Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum

Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum

Holly Burkhalter

Holly Burkhalter has more than twenty years’ experience in the human rights field.


Holly Burkhalter

Holly Burkhalter has more than twenty years’ experience in the human rights field. She is currently advocacy director of Physicians for Human Rights and previously worked for Human Rights Watch.

The date was April 16, 1994, and the place was the Rwandan town of Cyahinda. Thirty-five hundred unarmed Tutsi men, women and children had packed into a small Catholic church, and 4,000 more crowded into surrounding church buildings to escape from the Rwandan army and its death squads. But the men came with their guns and machetes and clubs, surrounded the parish buildings and attacked the helpless families within. In a methodical and almost leisurely manner, they murdered their day’s quota–thousands–then came back the next day, and the next.

At the end of four days, some 5,500 unarmed men and women, old people, toddlers and infants lay beneath the pews and aisles and heaped on the altar, their blood and brains splashed on the walls. The last to die at the church was a schoolgirl who had been thrown alive into a deep hole. Other children came to give her water to drink. When the local mayor learned of this, he ordered the hole covered.

There may be those who firmly believe that there should have been no military intervention to save the people in the church and stop the genocide, but I doubt that many of us would like to be counted among them. Whatever differences may roil us over questions of when, where and who on earth should intervene with military force to stop crimes against humanity and genocide, there are times when it simply must be done, and we know it.

Some people of conscience believe that because of the violence the United States has sponsored, our government has no business intervening to suppress vast crimes by others. I disagree. The Genocide Convention does not oblige only those treaty signatories with immaculate hands to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. Our solemn treaty commitment requires the United States to suppress genocide, even if shaming memories of the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide and the disemboweling of Bosnia do not.

Yet when the case for military intervention to suppress genocide becomes as clear as that of Rwanda, it very late to be finding one’s conviction. The Rwanda genocide could have been stopped, but it would have been far easier to prevent. The international community possessed the will to do neither. And so the situation remains to this day, notwithstanding UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s magnificent articulation of a new doctrine, wherein he placed suppression of crimes against humanity above a country’s claims of sovereignty.

That doctrine, welcome as it is, will not save a single life if the great nations of the world do not empower the UN to prevent and punish genocide and crimes against humanity, or, if the international institution is incapable, do it themselves. We as citizens should demand that our President declare the principle that prevention and suppression of genocide and crimes against humanity, and punishment of those responsible, are of vital interest to the United States, and announce a program to make this pledge meaningful. First, the United States should contribute significant resources to help expand the UN’s own capacity to prevent or suppress genocide and crimes against humanity. The creation of a standing UN rapid-response force is what is most needed to respond quickly to incipient genocide. Since that is not likely to happen with the current US Congress, however, we should demand, at a minimum, that Congress support standby arrangements where troop-contributing nations can designate, train and equip ready units for emergency intervention. Moreover, funds should be provided to double or triple the Secretary General’s $50 million reserve fund for preventive action.

Additionally, Congress should appropriate funding to establish an enhanced UN peacekeeping command center in New York and mobile command centers elsewhere to service a rapid deployment to suppress genocide or crimes against humanity. And, so that no world leader can claim, as Clinton did of Rwanda, “I didn’t know,” the Security Council should demand regular briefings by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and High Commissioner for Refugees when vast crimes unfold. There are other steps that the United States can take to prevent or deter such events. Our own intelligence and diplomatic services should be assigned and funded to collect documentation (including radio and telephone intercepts and satellite photography) in countries where there are early-warning indicators of mass killings to come. Remember Rwanda? Watch for the stigmatization, discrimination and targeted killings of ethnic minorities, a spike in weapons imports, the spawning of heavily armed militias and the broadcasting of chauvinistic and hate-filled political speeches. These genocidal indicators should be widely publicized and used in support of a concerted diplomatic initiative to pressure governments in those countries.

