Paying for protection

With little debate, this country has de facto taken on a “responsibility to protect” citizens in failed and fragile states in our region. There is a cost.

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine was developed by a Canadian-led United Nations commission in 2000-01 in the wake of the ghastly slaughter in Rwanda which the international community could have mitigated but chose not, despite this country’s prodding in the Security Council.

The doctrine says a state’s most basic duty is to protect its citizens from those outside and inside who would do their citizens harm. When a state egregiously fails to do that or itself attacks its citizens, as did Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi state (among many), the “responsibility to protect” those citizens falls upon other states.

That is, upon you.

For centuries the doctrine, born of the need to end Europe’s catastrophic religious wars, has been that what goes on within a state is no business of any other state unless attack is imminent. The new doctrine says we all have an interest in all our fellow-humans being free and prosperous or at least fed and more or less in peace.

This doctrine is far from widely accepted and is little voiced because states are jealous of their sovereignty. And anyway who really cares about those condemned to starve and die in Darfur or those tortured and murdered by their rulers in North Korea?

But it can be a convenient notion.

George Bush and Tony Blair have justified their invasion of Iraq as having removed a tyrant who tortured and murdered his citizens. They needed a new rationale when their delusion that Iraq possessed and intended to use weapons of mass destruction against them proved hollow.

Their original motivation was their nation-states’ self-interest: protection and revenge (and oil?).

Self-interest also explains Australia’s discovery of a Melanesian “arc of instability” of states off its north-east coasts which might be havens for international criminals and terrorists and its sudden subsequent urge to fix up the Solomons.

Now it frets that it is the region’s lone policeman, as the Economist magazine, ignoring New Zealand’s commensurate effort, put it last week.

And there is plenty to do. The prognosis for the Melanesian states, including potentially West Papua now clamped in the Javanese empire’s jaws, makes despairing reading. Likewise East Timor.

These are not one-off exercises. As the recent relapses in East Timor and the Solomons demonstrated, if Australia wants stability on its flank, it will have to put in decades of effort.

So will we.

Why should we bother? Those states are not as proximate to us as to Australia. “Our” Pacific, the Polynesian Pacific, is relatively pacific. Though Melanesian Fiji, recurrently in strife, and Polynesian Tonga, in a tense transition from corrupt monarchy to modernity, are on our patch, most hotbed states are not directly our business.

We bother because, de facto, our government has been taking on the “responsibility to protect”.

In a sense New Zealand governments have done that for decades through contributions to peacemaking and peacekeeping missions. On a per-head basis we have been among the largest contributors.

We were quick into East Timor (Australia could not have done the initial job there without our troops) and then into Afghanistan (more active than Australia) and bothered about the Solomons long before Australia.

Then a year or so back Phil Goff, as Foreign Minister, actually mentioned a “responsibility to protect”.

If this is truly where we are heading, we the people will need to learn — as Bush and Blair have from their Iraq miasma — that one-off pacification is not enough.

To build a viable, stable state takes time and many stages. It helps at some stage to have a strong and probably autocratic leader. It needs a viable economy because chronic poverty is the enemy of order.

Underpinning that long process will cost us. Protection doesn’t come cheap.

The troops will be in Timor a good while and may well have to go back in the future. The same goes for the Solomons — with, probably, some other Melanesian states to follow. Afghanistan is a long-running show.

That activity will require a bigger military force than our two battalions, a miniscule establishment and, some outside analysts say, below strength. In fact, the original Timor operation called up territorials (part-time soldiers) — OK as a one-off but not for serial interventions.

Goff and his advisers say the force is “comfortable” in meeting his government’s current demands for service abroad, totalling around 9 per cent of the force. And last year’s $4.4 billion 10-year defence new spending package envisages adding 1500-2000 personnel.

Enough? Maybe for today’s tasks. But when two or three or four more fragile states in “our region” fail, will it still “comfortably” meet the ambitions implied in a “responsibility to protect” our fellow-citizens there?

And, if not, will we willingly stump up the cash?