly evaporated, the best policy is generally to back the revolutionaries and help them build an accountable and participatory government, not to encourage concessions from a failing regime.

The hope is that the Responsibility to Participate could become an accepted principle that helps align the incentives of governments with those of their people. Leaders would come to understand that ensuring a modicum of accountability is in their enlightened self-interest. Even modest concessions from al-Assad two years ago might have produced a different future for himself and, more importantly, his people.

The Responsibility to Participate would not solve every problem of poor governance, exclusion, and instability. But if it can help avoid the kind of violence we are seeing in Syria or Egypt -- and the painful debates over whether to intervene -- it is worth a try.

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Purge

After the fall of Bo Xilai, will the much more powerful Zhou Yongkang survive?

The five-day trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power ended on August 26 with a command performance from the man who, with his extremely public downfall in early 2012, tore a hole in the Communist Party's façade of unity. Despite Bo's virtuoso showing, where he managed to portray himself as competent and sympathetic, the ink has mostly dried on his fate. The court will announce the verdict any day now, according to the state-run broadcaster China Central Television, and Bo is almost certain to be found guilty. But he's not the only one brought low. Many of his supporters in the Communist Party and the military are thought to have been purged. The biggest remaining question of the Bo affair is what will happen to Zhou Yongkang, the feared former security chief who former New York Times Beijing correspondent Nicholas Kristof once described as "a man who brightens any room by leaving it." Now, the net may be closing in on him: On Sunday, the Communist Party announced an investigation into Jiang Jiemin, a senior official in charge of state-owned companies and a protégé of Zhou's, in a move many see as further encroaching on Zhou himself. Bo's public downfall was shocking; Zhou's would be unprecedented.

Zhou oversaw China's security forces and law enforcement institutions from 2007 to 2012, and was widely reported to have been the only top Chinese official to argue against removing Bo from the elite decision-making body, the Politburo. The organization Zhou ran, the Central Politics and Law Commission, might have asked Bo to cover up the defection of his former police chief Wang Lijun, according to The New York Times. Zhou became increasingly influential as ethnic riots broke out in Tibet in 2008, and in the restive region of Xinjiang in 2009. Beijing was convinced of the importance of maintaining social stability. As the budget on domestic security kept growing -- in 2012 it reached $111 billion, nearly $5 billion higher than the entire official military budget --- so did Zhou's power.

Zhou, who oversaw China's immense security state, was like a Chinese Dick Cheney; the power behind the throne, said a Western academic familiar with the matter. He also said that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man known for his extensive surveillance network, "might have had" Zhou's reach. Officially, Zhou was the least powerful of the nine-member Standing Committee, the elite subgroup within the Politburo. But when I spoke with this academic in 2010, Zhou was probably the third most powerful man in China, behind President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, exponentially more influential than Bo.

The 73-year-old Zhou reportedly liked to show his power by feats of physical strength. "When he'd go places for investigation, he'd do like 50 or 100 push-ups" in front of others, said a Chinese academic who lives overseas and is familiar with elite politics. In August 2007, 2 months before he ascended to the Standing Committee, Zhou visited a police station in south China's Yunnan province. He surprised onlookers by doing "10 sit-ups in one breath," after which everyone "spontaneously burst into applause," according to China News Service, a state-run news agency.  

Despite these showy feats, Zhou is known to be extremely secretive, even by the opaque standards of a top Chinese politician. Rumors have long swirled around Zhou and his family, including his son Zhou Bin, now rumored to be under investigation, according to a source familiar with the matter, and his wife, thought to have died under mysterious circumstances, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Little is known about Zhou, his relationship with Bo Xilai, and how that may have led to his apparent sidelining after Bo's very public fall from grace in early 2012. But, clearly, he is not loved in China. In May 2012, a group of Communist Party veterans published a bold open letter calling for the removal of Zhou for having supported Bo. In February, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang found his accounts on three Chinese microblogging sites suspended after posting that Zhou "wrecked the country and ruined the people" by mismanaging China's security apparatus.   

Like other officials around his age, Zhou stepped down from the Standing Committee in November 2012 -- top Chinese politicians have a surprisingly strict retirement policy. The next Standing Committee downgraded Zhou's position to the regular Politburo. Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the University of Sydney, called the move a "very big rebuke to Zhou." Since then, Zhou has mostly stayed out of sight, leading to reports from overseas Chinese news websites, which aren't always credible, that he is under investigation.  On Aug. 30, The South China Morning Post, a Hong-Kong based English newspaper with a better track record on elite politics than its peers, reported that top Party leaders have agreed to investigate Zhou for corruption. "There is a 50 percent chance that Zhou is in trouble, and that's a pretty big chance," says a person familiar with the matter.