Additionally, perpetrators should be denounced by name, their visas scrapped and their overseas assets seized. Foreign aid of all types except humanitarian should be suspended and hate radio jammed. Extensive human rights monitoring by official bodies such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or ad hoc diplomatic arrangements such as the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission, should be initiated and funded.

Even if our President and Congress were to pursue policies to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity with a seriousness of purpose born of the certainty that failure to do so would require American support for military intervention, preventive measures would sometimes fail. When that happens, we should demand that our government strongly support UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations, politically, materially, militarily, financially and logistically.

Yet what of those occasions when intervention is clearly required to save helpless people from mass butchery, but one or another member of the Security Council says no? During the Rwanda genocide, it was, to our shame, our own government that thwarted the UN. During the Kosovo crisis it was Russia, and others will take their turn elsewhere. Are the victims less deserving because Russia or China or the United States itself has decided that they are not worth saving?

Imagine, if you will, that a government, let’s say Canada, acting under the auspices of the Genocide Convention’s command that genocide must be stopped and its perpetrators punished, had bucked the will of a US-dominated Security Council in April of 1994 and sent troops unilaterally to Rwanda. Imagine those Canadian soldiers surrounding the church and parish buildings in Cyahinda and a hundred places like it, defeating the machete-wielding butchers whose only prowess was in slashing children, and leading those thousands of families to safety. Condemn such an operation as illegal and immoral because it did not bear the Security Council’s imprimatur? Not on your life. And not on theirs.

Mahmood Mamdani

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan citizen, is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. He received his doctorate from Harvard and has previously taught at several African universities. He is currently completing a political analysis of the causes and consequences of the genocide in Rwanda.

Advocates of “humanitarian intervention” argue that Rwanda needs to be a turning point in post-cold war politics, one that will introduce a renewed consensus on human rights into international politics. If the pledge that followed the Holocaust–“never again”–could not be upheld because of the cold war, they argue, the end of the cold war provides the context necessary to renew that pledge and give it teeth.

The consensus around “humanitarian intervention” brings together two different points of view. For some, the end of the cold war provides a real opportunity for observing a human rights standard internationally. Now that dictators hitherto nurtured by the cold war–Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, for example–have been orphaned by its end, they must be forced to observe minimal international human rights standards. Should they fail to observe these standards, they must be the target of armed humanitarian intervention.

For others, the end of the cold war entails the danger that big powers may succumb to isolationism, and underlines the need to hold those powers responsible for international policing. From this point of view, the need for humanitarian intervention arises precisely in those cases where powerful nations do not have direct interests at stake and are thus unwilling to risk anything. In those instances, say human rights activists, it is vital to compel big-power intervention for humanitarian purposes. In other words, if intervention is not a political necessity, it must be made one through a popular crusade that demands it.

I disagree with those who call for “humanitarian interventions” in the post-cold war era for one reason: I think it necessary to judge each intervention on its own merit, particularly its political merit. In a globalized world of highly unequal actors, humanitarian intervention will be a name for big-power intervention in practice. Every intervention will serve a complex of interests, general and specific. There can be no such thing as an unambiguous humanitarian intervention.

Like every turning point, Rwanda offers us not one but several lessons. The UN did not just withdraw; it also authorized a humanitarian intervention by the French, code-named Operation Turquoise. That intervention did save many Tutsi, but it also saved the political and military leadership that carried out the genocide. As if to underline that “humanitarian intervention” is indeed a political blank check, neither the UN nor any other international forum has held the French accountable for that intervention.

Rather than being an exception, doesn’t Operation Turquoise fit neatly into a history of imperial intervention over the past several centuries? Didn’t slaving powers portray Africa as a state of nature where life was nasty, brutish and short and where slavery salvaged the lives of its victims, introducing them to the nobility of labor? And didn’t colonial powers entering Africa toward the end of the nineteenth century claim to be stamping out slavery? In other words, hasn’t every imperial intervention claimed to be humanitarian?

