Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum

Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum

Richard Falk, Mary Kaldor, Carl Tham, Samantha Power, Mahmood Mamdani, David Rieff, Eric Rouleau, Zia Mian, Ronald Steel, Stephen Holmes, Ramesh Thakur, Stephen Zunes


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

Richard Falk

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).

Mary Kaldor

If we believe in the equality of human beings, then we also favor the extension of a rule-governed society to the global arena and, in particular, the extension of cosmopolitan law–that is to say, international law that applies to individuals. I am in favor of humanitarian intervention if it is understood as cosmopolitan law enforcement.

But humanitarian intervention, understood in this way, is quite different from war. Individual governments cannot take the law into their own hands, any more than individual citizens can unilaterally decide when the law is violated.

There has to be an agreed set of criteria to determine when a humanitarian intervention is appropriate, and there has to be an agreed procedure for determining whether those criteria apply. Moreover, means are as important as goals. Humanitarian intervention is about preventing humanitarian catastrophe. The aim is not victory over another collectivity but the protection of ordinary people and the arrest of those criminals responsible for the catastrophe. Thus humanitarian intervention is like policing, even though it requires the use of military force. War is about taking sides, and the lives of soldiers on one side are privileged over the lives of civilians on the other side. In humanitarian intervention, the soldier, like a policeman or firefighter, risks his or her life to save the lives of civilians.

What would it mean to have had a true humanitarian intervention in Iraq? First of all, it would have meant taking seriously those provisions in the 1991 Security Council resolutions that referred to human rights by, for example, sending human rights monitors as well as weapons inspectors. Second, it might have been necessary to deploy troops on the border to put pressure on the Iraqi regime to comply with the resolution, but the potential task of those troops would not have been invasion and regime change; it would have been to protect civilians in the event that the government decided to crush an uprising, as happened, for example, in 1991.

One argument often made against some people protesting that the Iraq war was illegal is that they favored the Kosovo war even though there was no Security Council resolution and even though the means–bombing–were more like war than humanitarian intervention, and Western lives were privileged over the lives of the people NATO forces were supposed to be helping. I supported the war in Kosovo, although I was unhappy with the means. I favored a humanitarian intervention of the type described above, with troops on the ground to protect civilians. Later, I was a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, chaired by Richard Goldstone. That commission concluded that the Kosovo intervention was illegal, because there was no Security Council resolution, but legitimate because it resolved a humanitarian crisis and had widespread support within the international community and civil society. The commission went on to argue that a gap between legality and legitimacy is very dangerous and needs to be removed by specifying conditions for humanitarian intervention.

Unfortunately, this was not done, which allowed those who favored the war in Iraq to claim a humanitarian justification along with all those other fast-changing justifications about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

The war in Iraq was neither legal nor legitimate. It did not meet the conditions for humanitarian intervention, and it did not command support either among civil society or the international community. To confuse pre-emptive war with humanitarian intervention, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair does, is a recipe for more violence and for global polarization.

Mary Kaldor, school professor at the London School of Economics, is the author of Global Civil Society: An Answer to War (Blackwell).

Carl Tham

The concept of humanitarian intervention emerged in the 1990s against a background of civil war and atrocities in a number of regions. In all these cases, vast segments of the population were oppressed, tortured or murdered. In Rwanda more than 500,000 were killed within the space of three months. It was genocide, but the international community did little to stop it.

These experiences led Secretary General Kofi Annan, following the example of his two predecessors, to suggest that the international community has the right to intervene–and should intervene–to protect vulnerable groups in cases of immediate, severe and large-scale abuses of human rights or genocide. To employ military force in extreme situations of abuse is not necessarily inconsistent with the spirit of the UN Charter and international law, they argued, if such an intervention has the backing of a Security Council resolution.

