Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum | The Nation


Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum

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The war in Iraq raised some difficult questions for many thoughtful Americans. Even if Saddam Hussein's regime posed no threat to our security or to the security of its neighbors, couldn't the war be justified on humanitarian grounds, as necessary to free the Iraqi people from a particularly odious dictatorship? And don't we, as a general principle, have a moral obligation to come to the rescue of people living under brutal regimes? Yet in expanding the notion of humanitarian intervention, is there not a danger of creating a rationale for a new form of American imperialism? And in any case, what right does the United States--or for that matter any nation--have to determine when and where to intervene? To promote a more informed debate about the emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention, we asked twelve leading thinkers from around the world to offer their views on these important questions. --The Editors

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The 1990s were undoubtedly the golden age of humanitarian diplomacy. The cold war was over, opening political space for an array of international issues associated with acute human suffering, especially in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans. "The CNN factor" finally pushed a reluctant George Bush Sr. to make moves to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq from the vengeful violence of Baghdad in the aftermath of the Gulf War and, later, to rescue a starving Somali population caught in a maelstrom of internal armed struggle and political anarchy. Bill Clinton arrived at the White House advocating a "muscular multilateralism" that was determined to restore governance in Somalia and put an end to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

But after the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident in Mogadishu, in which eighteen American soldiers (and hundreds of Somalis) were killed, the US government all but abandoned humanitarian intervention, even using its leverage to prevent the United Nations from making an effective response in Rwanda, where it might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The UN role in Bosnia was kept unacceptably passive, culminating in the 1995 Serbian massacre of some 7,000 Muslim males in the supposed UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica.

These events were too much for the conscience of the world to bear, giving rise to a role for NATO in Bosnia, Washington's coercive diplomacy that hammered out the Dayton agreement and the NATO effort that successfully rescued the Albanian Kosovars from the menace of Serbian ethnic cleansing. Bush Jr. came to the White House determined to resist this trend, arguing against "nation building" and generally skeptical of the entire humanitarian agenda, opposing any connection with the International Criminal Court and seeking to minimize the relevance of the UN.

After September 11, the American approach to humanitarian intervention morphed into post hoc rationalizations for uses of force otherwise difficult to reconcile with international law. The new dynamic was first evident in the aftermath of the Afghanistan war, when the victory claims of Washington subtly shifted from the destruction of Al Qaeda to the liberation of the Afghan people from the brutalities of Taliban rule. But in Iraq this dynamic has reached an extreme, virtually ignoring the pre-war rationale stressing an Iraqi threat while playing up the postwar justification of the liberation of the Iraqi people. There is no doubt that the Iraqi people have been liberated, although for what remains obscure.

I believe the Bush Administration has been doing its best to wreck world order as it had been evolving, and that part of the wreckage is the abandonment of legal restraints on the use of international force, the heart and soul of the UN Charter. The Iraq war epitomized this process. The world needs the international will and capabilities to rescue vulnerable populations from impending humanitarian catastrophes, but it doesn't need imperial wars that hide their true character in the fog of a moralizing rhetoric.

As long as US foreign policy is run from a Bush White House, the best chance for humanitarian intervention to fulfill its potential is for the US government to get out of the way, as it has seemed to be doing in relation to the genocidal events in Congo, allowing France to take the major responsibility. Not only is this beneficial for the people in tragic circumstances, but it may be healthy for the UN to become less dependent on the United States. It seems clear that the Bush Administration is uninterested in the pursuit of humanitarian goals for their own sake. As the Iraq war demonstrated, to proclaim such goals as a cover for imperial objectives is dangerous for world order and undermines international law and the UN, while at best achieving humanitarian results as an accidental byproduct.

Richard Falk, a visiting professor at the University of California, is the author of The Great Terror War (Olive Branch).

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