No Such Thing as Humanitarian Intervention

One hundred and forty years ago, the British statesman Sir William V. Harcourt, writing under the pen name Historicus, defined intervention as “a high and summary procedure that can sometimes snatch a remedy beyond the reach of law. As in the case of revolution, its essence is its illegality and its justification is its success.” This definition has not been improved upon since Harcourt’s time. He points to the illegality of intervention, well aware that to codify the practice would be to legislate for imperial adventures. But he nonetheless allows for exceptions, instances when the rule can be broken in pursuit of a higher good. And he identifies the criterion in such instances: success. Intervention is a matter of policy rather than law. As well as considering intervention alongside revolution, he might also have made the comparison with invasion; intervention is an act of war, and as such is politics conducted by other means.

Intervention, Not War?

Most contemporary debates treat military humanitarian intervention and its younger sibling, the responsibility to protect (R2P), as matters of law. But perhaps because of the implication that “humanitarian” actions are above criticism, and because the reality of war is clouded by the euphemism “intervention,” there has been too little comparative and historical analysis of the topic. Still less have recent humanitarian interventions been studied as instances of aggressive war – albeit arguably “just war.” This essay explores the contemporary history of humanitarian intervention, arguing that Harcourt’s skepticism is as warranted today as it was when he discouraged the British Parliament from voting to intervene in the American Civil War.

Subjecting war to regulation is both necessary and hazardous. Most ethical traditions contain a concept of just war, and the concepts of restraining excessive violence and respecting at least minimum standards of humanity in wartime are as old as the practice of war itself. There are rich traditions of scholarship on these issues, the best ones informed by a somber appraisal of the inevitable shortcomings of trying to restrain war in any way. Carl von Clausewitz’s maxims and observations remain true: he noted that war tends toward the absolute in a ratchet of escalation; decisions are clouded by the “fog of war” and their implementation is impeded by “friction” that makes the simplest actions extraordinarily difficult to carry out. The label of “humanitarian” does not make military action any easier.

In the era of Harcourt and Clausewitz, the European imperial powers’ technical superiority on the battlefields of Africa and Asia was matched by their own moral hubris. The Gatling gun was seen as the agent of philanthropic imperialism, bringing civilization to the benighted natives (at least those who survived the first encounter). As the Ottoman Empire decayed, intervention to save threatened Christian minorities in Muslim lands was rarely questioned, save on the grounds of expense and prudence. Britain’s right, indeed duty, to intervene in Sudan – first to suppress the slave trade and later to avenge the death of General Charles Gordon – was conditional only on the right conjunction of circumstances arising. Only in the 1920s and 1930s, when the right of intervention was applied within Europe and especially when it was cited by Adolf Hitler to justify the annexation of the Sudetenland, was the doctrine discredited. Chapter VII of the UN Charter makes no provision for humanitarian intervention, only for war conducted against an aggressor at the behest of the world community, as in Korea and Kuwait. The 1948 Genocide Convention is silent about the means required to “prevent and punish” the crime of genocide, and it would have been an anomalous anachronism for the member states of the UN to have made an exception to its rule of outlawing aggressive war by specifying that genocide created a duty of intervention.

The UN Charter also makes no mention of peacekeeping. That was an inspired ad hoc innovation dreamed up by Lester Pearson, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, during the Suez crisis in November 1956. The idea that a neutral armed force can be invited by two belligerents to supervise their truce is a remarkable one. Under strictly-circumscribed conditions, it can work. Fifty years of UN peacekeeping operations confirms the basic requirement: there must be a peace to keep. Sending “peacekeepers” into the middle of active hostilities is a recipe for failure, every time. Nonetheless, the idea of dispatching troops that could actually enforce peace or provide physical security to threatened populations has crept into popular debate as an extension of peacekeeping rather than as a variant of the just war.

The practice and principle of intervention did not remain quiescent for long. India invaded East Pakistan, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and Tanzania invaded Uganda – each instance ending a human rights disaster.

Today’s principle of intervention owes much to Bernard Kouchner, who was a physician with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. He was horrified at the way in which the principles of neutrality and discretion prevented the ICRC from speaking out against atrocities. Kouchner went on to found Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), committed to le droit (devoir) d’ingerence, or the right or duty of interference or intervention. Initially, this motto implied the obligation of a relief agency to meet humanitarian needs wherever they existed, irrespective of the strictures of national sovereignty. Thus, MSF teams worked “illegally” behind rebel lines in Ethiopia or Afghanistan. Later, Kouchner advocated taking sides with armed force. Thus, the right or duty of military intervention was reborn.