The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo was carried out without such a resolution. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo later concluded that the NATO action was legitimate because diplomatic means had been exhausted and because it was necessary to put a stop to the Serbian atrocities and oppression of the Albanian Kosovars–but still illegal because it did not receive approval from the Security Council. The commission suggested a principled framework, which could be used to guide future responses to imminent humanitarian catastrophes and to narrow the gap between legality and legitimacy. A Canadian commission later reached the same conclusion and developed criteria for possible interventions.

These reports, as well as the statements of the Secretary General, stressed that a military intervention can be legitimate only if there is an acute human rights crisis and if all diplomatic efforts have failed. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, for instance, says that military intervention for human protection is warranted only if there are abuses of human rights that result in large-scale loss of life with or without genocidal intent, or large-scale ethnic cleansing.

Was the US intervention in Iraq of this kind–legitimate but illegal? Certainly the Saddam Hussein regime was oppressive, but there was no immediate human rights emergency. The potential threat of weapons of mass destruction–which was the main issue the United States brought to the Security Council–had nothing to do with the arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention. Also, diplomatic efforts were not exhausted. In fact, it was very obvious that the Bush Administration had already decided in favor of war against Iraq as a demonstration of the doctrine of preventive action, which is very far from humanitarian intervention.

The arguments made by the United States in favor of the war were different from arguments for humanitarian intervention. The war was publicly launched as a war against terror or against evil; the Saddam regime was claimed to be a threat to the United States, indeed the whole world. These last arguments were so obviously exaggerated that they were dropped in favor of the argument that the war was a war of liberation against an oppressive regime, which was also Tony Blair’s favorite argument.

The war against Iraq was illegal–few dispute that–and it was not legitimate in the sense of the Kosovo war: an unavoidable war because all diplomatic efforts had failed in an emerging human rights catastrophe. The idea to expand the very restrictive idea of humanitarian intervention into a general license for war against repressive regimes is, I think, very dangerous. Even more so is the concept of preventive action, which can be used at random as an argument for war. It will in fact erode the whole idea of an international legal order as expressed in the UN Charter and its prohibition of the use of force.

Carl Tham is the Swedish ambassador to Germany.

Samantha Power

Three contested aspects of “humanitarian intervention”–legal authority, threshold of abuse and relevance of motive–demand reconsideration in the wake of the Iraq war. Although the human rights framework has long been premised on the recognition that states can’t be trusted, the UN Charter left the task of authorizing humanitarian intervention to those same untrustworthy states. Relying for legal authority upon the Security Council, which includes Russia and China, two notorious human rights abusers, almost guarantees inaction, even where the human stakes are colossal. On the other hand, dismissing the Security Council altogether, as the Bush Administration seems intent on doing, invites pre-emption, chaos and, in the end, probably greater bloodshed. Absent long-overdue Security Council reform, we need a fallback mechanism for legitimizing interventions, to be found perhaps in the office of the Secretary General, which is the one UN body that has the capacity to transcend state interests.

When it comes to deciding when human rights abuses have become so egregious as to warrant intervention, most people agree in principle that genocide or massive crimes against humanity constitute a worthy threshold. Yet few in practice can agree when that threshold has been crossed. President Slobodan Milosevic was responsible for some 200,000 deaths in Bosnia; yet in the case of Kosovo in 1999, because his regime had killed “only” 3,000 and expelled 100,000 Kosovars at the time war was being considered, many critics of US foreign policy at home and abroad argued that NATO military force should not be employed.

Surprisingly, many of these same critics also expressed outrage at the Security Council’s failure, in January 1994, to act on UN commander Romeo Dallaire’s warnings about imminent extermination in Rwanda. If we are ever to prevent genocide, and not merely ritually lament it after the fact, we have to improve our capacity to imagine the costs of inaction, and to act upon evidence of direct and immediate mortal threats.

Iraq presented a ghastly challenge to humanitarian hawks. Saddam Hussein had carried out a savage genocide in 1988, killing more than 100,000 Kurds, and he was presiding over one of the cruelest tyrannies the world has known, murdering thousands more in succeeding years. Yet Saddam’s cruelty did not satisfy the threshold for most of the war’s opponents, either because, in opposing Bush, they chose to ignore Saddam’s atrocities or because, in not trusting Bush, they believed the Iraqis, like the Afghans, would be abandoned in the end.

