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The case against military action

By Dana Yates

Professor Sorpong Peou

New politics chair Sorpong Peou’s research on human security examines international response to governments that harm their own citizens.

The notion that a national government would kill or harm its own citizens may seem inconceivable but it’s a tragedy that’s constantly played out worldwide. And while the international community’s response to such atrocities typically involves threats of military attack, one Ryerson researcher says violent action is a short-term – and largely ineffective – solution to a long-term security problem.

Sorpong Peou, the new chair of the Department of Politics and Public Administration in the Faculty of Arts, is an expert on human security. The theory states that all individuals are entitled to live free from threats of war and violence including war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Peou is currently publishing a book on the subject, Human Security Studies: Theories, Methods and Themes.

While it may seem obvious that governments shouldn’t attack or harm their own citizenry and should protect them, there is considerable debate about what to do when leaders actually commit crimes. It was once believed that national sovereignty was reason enough to preclude international intervention, but increasingly the global community has become unwilling to sit idle as war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing occur – but that doesn’t always translate into effective collective action.

Take, for example, the recent massacre in Syria.  After nearly 1,400 people were killed by chemical weapons under the order of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as confirmed by U.S. officials, reaction was mixed in the United Nations’ Security Council and the larger international community. Western nations, and especially the United States, wanted to retaliate against the Syrian government using military strikes. Other countries, namely China and Russia, were opposed to such action. And although such responses are often politically motivated, Peou thinks they point to a divide in how to address mass atrocities. There’s even widespread disagreement on how to label these serious crimes.

“We still need to promote awareness about human security issues and encourage our students to think more creatively about solutions to the problem of human insecurity. The situation in Syria has been called a humanitarian crisis, not a crisis of human security,” says Peou. “That’s because for the most part journalists aren’t familiar with this relatively new terminology.”

During the mid-1990s, the government of Jean Chretien, and in particular minister of foreign affairs Lloyd Axworthy, took up the cause of human security and lobbied for international intervention, including military action, to bring a swift end to mass atrocities, mainly large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing.

Japan, on the other hand, has another perspective. Arguing that conflicts are the result of extreme poverty and inequality, Tokyo advocates for economic development as a way of halting violence – an approach that takes a longer view of conflict resolution. 

Peou, for his part, takes a measured approach to the use of military action – and his beliefs are also guided by personal experience. A native of Cambodia, whose family struggled greatly under the murderous tyranny of the Khmer Rouge, he has first-hand knowledge of the suffering that can be inflicted by one’s own government. And while he believes military strikes are sometimes necessary to bring an immediate end to killings, he believes such action isn’t sufficient on its own and can be dangerous or counterproductive; if long-term peace is to be achieved and sustained, democratic and economic development is a much better or more effective approach.

That’s because, he argues, after Western nations fulfil their moral imperative to punish homicidal foreign leaders by military means, countries are often left in ruin. And when public infrastructure is destroyed and economies have collapsed, women often bear the heaviest burdens of such upheaval and experience violence and unemployment.

“That’s why you’ll hear people in those countries sometimes say, ‘please, don’t strike us,’” says Peou. “We have to be extremely careful about the use of force. There are often undesirable or negative consequences of excessive military means, even if we do so on the basis of good intentions or moral principles. We may be angry about injustices in other countries, but we also need to remind ourselves that we don’t suffer those negative consequences with those people on a daily basis.”