It's impossible to predict the future; in the opaque world of Chinese politics, even the present is hazy. Thus, it's instructive to look into the past, at the case of Kang Sheng, Mao Zedong's urbane and cruel spymaster, and probably the last security chief to accrue as much power as Zhou. While Chinese politics during Mao's era were far more vicious, and Kang correspondingly far more feared than Zhou, the system of rules Kang played by during the anarchic decade-long Cultural Revolution still influence Chinese political infighting today. And Kang won. Communism, a social movement known for its tendency to consume its children, has few notable marquee survivors. China's survivor wasn't Mao Zedong -- when he died in November 1976, after a decade presiding over the Cultural Revolution, he could probably already feel the country slipping away from his grasp. Rather it was Kang, who died in 1975 of cancer, with his hands still gripping the levers of state security.

Born in 1898, Kang studied abroad in Russia in the 1920s and brought back a sophisticated understanding of Soviet espionage. He ingratiated himself with Mao when the future chairman was a rebel leader in Yan'an in the late 1930s, facilitating Mao's marriage to his fourth and final wife Jiang Qing. (The information regarding Kang comes from The Claws of the Dragon, a 1992 biography written by Roger T. Uren, a former diplomat who wrote under the penname John Byron, and the journalist Robert Peck, who in the 1980s received a set of secret Party documents pertaining to Kang.) 

Kang's standing in the party rose and fell over the next three decades, until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when he was on the ascendant. "Kang never lost sight of one essential lesson from his Soviet experience: that by inventing a world full of spies and enemy agents, it was possible to acquire enormous influence," the authors wrote. An excellent judge of Mao's moods, Kang solidified power by positioning his enemies in the path of Mao's rage or paranoia, and by knowing when to cut ties with someone who had fallen out of favor. One of Kang's key allies was Lin Biao, a decorated Chinese general appointed as Mao's successor. As soon as he sensed that Mao had grown wary of Lin, Kang immediately distanced himself from the erstwhile crown prince.

Has Zhou learned these lessons and successfully distanced himself from Bo? Or is he implicated and caught up by Bo's downfall? Did Zhou cast his lot in with Bo, and, as some of the more outlandish rumors say, plan a coup? That information may never surface. In 1972, Lin allegedly tried to assassinate Mao; after the plot failed, he fled to the Soviet Union, but his plane crashed on the way, leaving no survivors. That's the official version, anyway -- whether the actual events differed in reality remains unknown, even to this day.

There is no record of Kang meeting Zhou, but Kang was instrumental in the downfall of Bo's father Bo Yibo, then a top party official. In 1966, he presented Mao with a newspaper that featured an "anti-communist" declaration Bo had signed decades earlier, according to the journalists Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang in their book about the Bo Xilai affair, A Death in the Lucky Hotel. Kang was a master at building cases against his opponents, and of surgically purging their allies -- a situation that may be befalling Zhou.

More than half a dozen of Zhou's allies, including a deputy party chief of Sichuan, the province Zhou formerly ran, are known to be under investigation. Over the last week, Beijing has announced it is investigating four senior officials at China National Petroleum, the oil behemoth Zhou ran in the 1990s, for graft. One of the men, Li Hualin, formerly served as Zhou's secretary. "The aim of this operation is to separate Zhou Yongkang from the current political layout," political commentator Li Weidong told The Washington Post.

But the excesses of Kang, who was partially responsible for the torture and murder of several high-ranking officials in the 1960s and 1970s, like Chinese President Liu Shaoqi, may help Zhou. There is now an unofficial ban on the trial or arrest of current or former Standing Committee members. If he is indeed being investigated, Zhou might be placed under house arrest, like former Premier Zhao Ziyang, or he might quietly fade away.

As for Kang, his reputation suffered greatly after his death. Hu Yaobang, who served as a reformist Chinese premier in the mid-1980s, censured Kang in a 1978 speech, beginning the process of removing him from the canon of respected former leaders. "Hu's long harangue against Kang in itself revealed that Kang's techniques had penetrated to the very marrow of Chinese politics," Kang's biographers write; Hu was exaggerating some of the details and "fantasizing about his crimes." By late 1980, Kang had been posthumously expelled from the Communist Party.

And yet, Kang's methods live on. In July, The Study Times, an influential Communist Party newspaper, published an article exhorting readers to study those speeches Hu made in "unmasking" Kang Sheng -- which could be interpreted as an attack on Zhou, given the similarities between the two men.

But Kang got the last laugh. "The final proof of Kang's cunning is that he outlived virtually all of his victims," the authors of his biography wrote. After his death, The People's Daily, the newspaper that functions as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a photo of Kang on its front page with a long banner headline, ending with the phrase "Comrade Kang Sheng is immortal!" Whatever happens to Zhou, he is unlikely to receive the same treatment.  

LIU JIN AFP