In assessing a humanitarian intervention, a third point of controversy involves the question of how much we should care about the motives of the intervener. Some overemphasize the relevance of motive, refusing to back any intervention that isn’t “purely” humanitarian. Others downplay motive, arguing that states’ true intentions are impossible to discern, and thus what really matters is humanitarian effect. Both approaches are wrong. Motives matter not because we can realistically expect them to be pure, but because knowing why a state is intervening gives us predictive power: The relative weight an intervening state gives to humanitarian concerns tells us an awful lot about the lengths to which interveners will go to spare civilian life, and the willingness of the intervener to follow through, expending the necessary political, financial and military capital to actually provide a secure environment on behalf of those in whose name a war is launched.

Once war has been waged, of course, results do matter. And in judging the long-term effects of such missions, it is important not simply to measure the humanizing and dehumanizing effects on the recipient country but also to look at those on the region, on the intervening country or countries, and on the international system as a whole.

Samantha Power, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (Harperperennial).

Mahmood Mamdani

An International Rescue Committee Report estimates that 3.3 million people have died over the past four and a half years of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet no significant center of power or opinion is calling for a “humanitarian intervention” in Congo. Behind the continuing humanitarian tragedy in Congo are a combination of forces–local, regional and global–that profit from this conflict in various ways. So long as the beneficiaries of the Congo war outweigh millions of its victims in influence, there will be no humanitarian intervention–other than the small international force with a limited mandate recently sent to Bunia.

Congo confirms the lesson many Africans drew from the genocide in Rwanda a decade ago. The withdrawal of UN forces took place in the face of overwhelming evidence of growing and massive human rights violations. Having withdrawn the UN forces, the Security Council authorized a French “humanitarian” intervention. Operation Turquoise saved many Tutsi lives, but it also rescued the political and military leadership of the genocide. To date, neither the UN nor any other international forum has held the French accountable for that intervention.

Operation Turquoise fits neatly into a history of imperial interventions over the modern period. Not surprisingly, every imperial intervention claims to be humanitarian, but calling an intervention “humanitarian” cannot strip it of its politics. Whether in Congo or Rwanda, Kosovo or Iraq, every intervention–and nonintervention–has its politics.

To understand the politics of the Iraq war, we should first consider two aspects: the willingness to target civilian populations and the refusal of those who wield this enormously destructive power beyond their borders to be accountable to those who may suffer its consequences.

In a globalized world of highly unequal states, humanitarian intervention will in practice turn out to be a big-power intervention. Every intervention will serve a complex of interests, general and specific. There can be no such thing as an unambiguous humanitarian intervention.

It is curious that those who support humanitarian interventions assume that these interventions must be military, and that they will differ from other military interventions in their benign, indeed humanitarian, intent and effect. If these assumptions go unchallenged, humanitarian intervention will become a soothing name for unilateral and unaccountable exercises of power. I make no such assumption. I suggest we place political accountability at the center of the discussion. The Iraq war has given us a terrifying demonstration of the technological and military capacities that the world’s single superpower is capable of wielding. It has also given us a rare instance of a solid majority in the UN first refusing to authorize a US-led “humanitarian” intervention, and then disintegrating in its face. Earlier, this same majority had set up an International Criminal Court but only by conceding provisions that guaranteed temporary impunity for American power.

These developments confirm the need to strive for an international legal and political arrangement that is representative and effective in holding accountable those who wield such destructive capacity. They underline both the political limits of the current international state system, based on sovereignty, and the potential for antiwar movements demanding that power whose reach is international should indeed be internationally accountable.

Unless all interventions (both military and nonmilitary) by all powers are subject to review by some organization of international law, we will not be able to determine the justness of a particular intervention (or nonintervention).

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. He is author of Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton), When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton) and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Terror, “Ours” and “Theirs,” in the Late Cold War (forthcoming from Pantheon in 2004).

