The 20th  century was the most violent in the history of mankind. Looking back across the war-torn century, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced the blood-soaked wisdom of the era in a 1999 speech to the UN General Assembly and urged for the next hundred years to be more peaceful. “The core challenge to the Security Council and the United Nations,” he said, “[is] to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systemic violations of human rights—wherever they take place—should not be allowed to stand." After a century marked by such violations—from the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust during World War II to the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Slobodan Miloševi?’s  “ethnic cleansing” campaign in Bosnia to the brutal Rwandan genocide—one lesson seemed clear: the timidity of the international community in allowing crimes against humanity to go unstopped or unpunished because of state sovereignty was unforgivable. Throughout the century, millions had died at the hands of their own governments while the world watched and did nothing.

Taking this lesson to heart, US President Bill Clinton stated in 2000 that the United States had the right to intervene in any country it deemed to be abusing the human rights of its citizens, based solely on humanitarian grounds. It was a far cry from the turn of the 19th  century, when the inviolable tenet of state sovereignty prevented punishment of even the most heinous crimes by state leaders.

A decade into this new century, looking  back at two bloody—and ongoing—conflicts that the United States and its allies justified at least in part or in retrospect on humanitarian grounds, it is evident  that repenting for the international community’s inaction in the 20th century has likewise proven deadly and troublesome. Indeed, since the beginning of the decade, the European Union has intervened abroad more than 15  times under the justification of humanitarian intervention. Some interventions have been successful; many have not.

The concept of military humanitarian intervention—the most visible and controversial form of humanitarian intervention—is being rethought and redefined. The international community has realized that forcefully imposing Western systems of statehood and development is an onerous, painful, and perhaps impossible process that harms the occupier as much as the occupied. Indeed, some recent interventions have ended up being so violent and bloody that they can hardly be considered “humanitarian.” But international players like the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union also refuse to altogether abandon failed and struggling states like Somalia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Haiti, and Yemen—after all, there are cases where, both morally and politically, inaction is not an option. So where is the line to be drawn?
Just War?
Oxford University professor Adam Roberts, the President of the British Academy, has defined "humanitarian intervention" as “coercive action by one or more states involving the use of armed force in another state without the consent of its authorities, and with the purpose of preventing widespread suffering or death among the inhabitants.” The term humanitarian intervention encompasses a wide range of possible actions—including economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts—and involves military force only in the most extreme cases. Yet it is the military aspect of the doctrine that has received the most attention from scholars and from world leaders. Annan, for example, stated in 1998 that it was sometimes the responsibility of the United Nations to intervene. “State frontiers should no longer be seen as a watertight protection for war criminals or mass murderers,” he said. “The fact that a conflict is ‘internal’ does not give the parties any right to disregard the most basic rules of human conduct.”

But Annan himself realized the troubling implications of such a doctrine, especially since the UN Charter states explicitly that force should be used only in the common interest. In his 1999 Annual Report to the General Assembly, Annan asked: “But what is that common interest? Who shall define it? Who will defend it? Under whose authority? And with what means of intervention?”

Some public intellectuals, notably linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, believe that pure humanitarian intervention has never occurred—that all military interventions are motivated by more than purely a desire to protect the weak. Even the 1999 bombing campaign by NATO to remove Slobodan Miloševi?’s Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, often cited as the clearest example of humanitarian intervention, does not qualify. According to a speech by Chomsky at the International Relations Center’s 20th Anniversary celebration, it is “overwhelmingly obvious” that the war in Kosovo was not motivated by humanitarian concerns. Instead, the bombing campaign ended up increasing the rate and severity of atrocities in the region, a result that US analysts had actually predicted before the campaign began.

But whether a pure humanitarian intervention has ever occurred is less important than the fact that conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be justified, at least in part, on humanitarian grounds. Indeed, the rhetoric about the United States liberating Iraq and freeing its people from the grip of a power-mad dictator reached such heights after the invasion that Human Rights Watch went so far as to a title a 2004 World Watch Report: “Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention.” Similar arguments about the moral imperative to help Afghan women and children have been deployed to support the US occupation. But when thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of the intervention, can it still be called humanitarian?