Mixed and Hidden Motives

Since 1991, there have been a dozen or so “humanitarian” interventions – enough to draw some conclusions about how the practice operates. The first case was the “safe haven” in Iraqi Kurdistan created by the coalition forces at the end of the first Gulf War. This was both humanitarian – it saved lives and sustained a political space in which the Kurds could organize – and self-interested in that it saved Turkey, a NATO member, from having to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees, including militants, in its fractious southeast. No one claimed that this was purely humanitarian or remotely neutral: it was part of the US-led military and political campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Operation Restore Hope in Somalia was next. America tends not to look too closely at its military reverses, and many misconceptions about the Somalia operation have gone uncorrected over the last fifteen years. Space does not permit a thorough analysis here, but several need to be highlighted. One accepted wisdom is that the early, “humanitarian” phase of the operation was a success, and the later, political national building phase under the UN, went wrong. The truth is that no intervention can be apolitical, and humanitarian action cannot substitute for political strategy. The political decisions that led to the urban war against General Mohamed Aidid, whose militia shot down Black Hawk helicopters on October 3, 1993, were taken during the “humanitarian” phase. A second truth from Somalia is that once an intervening force begins to fight, it can do nothing else. The moment the UN and the United States went to war against General Aidid, the international forces ceased to have any humanitarian role. And from the beginning, the soldiers did not behave like humanitarian workers. There were innumerable cases of misconduct, including torture, rape, and summary killing. Violations by Canadian Special Forces were but the tip of the iceberg. The level of resentment among ordinary Somalis at these abuses should not be underestimated, nor should the implications for the failure of the mission.

The National Security Council was more interested in pointing the finger of blame than truly analyzing why the Somali intervention went wrong. Presidential Decision Directive 25 was issued on March 31, 1994; not only did this commit the United States to not dispatch its forces anywhere except for reasons of the gravest national interest, but it instructed opposition to any intervention by other countries. But the worst thing about PDD 25 was its timing: one week before the genocide was launched in Rwanda.

General Romeo Dallaire, the embattled UN commander in Kigali, did his best to save a few thousand Tutsis from certain death. With more troops he could have done more; with the right instructions from UN headquarters he could perhaps have prevented the genocide altogether. Dallaire’s advocacy of intervention commands respect. But the case of Rwanda is more complex and troubling. At the time, humanitarians called for an intervention to stop both the massacres and the war. Had this gone ahead, the UN Security Council would certainly have insisted on a ceasefire and made protecting civilians contingent on this precondition. Given that the advance of the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front was stopping the massacres, such an intervention could easily have had the perverse effect of prolonging the killing.

This skepticism is borne out by what happened when France did obtain a UN Security Council resolution in the last days of the genocide authorizing its Operation Turquoise – a supposed humanitarian intervention in western Rwanda which was transparently a political act aimed at securing a territorial foothold for the defeated genocidal regime. This showed how intervention can easily be manipulated for strategic purposes and discredited the very idea of humanitarian intervention in central Africa. The same theme was reprised in November 1996, when the RPF invaded eastern Zaire (now Congo) to remove the remnants of the genocidal regime, and France again got UN Security Council authorization for its troops to intervene (this time with Canadian diplomatic cover). As far as the RPF was concerned, this was an act of war, and it acted decisively to destroy the camps of its enemies before the legionnaires could arrive. The breakdown in trust between the RPF and the international community left the UN with no leverage at all as Rwandese forces rampaged through Congo, setting in motion an extraordinarily destructive civil war.

Debating “Success” and the Use of Force

The next examples from the Balkans and West Africa have more positive outcomes. One was the NATO intervention that helped bring an end to the Bosnian war. This came after several years of failed engagements in the war, the most dismal of which was the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), a misleadingly-named operation whose mandate was to provide protection to UN relief operations, not to civilians. The Bosnian Serb assaults on the so-called “safe areas” such as Srebenica dramatically revealed the hollowness of the promises of protection—a shaming that helped spark the more forceful NATO attacks on Bosnian Serb artillery positions around Sarajevo in 1995.

A combination of circumstances ended this bloody and genocidal conflict. These included the fact that the Bosnian Serbs had achieved most of their war aims (ethnic cleansing of large parts of Bosnia); that the Bosnian-Croat coalition had mounted an effective counter-offensive; that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was ready to sell out his Bosnian clients – and that the US had finally decided to take military action. These achieved an outcome that Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovic described as not just, but “more just than continuing the war.” The bombing was, in short, an act of war (politics by other means) that succeeded in bringing about a better (or at least less bad) state of affairs.

In Kosovo in 1999, military action was again undertaken by NATO. As with Bosnia, there was no UN Security Council authorization – politics overrode law. The Serbs were bombed into submission. There were casualties and collateral damage in both Kosovo and Belgrade and the campaign took much longer than expected. It was, arguably, a just war.

