Friday, 17 October 2014

Ebola and R2P; Africa and the International Community: 5 Definite Lessons from the Ebola Crisis

I feel exceptionally well placed to write this piece. My Ph.D thesis was titled ‘R2P and the Responsibility to Prevent: A Legitimate and Structural Framework for an International Non-Military Responsibility to Prevent Mass Atrocity and Internal Conflict in West Africa.’ In my thesis I focused on the preventive arm of the responsibility to protect (R2P) and human rights violations, to emphasise the range of potential international responses to the crimes of R2P and systematic human rights violations that are available to the international community. However, one of the main aims of that thesis was to examine the tension between detrimental involvement by the international community in the internal affairs of states, on the one hand, and the responsibility which the international community may have in preventing human suffering in such states on the other. Therefore, I examined the interplay between national and international obligation, especially the obligation of the ever-elusive ‘international community.’

In April 2014, the first cases of Ebola were brought to international attention. The outbreak started in Guinea, but quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone with isolated cases in neighbouring Senegal and a transported outbreak in Nigeria. Without a hashtag to cling to or an ice bucket challenge to surmount, the world largely ignored the outbreak. It was not till selfless American and British aid workers, who contacted the deadly virus, were flown to their respective homelands for treatment, that the mass hysteria of an imminent biological apocalypse caused several governments around the world (outside West Africa) to begin to consider what they may do to avoid the virus killing their own citizens. Nevertheless, by October 2014 infections had occurred in the US and Spain. There are various lessons which I would like to point out from the foregoing.

1.      The international community is pure fiction. While the phrase ‘international community’ is used to imply a common point of view, that commonality is almost always overshadowed by personal and political self-interest. The UN and WHO, both seen as evidence of the existence of an international community, have barely managed to get a handle on the crisis. The crisis could have been contained with adequate readiness by a cohesive international community in April 2014, but the lack of such a community has resulted in unnecessary loss of life and increasing expenditure. There is also no anticipated ended to this current outbreak. Over 4 000 people have died and the WHO thinks the numbers may rise to 10000 before it is contained. Lesson one: Relying on the international community is like sitting on a chair made of tissue paper, it will let you down.

2.      R2P is severely handicapped by a non-existent international community. The core of the responsibility to protect (R2P) is simply encapsulated in this statement ‘Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.’[1] The responsibility to protect is divided into 3 parts; a responsibility to prevent, a responsibility to react, and a responsibility to rebuild. The vision of the architects of R2P clearly covers a situation such as the current Ebola outbreak, where populations in West Africa are suffering serious harm, and the states concerned are unable to prevent it. The international responsibility to protect cannot be fulfilled if there is no international community to bear such a responsibility. This is more so as regards the first part of the continuum, i.e. the responsibility to prevent. Lesson two – R2P without a functional international community is like a toothbrush with no bristles, completely redundant.

3.      If the international community is to be built, it should start from a sense of human oneness. Our understanding of community is based on the fictional presumption of shared values. These shared values rarely result in shared action unless, shared interests are at stake. This is exhibited in continuing multilateral military action in the Middle-East and inaction or delayed reaction to Ebola in West Africa. Concepts such as universal human rights will not gain any traction till we see the human race as one. When we do not need to appeal to people to imagine someone dying is someone we know, when the basic fact of their humanity will suffice to ignite our compassion, when all life has equal value, then we will have an international community. The existence of an international community does not require more resources, the world has enough, though unevenly distributed. The international community requires more humanity, not values nor interest, but compassion and human kindness, not rhetoric or bombast, but consistent acts of benevolence. Lesson three – calling the international community a community without any sense of communion is like calling a cactus plant a rose bush, placing it in your parlour and hoping the fragrance will adorn the premises.

4.      Africa must look to herself. Now more than ever, Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, must realise that self-sufficiency is required. Aid has solved no problems, interventions have probably done more harm than good, and the recommendation of constant elections, have become a smoke-screen for undemocratic democracies. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone are unable to handle the current Ebola outbreak due to the lack of manpower and infrastructure that have resulted from sustained yet preventable conflict (I suggest you read my thesis, its only about 99,000 words long give or take a few hundred). In contrast ever-tense Nigeria, and sporadic-conflict-hit Senegal contained Ebola WITHOUT ANY EXTERNAL HELP. Imagine if those states were more functional. A cure would have been found a long time ago.  If you can contain Ebola, you can build up economies live in peace and achieve mastery of geographical space. Look to yourselves, adopt your own solutions, do good to all men. Lesson 4 – if a man lives at the bottom of a hill, during the flood, he should be the first to build flood barrier. Nevertheless, the fellow at the top of the hill who thinks he is safe, has no way of escape.

5.      We are one world, one human race. “The world has become like a drum – if hit on one end, the whole thing will vibrate.” We need to desist from alterity, stop playing the ‘us’ and ‘them’ game. I am you and you are me. They are us, and we are them. Lesson 5 – Different colours, shapes and sizes, different creeds, ideologies and religions – but we breathe in the same air, walk on the same planet, lie under the same stars and Ebola can kill us all.

[1] ICISS (2001) The Responsibility to Protect. Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. xi, emphasis mine.

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