Humanitarian intervention was supposed to come and go with the 1990s, when the security threat posed by a bipolar world faded. The decade sandwiched between the end of the Cold War and September 11 was supposed to be the era of “human security,” a term encompassing an overarching concern for the safety of civilians regardless of their nationality. September 11, 2001 was thought to mark a return to the more cold-blooded, security-conscious mentality that marks an age of terrorism and uncertainty. Though Annan remained UN Secretary-General until 2006, after September 11 he spoke of humanitarian intervention mainly in a negative context, as opposed to his support for humanitarian intervention in the late 1990s. Now, he stressed that interventions undertaken without the authorization of the UN Security Council, like the war in Iraq, could not be justified on any grounds if the international community deemed that they were not for the common good. His support for humanitarian intervention grew less vocal.

But humanitarian intervention did not come and go with Pokémon, grunge, and other fads of the 1990s. Instead, the invocation of humanitarian aims in launching conflicts has continued.
New Millennium, New Problems
The idea that violence can sometimes be used to prevent greater suffering and protect the weak is a noble but a messy one. Although humanitarian intervention was never perfectly clear cut, it is especially important that today’s world differs in crucial ways from the world of the 1990s in which the doctrine was most clearly formulated. British author Simon Kuper summed up the change well in a recent article in Foreign Policy: “The world has changed. The era of dictatorships, “hypernationalism,” country vs. country wars, and festering resentments held over from World War II is passing. Most wars today are civil wars.” The 21st century is shaping up to be one of civil wars and stateless actors, and the humanitarian dilemmas faced today in places like Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of the Congo reflect this new trend. They are messy and unclear, and the division between “good guys” and “bad guys” is alarmingly grey.

Even as late as the 1990s, the moral and practical dilemmas posed by intervention seemed, at least with the aid of hindsight, a bit simpler. In Iraq, for instance, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill Kurds in northern Iraq, allied forces launched Operation Provide Comfort to create a safe haven in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds and allow them some degree of self-governance. Samantha Power, author of A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and Director for Multinational Affairs on the National Security Council, wrote that “Provide Comfort was perhaps the most promising indicator of what the post-Cold War world might bring in the way of genocide prevention…This marked an unprecedented intervention in the internal affairs of a state for humanitarian reasons.”

In Rwanda as well, the case for some sort of intervention was clear-cut, as Rwandan Hutus planned and carried out a systematic genocide against Rwandan Tutsi and moderate Hutus. UN officials knew that Hutus were stockpiling huge caches of weapons in violation of the recently signed Arusha Accords, and that they were planning to take advantage of any disturbance to launch their massacre—the assassination of Rwandan president Habyarimana and Burundian president Ntaryamira provided just such a catalyst. Still, the world did nothing while the death toll reached more than 800,000 in only 100 days. Despite much handwringing and many strong statements of disgust, the world refused to intervene in the most horrific and public genocide of the century.

Even the situation in Bosnia, which vexed the international community for nearly a decade, had a more distinct “good vs. evil” dimension than do many conflicts today. With the help of Bosnian Serbs, Serbian President Slobodan Miloševi? encouraged, planned, and carried out genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Due to a UN arms embargo against the Muslims for most of the conflict, they were nearly powerless to fight back. Rape, looting, and the destruction of communities were used as tools of war.

The situations in Iraq, Rwanda, and Bosnia were three conflicts in which neutrality was its own type of choosing sides: a group of mostly unarmed civilians slaughtered by a stronger opposing force far beyond the usual savagery and bloodshed of war. When Kofi Annan spoke in the late 1990s of the right and responsibility of the international community to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state in order to protect the lives of civilians, it was these types of conflicts he had in mind. With the Cold War over, there was a brief time in which it seemed that concern for civilians could take a place alongside classically stated “national interests” as a chief motivation for foreign action.