In Liberia, the Economic Community of West African States sent a “military observer group” (ECOMOG) to the country in 1990. This began as a Nigerian initiative to stop the rebel leader Charles Taylor from taking power. This group stayed the course, fought battles, became notoriously corrupt while its soldiers fathered many thousands of children and spread and contracted HIV, and in the end presided over a transition to relative peace and democracy. It was a forcible political engagement which ultimately succeeded. In next-door Sierra Leone, the dynamic was somewhat different, with British Special Forces playing a leading role. But the overall framework was the same: the objective, successfully achieved, was to prevent the complete collapse of the state and to rebuild its basic administration and political institutions, at times using lethal force. These operations are of the species of colonial counter-insurgency and illustrate the diversity of activities that can be described as “war.” The military likes to call such missions “peace support” to distinguish them from classic peacekeeping: this is a useful euphemism akin to the colonial powers’ language of “pacification.” But the real parallel is counter-insurgency – best conducted as minimum-force policing.

Controversy swirls around each of these four cases, but in each instance, a robust argument can be made that the military action was morally justifiable. They salvaged the idea of humanitarian intervention. Can we then take the next logical step and derive a doctrine of humanitarian intervention and codify it? This is precisely what the “responsibility to protect” seeks to do – while decrying the language of “humanitarian intervention.” Adopted at the UN General Assembly in 2005, the R2P seems to promise a new world order in which international military forces are used to protect civilians at risk (at least in small countries as interventions in Chechnya and Tibet are improbable).

Trial and Error in Darfur

Darfur has been seen as the test case for the R2P. Indisputably, the international community has failed to provide protection for Darfur’s civilians. The small over-stretched and under-mandated African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission cannot contain the violence. Most activists and many diplomats draw the inference that the problem is lack of international political will. If greater pressure were piled on Khartoum (and if China were persuaded or bullied into line), they assume, then the Sudanese government would permit the AU mission to be replaced by a much tougher UN force authorized to take robust action, which would actually halt the killing. Though this analysis is attractive, it does not hold up.

Both supporters and critics of a UN force in Sudan argue on the false premise that UN troops will have the mandate and capability to protect millions of civilians at risk by using force. Despite the tough language of UN Security Council resolution 1706 of August 31, 2006, that is not true. The 20,000 troops envisioned would be enough only to police the ceasefire agreement drawn up by the African Union at the Darfur peace talks and to shoot their way out of trouble if things went wrong. Policing Darfur – or more ambitiously, disarming the Janjaweed militia – would require a far bigger and tougher force. Doubtless, the UN could overcome some of the logistical and financial problems the AU has faced, but a handover to the UN would be only an incremental advance.

By contrast, the Kosovo-style military action called for by Susan Rice, Anthony Lake, and Donald Payne, including attacks on Sudanese airfields, asks the United States to declare war on Sudan. Rice, Lake, and Payne make the heroic, and reckless, assumption that Sudan’s government will capitulate and the war will go according to plan. Should it succeed, this might be considered a just war. But this plan has no specifics about who will actually protect the civilians. It does not propose a ground invasion with the troop levels needed to protect Darfurian civilians and fight the militia at the same time.

However attractive it might be from a distance, actually providing physical protection for Darfurians with international troops is not feasible. And unfortunately, the clamor for UN troops has consumed most of the diplomatic energies of the United States and its allies over the last 18 months, diverting efforts from achieving a peace agreement that was within grasp a year ago but has now slipped away. And as a direct result, the existing AU troops have been left without funds, and sometimes without food or fuel, and above all without any effort to upgrade their numbers and capability.

Meanwhile, the focus on numbers, armor, and mandate obscured the fundamental question of the concept of operations. What are the troops there to do? Effective peace support is nine parts political work and community relations to one part force or the threat of force, but the Darfur debate has focused on force alone and not the politics of stability. Making Darfur the test case for the R2P has not helped the search for political solutions in Darfur. It unrealistically raised the hopes of the rebels and intensified the fears of the government. This illustrates the blind alley down which the concept of humanitarian intervention has led many idealistic, principled, and concerned people.

There is no such thing as humanitarian military intervention distinct from war or counterinsurgency. Intervention and occupation should not be confused with classic peacekeeping, which is difficult enough even with a ceasefire agreement and the consent of the parties. If we want an intervention to overthrow a tyranny, protect citizens from their own government, or deliver humanitarian aid during an ongoing conflict, we should be honest with ourselves – we are arguing for a just war. And if we wish to make this case, let us be clear that the war is political (and must be very smartly political to succeed); that military logic will dictate what happens (including probable escalation and various unpredictable factors); and that it will entail bloodshed including the killing of innocent people.

Let us be very wary of developing any doctrine for humanitarian intervention. Any principle of intervention can readily be abused – as by the French in central Africa – or become a charter for imperial occupation. There may be cases in which imperial rule is the lesser of two evils, perhaps to end genocide (a current preoccupation) or to end slavery (a late 19th century one), but philanthropic imperialism is imperial nonetheless. As Harcourt noted, ethics can sometimes override law, and invasion, like revolution, can sometimes bring about a better state of affairs. But chasing the chimera of humanitarian intervention distracts us and impedes the search for real solutions to crises such as Darfur.

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Alex de Waal

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