David Rieff

As both prescription and description, “humanitarian intervention” is a misnomer. What we really mean when we speak of humanitarian intervention (or human rights intervention, or “the responsibility to protect,” two newer versions of the same formulation) is war. To be sure, we mean war in a good cause. Such wars are to be fought to protect civilian populations from outside aggression when their own states have collapsed or, for some other reason, cannot or choose not to defend them. Or they may be undertaken when a state is too weak to repress warlordism, as in the case of Sierra Leone. Finally, they may be undertaken when the state itself is the oppressor, as in Kosovo.

Such wars may well be warranted and just, but let them be called by their right name, not sanitized by the term humanitarian intervention. Admitting that what is being called for is war puts the issue of whether or not to use force in a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Liberia in its proper context–the political. The virtue of the political is that the case for making the most tragic of all public decisions becomes controversial and a matter for public debate, rather than some kind of categorical moral imperative whose need to be undertaken is deemed to be self-evident.

And such debate is urgent. Because the inescapable result of enshrining humanitarian intervention as one desirable response to wars and refugee crises will be a new colonial order. In most cases to take military action is, in practice, to replace the government of the country in question with the rule either of the humanitarian intervener or of some other outside actor, most commonly the UN, or else of a local surrogate that is in fact controlled by the outside intervener.

For humanitarian interventionists and the human rights activists to routinely claim, as they do, that this is not a serious problem because (a) their intentions are of the best, focused solely on the interests of victims, and (b) they are only acting in accordance with settled international law, is at the very least historically amnesiac. Nineteenth-century European colonialism, particularly the so-called second imperialism of the last part of that century, was also explicitly undertaken in the name of humanitarian imperative. And this rationale was no more solely window dressing for the economic interests of Britain or France than today’s humanitarianism is solely window dressing for neoliberal globalization and the “virtual empire” of the United States. It was a genuine effort at the betterment of humanity and an effort to redress some of the worst evils of the world.

In the nineteenth century, the twin goals of imperialists were stamping out slavery and bettering public health through fighting disease and improving sanitation. Today, the goal is guaranteeing human rights, preventing genocide and bettering public health through fighting disease and improving sanitation. The project of the humanitarian interventionists is a new colonial order.

Perhaps this colonialism is necessary. And perhaps humanitarian wars, including humanitarian wars that are likely to be far bloodier than those of the 1990s, are going to be necessary–morally, politically and culturally unavoidable in the present century. But let us call them by their right name, and not dress them in fantasies of international justice. Human rights and humanitarianism are not unassailable moral goods. They are ideologies–as questionable as neoliberalism or Communism or Christianity. This is the reality that the advocates of humanitarian intervention are trying–with worrying success, in my view–to finesse.

Copyright © 2003 by David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster).

Eric Rouleau

In principle, who could oppose a humanitarian intervention, especially if it is a question of preventing genocide or crimes against humanity? Yet the UN Charter bars interference in the internal affairs of member states. This provision was introduced by the founders of the international organization for two main reasons: first, to respect the sovereignty of member states, and second–and more important–to maintain world peace. The Charter’s authors did not want to provide states, or groups of states, with a pretext to intervene for inevitably self-serving motives. Hence the absolute necessity that any humanitarian intervention be approved beforehand by the Security Council.

The unipolar world in which we now live has disrupted the agreed-upon rules. The United States has taken it upon itself to designate–very selectively–the guilty, and to intervene with or without UN approval. American notions of unilateralism, preventive wars and military interventions for the purpose of “regime change”–whether to install democracy or any other system–run counter to the very foundations of international legitimacy.

Even assuming the purity of US motives, one cannot help but notice that its list of “rogue states” does not include any pro-Western nations, some of which would certainly qualify as “evil” if the same criteria were applied to all. One might also note that democracy is not an exportable commodity, especially by violence. Indeed, it would be easy enough for the international community, if it so desired, to take concrete measures to encourage states to democratize, either by imposing sanctions or–preferably–by offering a variety of incentives.