The events of September 11 and the launching of a global “War on Terror” was supposed to spell the end of this human-focused security rhetoric shift attention back to “bigger” concerns. The heyday of rhetoric favoring humanitarian intervention was in the 1990s, a decade of peace, but the rhetoric has carried over into the new century, if only as a convenient excuse for interventions debated more by political power and economic wealth.

But now the world, and particularly the United States, is learning the danger of that rhetoric in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States attempted to export democracy, capitalism, and Western notions of development as a form of humanitarian intervention. We can never know what would have happened had the international community intervened forcefully in Rwanda or in Bosnia, but we can say that in the muddled, messy cases of modern failed or mostly lawless states, force is not often, or ever, the answer. In fact, noble as it is to seek to use violence to end civilian suffering, foreign intervention, especially when launched without exceptionally careful planning, often exacerbates the problems that already existed in the state. Violence is never clear-cut, even when civilian are suffering horribly; often, it leads to many more civilian deaths and increases the outward flow of refugees, further destabilizing both the invaded state and the surrounding region.
“Hell on Earth”
Perhaps no state better illustrates both the potential dangers of humanitarian intervention and the ethical concerns of staying aloof than Somalia. Thanks to the public debate begun by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that Somalia has placed #1 for three straight years on the annual Failed States Index compiled by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, the country has received a great deal of attention in recent years.

In an article in The Freeman called “Somalia: Failed State, Economic Success?” author Benjamin Powell asserts that Somalia’s lack of government since 1991 has been more of a blessing than it may appear: since the early 1990s, Somalia’s poverty has continually diminished while living standards have improved faster than the average sub-Saharan African country. Instead of being run by a formal central government, the country has operated based on customary law, which has maintained basic law and order and provided for economic growth. In fact, it is only when there is the prospect of a new formal government that the Somali clans take a turn for the worse. According to Powell, when new governments were taking shape, each clan fought to ensure its own benefit. When there were no plans for a central government, the clans returned to their “traditional customary and mostly peaceful relationships.”

Even the infamous Somali pirates that have terrorized international vessels in the Gulf of Aden serve as an indication of the strength rather than the weakness of Somalia’s customary legal system, Powell says. The pirates do not attack Somali ships, and they do not enter war with each other on land—only foreign vessels in the area are likely to be attacked.

“When compared to the often ghastly alternatives,” Powell concludes, the example of Somalia shows that the implosion and state collapse of corrupt, non-functioning states is not as bad as it may seem—a stark contrast to the idea that the international community has a responsibility to intervene in such states to protect civilians. As Powell says, our efforts at protection may be worse than doing nothing at all. When US troops were deployed to Somalia in 1992 to help distribute food aid and monitor a famine that was sweeping across the country, they ended up entangled in local clan politics, culminating in the well-known Black Hawk Down disaster. The challenge in cases like Somalia is deciding between alternatives that are all ghastly. While the international community wants to help, leaders often have no idea what effect their good-natured interventions will have.

In another article on the merits of possible intervention in Somalia, Fareed Zakaria makes a clear case for the dangers of humanitarian intervention in an age defined by failed states, civil war, and terrorism. “The trouble with trying to fix failed states,” he writes, “is that it implicates the United States in a vast nation-building effort in countries where the odds of success are low and the risk of unintended consequences is very high.” While President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Gates have highlighted the potential national security issues raised by failed states, Zakaria cites Ken Menkhaus to assert that that stabilizing and rebuilding failed states need not be a centerpiece of the US counter-terrorism strategy—one need only look at failed states like Haiti and Burma, Zakaria says, to see that they are often less dangerous to the international community than “failing” states like Pakistan.
What Can We Do?
What is the future of humanitarian intervention in the new century? Where is the middle ground between abandoning failed states and using military force to build them in the way the West believes is best? The latter, of course, has the potential to entangle the international community in bloody, expensive, and often unwanted efforts to do the near impossible. After all, the attempt to “fast-forward political modernization,” as Zakaria puts it—the united aims of strengthening the institution of the state, legitimizing the government, and discrediting violent opposition—have taken centuries in the West.

