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Humanitarian Interventionism Brazilian Style?

Brazil tries to strike a balance between sovereignty and preventing atrocities.
The model for the future: Members of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti’s (MINUSTAH) Brazilian Battalion help distribute food aid in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. (Sophia Paris/MINUSTAH/Getty)

Brazilian attitudes toward national sovereignty and non-intervention are in a state of flux. Leaders in Brasília are seeking to actively take part in the current global rethink about the future of humanitarian intervention, and are increasingly willing to deploy men in uniform to distant lands when the lives of civilians are at stake. The change is significant because Brazil has historically championed national sovereignty.

Many in Washington DC and in European capitals, however, view this as problematic. The skeptics dismiss Brazil’s newly professed commitment to humanitarian intervention as an effort to complicate the ability of the United States and its allies to intervene worldwide on behalf of democracy and human rights. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in reaction to the attitudes of Brazil and other developing countries to policy toward Libya, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Syria: “Let me just say, we’ve learned a lot and, frankly, not all of it encouraging.”1

Many in this camp believe that Brazil wants to nudge the world toward greater multipolarity without necessarily committing itself to multilateralism, thus behaving as an “irresponsible stakeholder”2—in the phrase used by Stewart Patrick in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article. The view recurs in academia as well. According to political scientist Randall Schweller, “Though it is thriving within the current international order, Brazil is nonetheless the most revisionist of all emerging powers—a rising spoiler.”3

But it’s worth taking a closer look. Recent Brazilian statements and actions suggest that attitudes toward sovereignty and the collective responsibility to protect citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing or other mass atrocities may be shifting. In the face of a new wave of humanitarian interventions, Brazilians are seeking to be part of the global conversation, rather than distance themselves as in the past.

As the World Turns

Brazil was not always averse to the use of force. Back in the nineteenth century it conquered territory inland, it went to war over what is now Uruguay, and it repelled Paraguayan forces on Brazilian territory. Warfare and balance-of-power calculations were integral to Brazil’s efforts to consolidate borders and strengthen its regional influence.

By the early 1900s, however, Brazil took a U-turn. It became a staunch defender of national sovereignty and an advocate of non-intervention. Its diplomats fought several battles against using force against sovereign debtors and helped write norms in international bodies to protect national autonomy.

In the 1950s, Brazil embraced anti-colonialism and in the 1970s it roundly denounced European and American interventions in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America as a reassertion of imperial prerogatives. In the process, Brazilian diplomacy became strongly identified with promoting practices and norms that sought to elevate national sovereignty and nonintervention as core pillars of global order.

But during the 1990s, that approach was tested by an evolving global consensus toward humanitarian intervention and, with it, an emerging assertion of the international responsibility to act against grave human rights abuses committed by sovereign states against their own people. At first, for Brazilian leaders the notion that the international community had an obligation to act in the face of mass atrocities in places like Rwanda, Somalia and Kosovo was deeply problematic. They feared that within this emerging consensus major powers would find a permissive environment to impose their will on far weaker countries.

They also believed that major powers would only intervene on behalf of the rights of distant peoples selectively—in other words, not to advance the universal cause of human rights, but to advance their own geopolitical and economic interests. With this mindset, Brazil’s foreign policy officials became suspicious of concepts like “state failure” and “ungoverned space”—jargon that they believed opened up the space for new protectorates in places as varied as Haiti or East Timor.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath only made Brazilian fears more acute. Already thin protections of sovereignty risked being further diluted in the new “global war on terror,” with its talk of “pre-emptive wars,” unmanned vehicles launching attacks without formal declarations of war, and growing tolerance toward the use of torture and renditions. The rhetoric of an “axis of evil”—by implication, a club of states not worthy of sovereign rights—added to the distress.

