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Reflections on the War | The Nation

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Reflections on the War

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Learning From Kosovo

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, inspired by the 1967 inquiry into American war crimes in Vietnam, examined the case.

By ignoring the UN Security Council resolution’s mandate authorizing intervention, NATO may have destroyed the prospects for future legitimate uses of the principle of “responsibility to protect.”

As we move forward from this uncertain point, it is not too early to learn from the Kosovo experience. To begin with, humanitarian intervention is notoriously difficult to carry out effectively. Governments with the capability, above all the US government, are not currently prepared to risk the lives of their militaries for such goals. At the same time, zero-casualty intervention is highly unlikely to achieve its objectives without imposing huge human costs on the civilian population of the target society. Such a reality is certain, as in Yugoslavia, to tarnish, if not entirely undermine, the fundamental humanitarian claim. It is not possible to take full account of the frequent unintended yet predictable civilian casualties produced by the tactics relied upon. Such a postmodern style of warfare leads to severe abuses of the community that is supposed to be rescued.

Humanitarian intervention, if viable at all, requires the most careful attention to the relationship of means to ends, along with a maximal effort to act in conformity with applicable international law, including respect for the UN and its charter. Whether such a stiff test can ever be met in a world of sovereign states that define their interests by reference to strategic concerns is admittedly questionable. It points to the need for structural reform, especially the creation of a volunteer and geopolitically independent UN Peace Force recruited on a professional basis. Even then, humanitarian intervention is problematic in the face of determined opposition and nationalist mobilization.

In general, humanitarian goals have to be pursued almost always by other means--through economic assistance, by UN preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping, and by support, in extreme circumstances, for movements of self-determination. It is not a matter of deferring unconditionally to the sovereign rights of an oppressive government, of the sort headed by Milosevic, that is subjecting part of its citizenry to unacceptable suffering; it is a recognition that even the smartest military technologies and tactics are often not able to provide relief in an acceptable manner.

There is a further element present in this NATO undertaking that applies to the United States in particular. The logic of war appropriately seeks warfighting doctrines and weaponry that keep US casualties as low as possible, while possessing the maximum capability to harm the enemy. By itself this is normal in a world that remains organized around the sovereign state. But carrying this logic to the extreme invites reckless and irresponsible recourse to force and gives rise to an alarming tendency of the Anglo-American public to convert warfare into a new kind of electronic bloodsport. It establishes a one-sidedness that resembles the structure of torture, with the perpetrator choosing the method by which to inflict pain and the victim helpless to retaliate. Probably no country has the maturity to use such a military option prudently and morally. Certainly the United States lacks this capacity.

A final, related observation. When the atomic bomb was initially developed, it was used against Japanese cities in a setting where there was no prospect of retaliation. I doubt very much that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been attacked with such weapons if the Japanese had possessed atomic bombs of their own or if Germany had used them earlier in the war against British cities. During the cold war, massive mutually destructive capabilities existed. As a result, extreme caution was exercised by the nuclear weapons states, and no weapon of mass destruction was used--despite the pressure to do so in several crisis situations. If the Kosovo/Yugoslav ordeal leads to some fundamental rethinking about the role of force, it may at last bring the world closer to finding a way to respond to humanitarian crises without converting them into humanitarian catastrophes. At the very least, it might prompt humility in Washington.

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