Noam Chomsky says that the international community, and particularly the United States, should seek to help failed states by following the famous Hippocratic principle: first, do no harm. That is, stop carrying out atrocities. Zakaria, quoting a recent report from Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that a policy of “constructive disengagement” from situations like Somalia would be more fruitful. Watch carefully from the sidelines, then strike if any signs of “real global terrorism” appear. As Bruton puts it, “We have a limited capacity to influence events in Somalia, to influence them positively,” says Bruton. "But we have an almost unlimited capacity to make a mess of things.”

For now, with the United States reeling from two costly ongoing conflicts and haunted by the idea of further interventions, and with the world still recovering from a devastating economic collapse, such a policy of constructive disengagement may be the best option. With the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in the mind of the world, perhaps the language of humanitarian intervention will truly begin to cool, as was expected after September 11. This may be, at least for now, until the international community is better equipped and prepared and more knowledgeable about its own limits, the best option. After all, as Shashi Tharoor and Sam Daws said in a 2001 World Policy Journal article : At some point, “there can be nothing humanitarian about a bomb.”
A Moral Imperative
But there is also nothing humanitarian about remaining quiet and inactive as people are butchered or an entire ethnicity is “cleansed” through systematic rape and community destruction. While it is no surprise that the members of the G-77 Summit of the world’s developing nations rejected “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention”—stressing instead that “humanitarian assistance” delivered at the request of the affected State was the only legal course of action—there is a surely a difference between declaring humanitarian motives before the invasion of Iraq and preventing another genocide on the scale of Rwanda.

As Chomsky noted, there has probably never been an intervention carried out with purely humanitarian interests at heart; unfortunately, even the protection of innocents is never removed from the larger realm of geopolitics. To declare, therefore, that humanitarian intervention should only be carried out protection of human rights be the only motivating factor rather than the foremost factor is naïve. In any metric for judging when to intervene, there must be room for the simple fact that economic and political factors will always play a role.

In fact, a specific metric for intervention will probably never exist. Even the Genocide Convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, is vague about the specific metrics for judging genocide. The Convention states that acts such as killing, birth prevention, and forcible transfer of children from one group to another “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” constitutes genocide and therefore must be stopped. How large a part of a group must be destroyed to qualify as genocide is left open so that exact percentages or death tolls do not become a standard for intervention. If such exact standards were created, dictators and madmen would theoretically be free to kill some portion of their own people without punishment.

However, a few concrete steps can be taken to make it more likely that the world will intervene when necessary. First, the structure of the UN Security Council needs to be changed to better reflect post-Cold War power dynamics. Recognizing the emergence of Latin America and Asia and the relative decline of Europe would help make the Security Council more representative of our changing world and earn some goodwill from developing nations. Second, a process for overriding Security Council vetoes in the case of grave humanitarian emergencies should be established. It would be difficult to keep such a process from becoming a political tool of the majority to punish unpopular countries, but one country should not be able to single-handedly stall intervention, as happened in Rwanda. Third, the international community must recognize that collateral damage is a terrible but unavoidable aspect of military action; this risk should not automatically outweigh the benefits of stopping the large-scale slaughter of innocents. Finally, the United States, as a self-proclaimed beacon of freedom and liberty, must realize that certain moral imperatives outweigh classically stated national interests—and that only a narrow and short-sighted view of national interest would permit any country to allow innocents to be killed by the thousands while no action is taken. Though all nations should act to stop atrocities, the United States has a special obligation to protect human rights around the world because it holds itself up as a model for others to follow.

The answers to questions like “Should we ever intervene?” and if so, “When do we intervene?” and “Who decides?” will always be messy, complicated, and imperfect. But in some cases, the alternative—to do nothing—is simply not an option. The challenge lies in being willing, but never eager, to use force when necessary to protect those who cannot protect themselves.