By Donella Meadows
–April 1, 1993–
We who were born to democracy value it, but human beings are not all alike. Some may prefer to live under dictatorship. Anyway, whether other people like their leaders is no business of ours. As long as other governments stay within their own borders, they are not our problem.
Those were the dominant ideas of the old world order: cultural relativism and national sovereignty.
Now there is hardly a nation in which people have not let it be known that they want to choose their leaders. Democracy is not a value limited to certain kinds of people, it is shared, it is human. We should have known that. We should also have known the other lesson the world is now demonstrating, that when people lose the ability to choose their government, when they are treated brutally by their government, or when their government collapses, they need and want help from beyond their borders.
The new world order is trying to form around the principles of self-determination and international concern for the workability and decency of all governments. These principles are not yet operational; at least they don’t yet add up to an “order.” Every new crisis — Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Russia — is treated differently. We are making this world order up as we go along, and we are making mistakes.
Mistakes are understandable during a period of learning. But are we learning? The least we owe the ravaged Bosnians is some sense that suffering as terrible as theirs will never be permitted again, anywhere. The least we owe their children and our own is a world order based on rules more humane than: “We will interfere with a sovereign government when a) there is a lot of oil at stake, or b) they are trying to develop a nuclear bomb but haven’t yet succeeded, or c) the fight will be easy.”
At first glance it looks difficult to set out guidelines for the new world order. Who makes up the “self” in self-determination? What powers should one country or group of countries have over another? Should those powers be invoked when a government speaks hatefully of certain groups, or only after it authorizes soldiers to rape and massacre them? What if those groups are trying to make themselves into citizens of another country?
The only answers that can endure are shared, human, moral answers. It is not hard to find moral answers. They are the ones you would choose if they might apply to YOU. It doesn’t take a Cyrus Vance or Lord Owen to ask, under what conditions would I want outside forces to come to MY aid?
Here, to get the discussion moving, are my answers to that question. What are yours?
I want to choose and correct my own government except when:
– my government makes it impossible for me to do that by restricting my civil rights or making me live in fear of speaking my mind,
– my government systematically persecutes my kind of people with hate talk, blatant economic discrimination, or deadly force,
– my government refuses to meet international obligations (such as environmental or nuclear treaties), the failure of which would endanger me and others,
– my government has broken down and is not functioning,
– a violent dispute in a neighboring country threatens to run over into mine,
– a natural or political emergency has so disrupted the normal economy that the basics of life, especially water or food, are not available to me.
If an intervention is called for, I want it to come from a coalition of nations, not one nation, especially not a neighboring nation. I want it to come when government-sanctioned hate talk begins, not when shooting begins.
I want the intervention to start with verbal warnings and negotiation, but to proceed rapidly, if my government does not respond, to sanctions of increasing severity, announced in advance, applied without hesitation. I want economic sanctions to cut off commodities that enforce power, such as weapons, loans, and luxuries, not necessities, such as food or medicine. If, as in Somalia, life-maintaining commodities become the currency for obtaining weapons, I want stronger intervention.
I want to contribute to my own liberation. I want interveners to understand the power of organized, nonviolent resistance. I want to be consulted and utilized for my understanding of my culture and for my power to resist. If it comes to fighting, I want to help fight.
If there is no alternative to armed intervention, I want it to be swift, decisive, and aimed at the centers of power.
If my leaders have condoned criminal action, I want them to be treated like criminals. I do not want them to negotiate for me. I want any settlement to award me and others what is ours by right, not what has been seized by power.
I want the intervention to end as soon as possible, but not before my people have firm control of our own government.
After many people have contributed to and perfected a list something like this, I want it cast into enforceable language, adopted with solemnity, and applied without discrimination to all governments, on behalf of all people.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993