The right mix for humanitarian intervention

I’ve posted a piece on the BBC Editors’ Blog about Libya, Ivory Coast and humanitarian intervention.

Since the foreign military intervention began in Libya in early March, The World Tonight has been airing the debate over why action is being taken in Libya and not other countries, such as Ivory Coast.

Over the past decade, we have covered the waxing, in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, of so-called humanitarian or liberal intervention, and its waning in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003. It is never a simple case of the international community intervening to protect civilians who are victims of repression from their own governments. If it were, we would have seen foreign forces going into such countries as Sri Lanka or Burma as well as Sierra Leone and former Yugoslavia.

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What price democracy in the Ivory Coast?

I have never visited the Ivory Coast and do not feel well qualified, therefore, to comment on the situation developing there. But as an observer from afar of the post-election crisis which has seen the country move to the brink of either civil war or invasion by troops from other West African countries, I cannot help wondering whether the country would be better off if it allowed Laurent Gbagbo, the man who lost the election and who is clinging on grimly to the presidency, to remain in power.

Gbagbo’s strategy from an early stage, no doubt drawing on lessons learned from Kenya and Zimbabwe in recent years, seems to have been to angle for a power-sharing agreement with the election winner, Alassane Ouattara. Early on in the crisis, he predicted that there would not be a war over the succession, and asked his opponent to ‘sit down and talk.’ Ouattara rejected the invitation, buoyed by the impressive array of international leaders who have queued up to call for the president to step down. The Ivory Coast’s West African neighbours, the United Nations, America, France and Britain have been united in condemning Gbagbo and in threatening to use force to evict him.

This show of strength, however, particularly when combined with the threat that the International Criminal Court might be waiting for Gbagbo if he resigns (as alluded to by Chris Blattman in an interesting discussion on his blog), has forced the incumbent into a corner. He may now feel he has little choice but to dig in. Losing power in West Africa means you and the many people who rely on you for jobs, money and influence instantly lose everything. But the threat of violence or arrest adds a new dimension; now, you and those close to you not only lose money and status, but potentially your freedom or your life too. I remember a friend in Sierra Leone last year telling me that the reason so few of his continent’s leaders exit power peacefully is because ‘in Africa, they come after you.’ The insistence by the West, West Africa and Ouattara himself that the democratic process be respected could result in many thousands of Ivorian deaths. The alternative is unsatisfactory and unpalatable, but wouldn’t a power-sharing deal, followed by renewed efforts to strengthen political and civil society institutions so that such chaos doesn’t happen again, be preferable to carnage?