The Perils of Hands-Off Approaches in Conflict Situations

In thinking about the seemingly unrelated coups d’état in Egypt, Mali and Honduras, it is possible to discern a thin thread of commonality that ties these cases together, despite of the obvious differences between them.  In these cases, the international community adopted a policy that put national sovereignty ahead of democratic stability and human rights, with devastating outcomes for the inhabitants of these countries.  The on-going crisis in Egypt is but a symptom of the open scar left by the international community’s adoption of a non-intervention policy at the time of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in 2011.  Prior to the elections of 2012, the Egyptian electorate and political groups had not partaken in a real democratic exercise, and there was not enough time or resources to prepare these actors for a proper electoral process.  In this instance the international community could have played a key role in delivering training programmes and providing logistical support to solidify the bases of Egypt’s long-term political security. 

The takeover of al-Qaeda militant groups in northern Mali in late 2012 is also a by-product of the international community’s unwillingness to act in the face of political unrest.  After the March 2012 deposition of Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, there were already strong signs that the state of democracy in Mali was weak, but this event was met with a lukewarm reaction from the international community.  As a result, Mali continued its gradual political descent towards weak governance, Tuareg separatist offensives, a second coup in December 2012, and the subsequent occupation of the northern part of Mali, an area of land equal in size to France.  It was not until 2013 that a task force commanded by France entered Malian territory to retake al-Qaeda-occupied lands, albeit with no serious intent to help stabilize the already severe political situation in the country.

International apathy was also present when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was dismissed from his presidential post in 2009.  While condemnations and aid freezes were put in place during Roberto Micheletti’s interim presidential tenure after Zelaya’s dismissal, no international resources were allocated to ensure that democracy was properly restored in Honduras.  Even though fair elections took place in November 2009, democratic life in Honduras still remains in a dubious state.  While journalists’ murders remain largely unresolved and drug-related crime continues to ravage the country, there is no real commitment on behalf of the international community to help bolster the government’s ability to thwart this violence. 

The conventional idea of an intervention is often regarded as the use of a military force to influence change at the upper-most levels of government.  The problem with this idea is that change only targets the holders of political power, and does not seek wider institutional reform, which in many conflict situations, is much needed.  In order to deal with more profound changes, it is necessary to develop wider consensus-building mechanisms, and work with local civil society groups and community leaders.  This will ensure that the bases upon which democratic governance structures are built remain strong in the long-term.  Due to the ethical and sovereignty-related concerns associated with an intervention, many governments and international organizations categorically reject its very idea, and prefer the opposite alternative: inaction.  It is therefore necessary to conceive and institutionalize new intervention mechanisms that will facilitate democratic stability and foster stronger political and social institutions.

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