The military intervention against Serbia to “liberate” Kosovo, under the auspices of NATO (instead of the UN), constituted a dangerous precedent, whatever the humanitarian justifications. There were other ways to protect the Kosovars without resorting to war, which the belligerent powers, citing half-truths and distortions, chose to ignore. Today a number of NATO members, especially France, are no longer prepared to follow the United States blindly down this slippery slope.

The United States is now facing a credibility crisis of unprecedented proportions. The main arguments advanced to justify the invasion of Iraq have all turned out to be ill founded, and it is more than doubtful that “democracy”–even as interpreted by the Pentagon hawks–will be instituted. In fact, there are indications that the United States is seeking to make Iraq a satellite, to establish military bases, to control the oil resources and to award itself fabulous contracts for reconstruction, in anticipation of consolidating its hegemony over the Middle East.

Imperialism, be it American or European, past or present, does not differ fundamentally. Certainly it is never in its essence humanitarian. That is why the world must continue to support the role of the UN Security Council in determining whether or not an intervention is legitimate.

Eric Rouleau is a writer and former French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey.

Zia Mian

In 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” One need look no further than Palestine or Congo to see how states and the international community have failed in their charge.

In its many interventions in other societies during the cold war, the United States often claimed to be furthering human rights and freedoms. This legacy was embraced by President George Bush in his 2002 West Point speech: “Moral clarity was essential to our victory in the cold war.” But let us recall that this “moral clarity” involved American-backed coups, repression and war across the Third World. Nor should we forget the thousands of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war that still cast a shadow over humanity. Until the political and economic interests and ideas responsible for these horrors change substantially, there can be no question of US humanitarian intervention or promotion of democracy, except inadvertently. Afghanistan and Iraq do not change this judgment.

If history advises that it cannot be left to the “moral clarity” of the United States (or any other state) to determine where, when or how to change regimes, whether it be to prevent or punish the most brutal crimes against humanity or spread democracy, then who decides and how?

The UN Security Council offers a collective process, but no reason for hope. Compassion and justice are no more to be found when those in power meet in conclave than when they are alone. Moreover, the Security Council is hostage to the veto, an inequitable arrangement the United States in particular insisted on when the UN was created. No power that has the veto is willing to cede it, even though, as Iraq showed, where the United States is concerned the veto of others is as good as none. So barring cases where the United States, for its own reasons, chooses to intervene or permits others to, there is little the UN has to offer except to bury the dead and provide succor for survivors–unless the General Assembly organizes and asserts itself to challenge the United States and the Security Council.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), which was set up to punish crimes against humanity and genocide, may offer a new forum for making decisions about the most extreme situations requiring humanitarian intervention. Unlike the state, international law, while in practice often partial and unjust, inherently must orient itself toward standards of universality and equity. It is possible to imagine that the Court shall choose not to watch and wait for crimes against humanity to be committed and not simply hope for intervention so that it can commence its proceedings. A precedent of sorts was set recently by Carla del Ponte, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, who warned of “genocide” in Congo, in effect demanding intervention under international law.

The prosecutor of the ICC is allowed to initiate investigations proprio motu, that is, without any application by the parties involved. But enforcement depends on the cooperation of the state signatories to the Rome statutes. Should the Court and the signatories take up the challenge, Washington’s rejection of the Court may become an asset.

Whether it is the United States, the Security Council, the General Assembly or the International Criminal Court, there is no avoiding the state and the domestic interests that guide the decision to act. The shared challenge is to create an informed and mobilized public that can insist on collective state intervention to protect and further the entitlements to peace, justice and freedom, and obstruct state intervention when it is for any other reason. To do so will require a radical transformation of national political and economic institutions. Humanitarian intervention will become that only when democracy deepens as well as spreads.

Zia Mian, a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, is the editor, with Smitu Kothari, of Out of the Nuclear Shadow (Zed).

