Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rules of Revolution

The thesis is as follows: from the standpoint of international law, national sovereignty must be viewed as a flexible concept when self-determination by a people of a nation is in question in times of outbreaks of internal violence directly tied to the very question of people’s self-determination – in other words – in times of revolution. That is, the international community has a right to breach the otherwise sovereign borders of a state (peacekeeping forces, etc) in order to minimize human violence, and to prevent violent oppression of the revolting people by the government’s armed forces.

The reasoning is as follows: government derives its legitimacy from a choice made by the people to have that government. At times, political circumstances turn in such a way that a substantial number of people are dissatisfied with their government, AND are unable to change that government through peaceful, lawful means (e.g.: election, even one decided by a Supreme Court, which is still an institution of law). During such times, people turn to self-help and try to change their form of government through revolution. Unfortunately, too frequently the government has control over the armed forces and is able to forcefully suppress change and political dissent. When the government has to use force to secure people’s compliance with it, the government divests itself of its fundamental legitimacy. A nation without a government is still a sovereign nation, and the international community has two choices at that point: do nothing and let the revolution and bloodshed take its natural course, or intervene (again, e.g.: peacekeeping forces) and mediate the set-up of a replacement government while also providing the people with protection against violence possibly perpetrated on the people by their old regime.

Today, there are many NGOs that work in foreign countries and assist them in setting up their legal and political systems. The international community ought to recognize the tremendous importance of this type of work, and, in times when a country breaks out into violence, enable armed peacekeeping envoys to penetrate an evolving nation’s sovereignty to ensure the protection of the first and foremost human right: the right to life – even if one is a revolutionary otherwise willing to sacrifice it. From a moral standpoint, we should not stand by idly and watch other people sacrificing their lives in the name of freedom, and while the peacekeeping/envoy option may not be a great one (hey, this is my first crack at this!), the United Nations should consider other formal approaches to intervening in the affairs of sister states whose people seek a more perfect expression of freedom.

This thought-process was triggered by the current crisis in Iran, so let’s consider how this might play out. We have unrest by a significant number of the people, a law-less election, violent clamping down of the protesters by the government controlling the armed forces, loss of life, and, a key factor – lack of legal recourse and inability of the people to resolve the electoral dispute by application of law. The UN is currently being petitioned to send “envoys” to Iran to mediate the crisis; however, there is seldom any discussion of use of UN military force to stand up to the government’s en masse use of the military against its own citizenry.

There is a big part of me that thinks that the current crisis in Iran would satisfy the threshold criteria, as set forth above, for international use of force aimed at stabilizing the situation – a coalition of envoys, that is, who will oversee a re-election, and perhaps oversee a referendum on certain parts of the Iranian Constitution, such as the part granting unchecked power to one Supreme Leader. Yet, there is also a big part of me that feels such an approach too intrusive under the circumstances, and possibly unwelcome and counterproductive. In fact, I could imagine an argument that the Supreme Leader’s call of the Iranian election IS application of legal process – because the Supreme Leader is empowered by the Iranian Constitution to have the power to make that call, which means that the law prevailed and the protesters ought to go home. The problem, of course, is that the protesters are not going home, and those who are – are quite possibly doing so out of fear of death rather than a truly voluntary choice to consent to the government’s ruling.

So, at the end of the day, I am not ultimately willing to make this call. However, I do think that the United Nations ought to consider very strongly various formalized collective responses to brewing revolutions, including use of military peacekeeping forces, for the purpose of preserving and protecting human life. The UN’s approach right now is ad hoc and there is little thought (that I’m aware of) given to formalizing a set of rules and criteria that would trigger a right to intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations the governments of which use violence to suppress the people’s dissent, which governments, therefore, become illegitimate. We have legal rules for war – and the creation of those rules was motivated by a self-evident need to protect human life and other rights in times of great crisis; we should have rules for revolution – for the very same reasons.

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  1. Interesting post, Bolga!

    When you talk "rules of war," this is Justum Bellum? Or various Conventions and Protocols? If the former, then am I to understand the factors considered in waging a 'just' intervention are: peaceful citizen demonstration, of a questionably fraudulent election, and violent government suppression? Are other factors of Jus Ad Bellum relevant (ie, likelihood of success)? And what factors do you think should be considered in the course of a 'just' intervention (ie, proportionality; similar to Jus In Bello)?

  2. I was thinking about the jus ad bellum concepts, trying to analogize the rules for when use of force is justifiable to the rules for when (armed) UN intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state is justifiable. The relevant factors are 1) citizen demonstration by a sizeable group, 2) reasonable question as to the legitimacy of an election (or some other crucial process), 3) violent suppression of the protesters by the government, and 4) lack of legal/ peaceful recourse available to the dissenting faction (lack, as distinguished from exhaustion of legal remedies). Obviously, these criteria create questions such as what constitutes a “sizeable” group, what kinds of events besides elections may trigger need for intervention, how is one to judge whether there is, in fact, fraud being perpetrated by the government, fraud that directly affects the self-determination principle, and fraud that must be a direct cause of the citizen protests. The other question is exactly what kind of intervention may be appropriate, and what factors should guide whether it is armed, or consisting only of diplomats or envoys (here, the starting point would be the degree of violence used by the government against the people.) Yet another question is how many UN members ought to agree before action is taken, who pays for it, who participates, etc, etc. However difficult these questions may be, it’s worthwhile and necessary for an international organization of states to consider them, in order to uphold the principles and ideals on the basis of which the UN was formed in the first place, and on the basis of which its Charters, rules and protocols are founded.


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