In addition to the French intervention in Rwanda, the US-led interventions in Iraq and Kosovo also teach us that every intervention has its politics. Iraq brought home the fact that the lives of ordinary Iraqis were dispensable, whether they turned the intervention into an opportunity to remove the dictatorship through popular action or whether the dictatorship turned them into human shields against the intervention. Kosovo brought that same lesson home in a different way: The lives of individual pilots in the sky were far more precious than those of the multitudes living on the ground.

This is not to say that every external intervention is imperialist, but it is to say that calling an intervention “humanitarian” cannot strip it of its politics. If the cold war led to a single-minded focus on imperial powers, the end of the cold war should not replace it with a single-minded focus on local despots. If the cold war generated a preoccupation with politics that lost sight of humanity, the end of the cold war should not be turned into an invitation–or a temptation–to disregard politics in the name of humanity.

Rather than calling for a type of intervention that is free from political accountability, we should be placing the question of accountability at the center of the discussion. Globalization shows that we have enhanced technological capacities, but it also underlines the need to put in place some kind of representative governing structure internationally. At the very least, it calls on us to examine the representativeness of the international arrangements that now exist, from the UN to the Bretton Woods institutions. The point is to make these institutions accountable to those who will suffer the consequences of the decisions they make.

Ronald Steel

Ronald Steel’s most recent books are In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy (Simon & Schuster) and Temptations of a Superpower (Harvard).

All during the cold war American intervention was a dirty word on the left. It was usually taken to mean interfering in other countries to suppress radical movements, always under the catchall justification of anti-Communism. But over the past decade, with the disappearance of the ideological foe, what was once viewed as repressive and self-serving is now described as responsible and humanitarian. Enter “Operation Just Cause” in the Balkans and what is described as “virtuous intervention.” Since the end of the cold war the United States has intervened with military force in five internal or regional conflicts: Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the first two the United States acted alone; in the others it was aided to one degree or another by allies. In each of these interventions the results have been, to say the least, disappointing. Saddam Hussein is still in power, Somalia is still ruled by warlords, Haiti is still mired in misery and oppression, Bosnia has been effectively partitioned into ethnic enclaves and Kosovo is being ethnically purified under the aegis of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The “virtuous” part of these interventions has been more in the intentions than the consequences. Does this mean that the principle of humanitarian intervention is wrong or doomed to failure? No, but it does provide some important caveats.

First, interventions that are purely “humanitarian” and far removed from obvious concerns about national security can be sustained only if they are relatively cheap in lives and resources; have at least a veneer of international approval; confront situations that are genocidal, in that they threaten the very existence of a people; and can be resolved by military action. The five interventions of the past decade do not easily fill these requirements, and have fallen short of their ambitious goals.

By contrast, the one intervention that we should have undertaken, that we could have accomplished quickly and successfully, and that was shameful not to have undertaken was in Rwanda. There, with several thousand armed men we could have prevented the murder of an estimated 800,000. But it was only Africa, after all, and a few of our soldiers might have been shot, and it was all so primeval and distant, and it was hard to find any political advantage in it.

Where we have intervened the reasons have not always been exclusively humanitarian or virtuous: In Kuwait we also sought to protect the sources of cheap oil; in Somalia in part to get embarrassing TV coverage off the nightly news; in Haiti to stanch the flow of refugees to Florida; in Bosnia and Kosovo to assert America’s continued leadership of Europe through NATO. The two major interventions described as “humanitarian”–Bosnia and Kosovo–did end the fighting and some of the human rights abuses. But only for a time. In Kosovo as in Bosnia, the peacekeepers cannot be withdrawn lest fighting resume. This is because the interventions ignored, and in some cases exacerbated, the political nature of the disputes. The issue in both cases was that of self-determination: the right of an ethnic group to secede from an existing state. In Bosnia, the United States (and the Europeans) endorsed this principle; in Kosovo it fought in support of an armed separatist group but maintains that it opposes the total detachment of the province from Serbia.