Ronald Steel

Humanitarian intervention is a noble principle easily subject to distortion and abuse. Like other noble principles such as democracy (which often means elections without free choice) or self-determination (which can mean the breakup of an existing multicultural state to favor domination by a single ethnic or religious group), it can be a cover for intolerance and aggression.

Extending the doctrine beyond the prevention of genocide poses a host of problems that well-intentioned people are loath to confront. To adopt Kofi Annan’s dictum that “massive and systematic violations of human rights wherever they take place should never be allowed to stand” is merely to begin the question. Who decides what is massive and systematic? The UN, the G8, a “coalition of the willing,” the diktat of a dominant state? What if the abuser state is too strong to intimidate? And what if the abuses have the support of the majority of its people–as in Nazi Germany? Or for that matter in the United States, when citizens of Japanese descent were herded into detention camps during World War II?

If humanitarian intervention is to be more than a pious wish for a better world, realistic mechanisms of decision-making and enforcement have to be devised. This means establishing not only an international court with binding authority but an international parliament and constabulary. This involves both a diminishment of sovereignty for individual states and the creation of sovereignty for a global entity that so far is little more than a cliché (the “international community”).

While this immense task is being addressed (assuming that powerful states are even willing to address it), we accept some distressing realities:

First, states that intervene for purely humanitarian reasons quickly lose interest and go home (cf. Haiti, Somalia); those that stay almost always have dubious motives.

Second, most egregious offenders of human rights (Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Soviet Russia) will rarely be deterred by economic sanctions, which are always easy to circumvent. But small fry will, like the murderous thugs of central Africa, who are nourished by international oil and diamond interests.

Third, if you cannot depose the offenders, help the victims. Many, perhaps most, of the Jews of Europe could have been saved in the 1930s had any state been willing to offer them asylum.

Fourth, nation-building is harder and more important than nation-smashing. Just as a marriage is more than a wedding night, humanitarian intervention will work only if there is a long-term commitment to building something better.

Fifth, unintended consequences usually prevail. Humanitarian wars are still wars, even though we clean up their image by calling them “interventions.” These invariably create new problems. Among the most common of these are ethnic separatism and communal violence. The Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires were arguably more tolerant, just and cosmopolitan than what replaced them.

Sixth, be wary of “democratic” solutions. Democracy is a plant that requires long nourishment and does not take root everywhere. What is important is not that a state be democratic (Athens wasn’t) but that it provide justice, equality and dignity for its citizens. Democracy, after all, is not a solution, only a method. To justify military intervention with the purpose of imposing democracy is either a cynical cover for imperialism or an act of irresponsible naïveté. The leaders of great powers are rarely naïve, though their citizens often are. A case in point is that US officials have declared that they will not allow Islamic fundamentalists to take power in Iraq even by free elections.

Enthusiasts of humanitarian intervention would do well to observe the first lesson taught to aspiring doctors: Above all, avoid doing harm.

Ronald Steel is professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and author of Temptations of a Superpower (Harvard).

Stephen Holmes

The foremost foreign aim of Bush’s national security team, in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, has been to re-establish America’s damaged reputation for invincibility and to demonstrate the fatal consequences of challenging US power. But voters would not have backed a son et lumière invasion of Iraq staged largely to exhibit a don’t-mess-with-Texas supremacy. To garner the public support it needed, the Administration had to concoct and market a self-defense rationale, namely, that Iraq was on the verge of a clandestine handoff of WMDs to Al Qaeda and therefore posed an imminent threat to America and Americans.

But if fear of mass-casualty terrorism is the opium of the masses, humanitarian intervention plays a similar role for liberals. The Administration has artfully mobilized disgust at Saddam’s sickening atrocities to silence liberal critics of an intervention that had patently nonhumanitarian objectives. (Tom Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times, presenting mass graves in Iraq as a retroactive casus belli, is a case in point.) So how should we be thinking about humanitarian intervention today, after having seen how easy it was for the Administration to steal the liberal agenda, packaging reckless bellicosity as liberation of the oppressed?

