Return to home page
Letter to H.E. Mr. Wang Guangya, Permanent Representative
Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations
1 December 2005
Darfur and Chinese values
I am writing to you as a contribution to the global grassroots effort to demand effective and immediate action by the United Nations to end the ongoing slow genocide in Darfur.
You are, I am sure, well aware of the terrible situation. Nor do you need me to remind you of the courses open to the Security Council, including an arms embargo, an enforced no-flight zone, strengthening of the African Union intervention force, criminal investigations of war crimes by the ICC, and – but in addition and not instead - diplomatic mediation. The purpose of this letter is rather to address one of the main reasons for your government's evident hesitation to put its great weight behind such proposals.
My main point is not one you are likely to hear very often: the responsibility to protect is not necessarily a matter of human rights.
The latest and most sophisticated case for a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, in the ICISS report1, is of course the work of people who believe strongly in human rights as an integral part of modern international law. In this perspective, violations of human rights as codified in the Universal Declaration, the UN Covenants, and regional instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights, are part of the case for international intervention. However, as I understand the Chinese position, this is for you precisely the problem. The codified human rights are extensive, and intervention in extreme cases like Darfur would seem to place the Security Council on a slippery slope leading to wide-ranging interference with China's internal affairs and political order. Where do you draw the line? So China hesitates.
I respectfully suggest that an answer to the line-drawing problem can be found by appealing to a different and much older line of justification. Thomas Hobbes, whose political philosophy defended a rigorous absolute monarchy, made one exception to the subject's unconditional duty of obedience:
The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished1.
This thought can be traced back much further in Western political thinking, through the defences by Calvin, Suarez, Aquinas and Cicero of tyrannicide - the right and duty to resist truly abominable rulers.
Though I am no expert on the matter, I suggest that such views are also strongly rooted in your own history and political traditions. This is true both of the Marxist and the Confucian strands.
The moral content and political attractiveness of Marxism lay in its appeal not to the theories of schoolmen but to a long history of protest, riot and revolt by the common people all over Europe against oppressive princes and kings. Though later Marxist historians scoured these movements for evidence of radical social agendas, they were largely disappointed. The people usually took up arms for practical, limited and clear-cut aims: to secure food, to reduce oppressive taxes, and to protest the failure of public order. They demanded the king do his job of protecting them. Radical programmes for the transformation of the social order only emerged, where they occasionally did, late in political conflicts and wars that they had no part in launching: the Taborites and Adamites in the Hussite wars in Bohemia around 1300, Jan of Leyden in Münster in 1536, the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 1640s, the Jacobins in the French Revolution. Marx was able to tap this tradition by claiming that the capitalist order was inherently so oppressive of working people, whom he held (quite falsely) that it doomed to perpetual misery, that violent revolution was their only recourse. In fact, this is not what happened. No Communist revolution succeeded against a functioning bourgeois state. Both in Russia and in China, Communists were only enabled to take power by a pretty comprehensive collapse of political and social order in the wake of war.
China has a far longer tradition of peasant revolt against oppressive rulers who had lost the “Mandate of Heaven” - their divinely ordered legitimacy – by their extreme violence or incompetence. This was, as I understand it, justified in the conservative and patriarchal Confucian system: for just as a child abandoned by his father on the temple steps would shed his filial duty of obedience, the bedrock value of Chinese society, so a people abandoned by their emperor to famine and rapine lost their obligation to obey him.
Is not this exactly the case in Darfur? Both Hobbes and Confucius, and doubtless yourself, would say that the government of Sudan, faced with an armed rebellion in one of its provinces, has a perfect right to put down the rebellion by force. It would be justified in using extreme measures, perhaps bombing rebel villages, resettling disloyal tribesmen and the like. This was roughly how the Sudanese government proceeded against the rebels on the upper Nile led by John Garang. It's another question whether the strategy was wise and the means proportionate; the principle of the campaign was morally defensible.
But this is not how the same government is proceeding in Darfur. Instead of a proper military campaign, it has licensed and supported a proxy militia of rival tribesmen in ethnic cleansing, killing off or reducing to penniless refugees an entire population. It is not treating the tribes from whom the rebels are drawn as subjects to be brought to obedience but as enemies to be annihilated. It has therefore abandoned the responsibility to protect, lost the “mandate of heaven”, ceased to be (in that crucial respect) a government, quit by its own actions the circle of mutually recognised sovereign states, and gone back to the civilian status of warlord or pirate. Surely there is absolutely no prospect of a great country like the People's Republic of China behaving in this way and calling down on itself the condemnation and sanctions of the international community?
It seems clear to me then that strong intervention is Darfur is fully justified on grounds which do not appeal to any extensive concept of human rights and would not create any precedent for intervention in support of them. I write this as a strong supporter of a wide interpretation of human rights and international accountability for them, and I hope that China will in time come to share these views. But that is another story and for another time. The people of Darfur cannot wait any longer for your decisive support.
cc: UK Permanent Representation to the United Nations
This letter is not confidential and I retain the right to publish it.
(There was no reply)