The election of President Barack Obama did little to reverse those concerns in Brasília. Like many other states, Brazil is uncomfortable with U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen and with Washington’s covert war against terrorists in Somalia—adding to its concern with the U.S. presence and activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet even before the 9/11 attacks, Brazil had already begun to revise its own posture toward interventions in the name of protecting human rights and promoting democracy. Two major forces triggered the transformation.

On the one hand, there was a risk of isolation from a global community that was increasingly questioning traditional norms of sovereignty as a result of mass atrocities. Influential voices in government perceived a need to adapt to the newer forms of global governance if Brasília wanted to have a seat and a voice at the top tables.

On the other hand, a vibrant civil society at home gave new impetus to concerns about human rights and democracy abroad. Although foreign affairs do not figure prominently for Brazilian voters, as Brazilian society has become more open and vibrant, there have been more voices and demands on all aspects of public policy. In that context of public debate, it has become difficult for the executive to ignore mass atrocities abroad.

As a result, the successive administrations of presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff faced growing pressure to engage in the evolving international norms and practices of humanitarian intervention.

A new Brazilian Attitude Begins to Take Shape

Change started in the late 1990s. When the army in neighboring Paraguay attempted to remove the constitutional government through a coup d’état, President Cardoso threatened the plotters with expulsion from Mercosur and the suspension of royalty payments accruing from the bi-national Itaipu hydroelectric dam. The coup plotters backtracked.

And change picked up momentum in the early 2000s. Brazil had traditionally refused to send troops to UN peace enforcement operations other than those conducted under Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter, which require the consent of the ruling authorities in the country concerned. But in 2004 President Lula authorized the largest military deployment since World War II to command a UN-mandated peacekeeping operation in Haiti under Chapter VII, allowing for the use of force.

Lula was careful not to couch this major transformation in terms of a new doctrine. Instead, his discourse emphasized continuity with Brazil’s traditional attachment to national sovereignty.

“Growing approximation and consolidation of Brazil’s relations with its region,” he explained at the time, “require that the situations of instability in these countries deserve a more attentive follow-up on the part of the Brazilian government, which is oriented by the principle of non-intervention, but also by an attitude of ‘non-indifference.’’’

Brazil’s willingness to accommodate and adapt grew stronger in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As it became apparent in 2011 that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was bent on crushing a rebellion against his regime by launching a war that indiscriminately targeted civilians and armed combatants, Brazil under President Rousseff for the first time accepted the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).

R2P was first articulated by several UN member states about 10 years ago, and in 2005 it was approved as a UN initiative. It states that when states fail to protect their own citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has the responsibility to intervene, through coercive measures if necessary. Before President Rousseff, Brazil was ambiguous about R2P. Officially the government welcomed the initiative, but in practice it denounced R2P as a ploy of the strong to secure the legal right to intervene at will across the developing world. Under Lula, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim had spoken of R2P as “droit d’ingerénce [. . .] in new clothes.”4

As debates over a potential intervention in Libya began in early 2011, Brazil started inching toward the general idea that state sovereignty is conditional on protecting civilians. By March the Rousseff administration was supporting those parts of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that invoked the use of force under R2P. Brazil had demonstrated a public acceptance of military action in Libya.

Yet Brazil’s new attitude was not celebrated in the U.S., or in parts of Europe. Even if it agreed to the notion of R2P, Brazil used its position as a non-permanent member of the Security Council to band together with China, India and Germany against the authorization of more aggressive action in Libya. Along with those countries, Brazil feared that an authorized no-fly zone over Libya might be a slippery slope to outright intervention to topple Qaddafi, thus worsening a situation that was already tipping toward civil war.

As Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota put it, Brazil worried that this would set a precedent under which arguments for humanitarian intervention “might be misused for purposes other than protecting civilians, such as regime change.”

U.S. Ambassador Rice chided Brazil and other skeptics, such as India and South Africa, for taking a stance “that one might not have anticipated, given that each of them came out of strong and proud democratic traditions.”

But developments on the ground soon confirmed Brazil’s concerns.