First of all, liberals cannot simply ignore the hostile takeover and go on preaching humanitarian intervention with moralistic rhetoric designed to shame doubters into silence. Yes, evil exists. But by treating the war against evil as the noblest aim of international politics, liberals have implicitly licensed our government, when dealing with distant and politically closed societies, to throw evidentiary doubts to the winds and unleash lethal force on the basis of hearsay testimony and circumstantial evidence. The call for humanitarian intervention to remove appallingly cruel regimes legitimizes recourse to otherwise forbidden means. Confidence in our good intentions excuses tunnel vision and a cavalier attitude toward downstream consequences. And single-minded focus on unspeakable atrocities encourages the United States to announce promises that cannot be politically sustained, given domestic political constraints, including the promise to manage the aftermath of interventions in the best interests of ordinary citizens in countries we invade.

Approval by the UN Security Council, moreover, cannot magically transform the war against evil into a legitimate rationale for military intervention. The very hope suggests the bankruptcy of the left, as if we can oppose this Administration’s dangerous adventurism only by embracing patently obsolete and ineffective institutions. After all, American unilateralism is to some extent the bitter fruit of dysfunctional multilateralism, the EU’s as well as the UN’s. Rather than clinging to the dying past, the left should be redefining the liberal international agenda. What we need is applied humanitarianism, without moral posturing. Above all, we should be shouting from the rooftops that the Administration’s unidimensionally military response to 9/11 has rendered America less safe, making it more difficult to deal with the two basic threats to our national security, namely proliferation and terrorism. Proliferation can be slowed only by treaty-based security systems, and terrorism can be managed only by international police cooperation, supplemented by policies designed to discredit extremist violence among ordinary citizens, especially in politically unstable Muslim countries. Liberal internationalism should focus on these problems, while also undertaking major initiatives in other areas, such as combating the HIV plague and reducing the domestic subsidies that damage struggling Third World economies.

Opportunistic manipulation of liberal sympathy for the oppressed has tongue-tied potential critics of Bush’s foreign policy. But an honorable commitment to humanitarian intervention should not mesmerize the rest of us into supporting a duplicitous Administration bent on erasing the chastening memory of Vietnam, reawakening the latent messianic ambitions of Americans and disguising how hard it is to maintain public oversight of secretive military operations abroad.

Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law.

Ramesh Thakur

The traditional “humanitarian intervention” debate focuses more on the intervening state than on the urgent needs of the putative beneficiary of the action. To redress this imbalance, the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) came up with the notion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P refocuses the international searchlight on the nation-state’s duty to protect its people from murder, rape, starvation and exile. The duty to intervene is activated when a particular state is either unwilling or unable to fulfill its responsibility to protect its people, or is itself the perpetrator of crimes or atrocities, or where populations living outside a particular state are directly threatened by actions taking place there.

ICISS identified just two threshold cases where the atrocities are so grave as to require international intervention: large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing, whether actually occurring or imminent (but not retroactive). And it argued that all military interventions must be subject to four precautionary principles: right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects. Iraq is unlikely to have passed all four of those tests.

Under R2P principles, only the UN, preferably the Security Council, can authorize the use of military force in the name of the international community. The task therefore is not to evade or circumvent the Council but to make sure that it works better, that it too is held accountable for its responsibility to protect.

In the months before the war on Iraq, the people of the world found the US case for war wanting and put their faith in the UN, affirming the centrality and relevance of the world body. But were not the scenes of joy and jubilation in Iraq at the fall of Saddam Hussein an embarrassing indictment of the UN’s failure to support the war? Not really. The course and outcome of the war were a strong vindication of the UN. The big story of this war was the lack of proof that Saddam Hussein possessed usable weapons of mass destruction and the fact that he did not pose an imminent threat to regional, US or world security of an urgency and gravity that required instant war to topple him. The UN inspectors could indeed have been given more time and personnel to complete their job.