The intervention did thrust allied forces into the anti-Qaddafi camp. Rather than simply enforcing UN resolutions calling for a cease-fire and an arms embargo to prevent more civilian casualties, the coalition’s actions gave the Libyan opposition the breathing space it needed to survive Qaddafi’s overwhelming firepower and to re-arm.

When the fighting was over and the regime had collapsed, the Brazilian press drew attention to the fact that the foreign minister of France, the leading coalition actor against Qaddafi, was now demanding oil contracts as repayment for the liberation services rendered. (As U.S. officials like to point out, however, Brazil too tried to secure contracts in post-Qaddafi Libya, but did so without having made a contribution toward regime change.)

While Washington saw the Libya episode as a successful model for future humanitarian interventions, Brasília saw it as a dangerous precedent. Brazil’s foreign policy elite believed the resolution was too broad, giving NATO free rein over the terms and conditions of the intervention.

For Brazilian leadership, the thin rules governing the use of force on the part of the major powers represent a great threat to international stability. The idea stems from a belief that intrusive norms of humanitarian intervention will corrode the principles of sovereignty and national autonomy and threaten international stability—representing potentially even a greater risk than the rise of new powers, radical Islam and even nuclear terror.

For all her government’s concern with sovereignty, though, President Rousseff has not challenged the fundamental validity of R2P. Rather, she has argued that foreign interventions designed to protect civilians must be tightly regulated because too many dangers inhere in interventions across borders in the name of humanitarian concerns. “The Security Council must ensure the accountability of those to whom authority is granted to resort to force,” she has repeated in her speeches.

It is no wonder, then, that when long-simmering civil-rights protests in Syria triggered a violent government crackdown, Brazil sought to demonstrate concern while rejecting calls for a Libyan-style intervention. Along with India and South Africa—but without Russia or China—Brazil participated in a mission to Damascus to urge the Bashar al-Assad regime to stop the violence, while also asking the opposition to lay down its weapons.

The mission’s goal, according to Brasília, was to head off sanctions or other forms of international pressure that would push Assad into a corner and exacerbate the conflict.

When the effort failed, Brazil came under heavy criticism for its posture on Syria. Democratic countries “shouldn’t sit by and watch as Syria implodes,” Human Rights Watch declared. “Their efforts at private dialogue have achieved nothing, and hundreds more Syrians have died in the meantime.”

Brazilian officials were sensitive to the criticism. By November 2011, they began to circulate a concept paper at the UN entitled “Responsibility While Protecting,” or RWP. The paper argued that without limits on what the powerful may do, the emerging ideology of humanitarian intervention could easily become a tool for foreign manipulation. It then went on to suggest that the international community ought to codify standards and procedures to govern humanitarian intervention in the future. In practice, RWP proposed the introduction of criteria—such as last resort, proportionality, and balance of consequences—before the Security Council authorized the use of force. The paper called for the creation of a system for monitoring and reviewing the intervention as it evolves.

The RWP concept was not open- ended and it stopped short of specifying how to roll out the criteria it proposed. Brasília conceived it less as a finished doctrine and more as a broad message to the international community: if humanitarian interventions in the future are loosely regulated and big power coalitions intervene as they please, then R2P will divide the international community between north and south, rich and poor, strong and weak.

There was nothing new here. Brazil’s core message that interventions need to be carefully regulated can in fact be found in the 2005 R2P initiative. The fact that the Brazilian government dusted off its old proposal and presented it to the public demonstrated its willingness to engage constructively in the global debate over the rules that govern the use of force in the next decades.

The reception of Brazil’s RWP in the U.S. and parts of Europe was negative at first. With the partial exception of Germany, Europe quickly dismissed the initiative as an attempt to block action and let tyrannical leaders hide behind the legal shield of sovereignty. So far, Brazil has done a poor job of explaining what RWP entails and answering suspicions that it is an attempt to paralyze global action against mass atrocities instead of what it claims it is: a tool to ensure interventions cause less damage than they set out to prevent.