Moreover, the speed of the victory by the “coalition” vindicates those opponents of the war who argued that Saddam had been so weakened since 1991 that he was not a threat to anyone outside Iraq. To credit the lightning victory to brilliant coalition generalship rather than basic Iraqi weakness is a triumph of spin over substance.

Thus the euphoria in Iraq following Saddam’s defeat does not damn the UN’s failure to authorize war–unless of course the coalition governments are prepared to admit that their real goal all along was regime change. But that would mean that for six months they engaged in an elaborate charade at the UN in claiming that the issue was the threat posed by Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

The ouster of Saddam flowed from strategic, not ethical, calculations of foreign policy. The liberation of Iraqis is a collateral benefit amid the carnage of destruction to the agreed principles and established institutions of world order. It is difficult to be joyous at the descent from the ideal of a world based on the rule of law to that of the law of the jungle. One can see why the lion would welcome such a change. But how many others are ready to accept the doctrine that the Administration of the day in Washington decides who is to be which country’s leader, and who is to be toppled?

Ramesh Thakur, vice rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo and one of the commissioners of ICISS, contributed this as a personal comment. Go to for the full report.

Stephen Zunes

Scores of repressive governments have been toppled in recent decades. The vast majority of these overthrows came about not from foreign invasion or even armed revolution but through massive nonviolent action. Dramatic “people power” uprisings brought down the Communist regimes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, overthrew Southeast Asian strongmen like Marcos and Suharto, and ousted military juntas from Bangladesh to Bolivia.

Other nonviolent prodemocracy movements engaged in more protracted struggles that eventually forced dramatic reforms in countries as varied as Poland, South Korea, South Africa, Kenya and Chile. The failure of similar rebellions to succeed in other places may have had less to do with any inherent weaknesses in the tactics of nonviolent action than with the failure of these movements to obtain necessary support.

For example, starting in 1990, Albanian Kosovars challenged Serbian rule through one of the most impressive large-scale nonviolent campaigns in history, including the creation of a parallel government and educational system. Yet during eight years of struggle, the United States and most of the world ignored them. The West took interest in their plight only after more radical Kosovars took up arms in 1998, with the “assistance” coming in the form of high-altitude bombing during the spring of 1999. This prompted the Serbs to dramatically escalate their repression against the Albanian Kosovars through large-scale ethnic cleansing. After thousands were killed and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, the war ended on terms that most observers believe could have been reached had the allies been willing to pursue a diplomatic solution.

A year and a half later, in the fall of 2000, nonviolent action by the people of Serbia accomplished in a matter of days what eleven weeks of NATO bombing could not: the ouster of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Could nonviolence have succeeded in Iraq? Most successful nonviolent prodemocracy movements have been centered in the urban middle class and working class. In Iraq, however, thanks to the devastation of the country’s civilian infrastructure during the 1991 Gulf War and the draconian economic sanctions that followed, the once-burgeoning middle class was reduced to penury or forced to emigrate and was replaced by a new class of black marketeers who had a stake in preserving the status quo. Furthermore, with sanctions forcing the Iraqi people to become dependent on the regime for rations of badly needed food, medicine and other necessities, people were even less likely to take the already extraordinary risk of challenging it.

Lifting economic sanctions against the people of Iraq–while maintaining sanctions on military equipment and dual-use technologies that could have strengthened the government–might have encouraged such a movement. Instead of backing corrupt exiles with virtually no ties to the Iraqi people, quiet financial and logistical support for democratic elements within the country could have given such a movement a chance to grow. Instead of periodic airstrikes and threats of an invasion, which led people to rally around the flag, demonstrating confidence that the Iraqi people could free themselves would have increased the chances of Saddam Hussein’s regime being ousted earlier, without the human and material losses and the anti-American resentment that have resulted from the war.

Nonviolence is not a panacea. For example, if a government is determined to unleash a campaign of genocide against an ethnic minority and has indoctrinated enough of its citizens to support it, outside military intervention may be necessary. However, the power of nonviolent action must be recognized and actively supported before we resign ourselves to the use of military force to end repression.

Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco, is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage) and the editor of Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (Blackwell).

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