China, Russia and India did not show much sympathy for RWP either. They were unhappy to see Brazil go further than they were ready to go in criticizing the Assad regime in Syria, and in their eyes RWP only confirms Brazil’s unpredictability when it comes to defending the primacy of sovereignty.

This is, of course, problematic for Brazil. Without the military or financial resources to be a major player in the business of intervention and peacekeeping operations, its ability to speak up in global councils rests on the tacit support of others. If it wants its new ideas to stick, then Brazil first needs to convince and influence powerful countries. RWP has yet to achieve this.

Equally complicated is the reception of RWP at home. Brazil’s commitment to sovereignty is deeply rooted in and around the state apparatus, and talk of humanitarian intervention is bound to clash with embedded understandings of how the world works.

It is among networks of activists and private foundations, however, that RWP seems to have found its closest friends. Anecdotal evidence suggests that networks of human rights NGOs active in Brazil and in and around the UN system welcomed the initiative and are keen to learn more about it. Among these activists, there is a sense that if R2P is ever going to become a key organizing principle of global order that is embraced by all, then part of the bargain will have to involve some form of criteria for intervention. On this view, weaker nations around the globe will only grant legitimacy to humanitarian intervention if the use of force on behalf of strangers is strictly regulated to ensure that the interests of the people come before those of powerful nations.

Stepping Up or Stepping Out of Line?

Future disagreement between the U.S. and Brazil over humanitarian intervention is not inevitable. Brazilian leaders have been sensitive to the accusation that they just want to be recognized as a major power without paying any of the costs. Instead, Brasília believes it has gone out of its way to demonstrate its burden-sharing credentials.

To further the debate, though, Brazilian leaders will need to remain involved in the shaping of humanitarian intervention norms and avoid alienating the United States. As part of this process, Brazil is aiming to demonstrate that it is entitled to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, based not only on its willingness to deploy military missions abroad to enforce peace and stability, but on the argument that it can bring to international and multilateral debates and decisions a new, modern perspective on security that is more in tune with the demands of a changing world.

Along these lines, Brasília believes that it can add legitimacy to global order because it seeks to preserve humanitarian intervention while defending the weak from the selective geostrategic predations of the most powerful. This is a message that strikes a chord with large swaths of people around the globe.

What is the implication for the United States? Since Brazil is more interested in adapting existing conceptions of intervention than in offering alternative ones, the U.S. would be wise to invest in greater dialogue and practical cooperation on the ground. A good example is the work currently conducted by the two countries in Haiti or in bilateral military cooperation in partner countries throughout Africa.

Along these lines, Washington should not discard RWP too quickly. If notions of civilian protection are going to become fixtures in the emerging normative landscape, then they will have to be embraced by major rising powers, first among them the members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Among those countries Brazil has been the one most willing to engage on this topic.

Rather than see RWP as an attempt to block progress toward better and more efficient humanitarian interventions, the U.S. should take it as an attempt to return to the initial spirit of R2P in the mid-2000s. At inception, the principle did not focus on the use of military force as the sole or primary instrument to cease violations of rights. Instead, it gave equal attention to building state capacity to address structural causes of violence, such as poverty.

Brazil wants to emphasize that side of humanitarian intervention because it will not and cannot take active part in it through military force. But it is keen to make contributions in the fields where it has the ability to deliver, such as poverty alleviation, sustainable agriculture, public service reform, and international aid and cooperation. These may not be integral to current understandings of humanitarian intervention, but are likely to become so if R2P is to become a dominant norm in twenty-first century international society.

The best response by the U.S. would be to take Brazil’s proposals seriously and engage Brasília in further specifying how the concept would work in practice. Dialogue with Brazil is a low-cost initiative to try bridging the gap between the Western industrial countries and the major developing states that now threatens the future survival of a global shared responsibility to protect.

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