The trouble with the principle of ethnic self-determination is that its pursuit could lead to the destruction of a great many existing states and widespread warfare of the kind seen in places like Sri Lanka. Based on the exaltation of tribal loyalties, it invites majorities to be intransigent, furnishes pretexts for repression and leads to civil wars. It also denies the basis of our own social compact and our declared allegiance to multiculturalism.

There are times when foreign intervention in support of an ethnic group may be necessary: when its people are targeted for genocidal extermination (as were the Tutsis of Rwanda and the Jews of Nazi Europe), when they have been subjected to severe and repeated crimes against humanity, and when there have been persistent human rights abuses over a sustained period of time against an ethnic community.

In relatively few cases do these conditions apply. But that’s all the more reason to draw the lines strictly so that intervention can be undertaken with maximum public support. Whether it will be successful depends on more than virtue or righteousness. It demands the commitment of all sides to a workable accord. It depends on being framed and enforced in such a way as to bring greater stability to the area. It requires support for domestic groups actively seeking a political settlement–not those simply using foreign intervention to further their own purposes. And it must be applied in such a way as to discourage resentful ethnic separatists from using foreign humanitarians to dismember existing states.

The more intervention strays from concerns over self-defense, the more subjective it becomes. To say that we have the right to intervene anywhere we choose to protect our self-defined “values and interests” is to open the door to other nations to defend their own–as they define them. A humanitarian impulse could, through abuse, become a geopolitical nightmare. This is why intervention should be an international undertaking–not because we need the physical support of other nations but to temper the dangers of self-righteousness and self-delusion.

Mary Kaldor

Mary Kaldor is director of the Global Civil Society program at the London School of Economics and author of New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford).

In early February, violence broke out in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, when groups of Serbs went from apartment to apartment throwing grenades and beating people. French KFOR troops withdrew to another part of town. UN police tried to intervene but were outnumbered. Eventually Danish troops came to their assistance, “acting on their own individual initiative,” according to the BBC report, and “not at the orders” of the French commanding officer. According to the UN police, “the Danes were superb.”

There are similar stories about Danish soldiers during the Bosnian war, where they disobeyed UN orders and fired back at Serbs attacking UN convoys. The Danes were criticized for not keeping to the UN mandate, but they were effective in protecting humanitarian corridors.

A genuine humanitarian intervention is much more like policing than warfighting or traditional peacekeeping. Soldiers are supposed to kill under orders. Their job is to fight in wars, which are supposed to be directed against other states. Unlike criminals, they are legitimate bearers of arms. Indeed, soldiers are considered heroes and not murderers; they kill to defend their countries and are applauded for their bravery. They do not feel morally responsible for the violence because they kill at a distance. They kill at a psychological distance because they are obeying someone else’s orders, and often at a physical distance because they drop bombs or fire artillery shells and do not come face to face with their victims.

In contrast, police are supposed to enforce the rule of law domestically; their job is to protect the public from crime. They are expected to protect victims of crime and to capture criminals. They are expected to be present on the ground and to use their own initiative. They are supposed to save as many lives as possible, including the criminals who should stand trial. They are not supposed to kill or use violence except in defense and, within the rule of law, they are individually accountable for their actions.

Humanitarian intervention has to be understood as a new phenomenon, not simply in terms of goals but also in terms of methods. The idea of overriding state sovereignty in defense of human rights marks not just a conceptual break with a state-centered view of the world but a practical break with traditional forms of warfighting. Conventional war between states has become an anachronism. In contemporary wars in places like Eastern Europe or Africa, most violence is directed against civilians and involves an array of techniques, including population displacement, especially “ethnic cleansing”; atrocities like torture, systematic rape and massacres; and destruction of infrastructure and historic buildings. The aim is to control territory by sowing fear and hatred. This method of warfare directly violates the laws of war as well as the various postwar conventions and treaties on human rights.

In this type of war, humanitarian intervention has to be understood not as warfighting (intervention on one side or the other) or as peacekeeping (keeping the sides apart and/or guaranteeing cease-fires) but as international law enforcement. If contemporary wars have become a mixture of war and massive violations of human rights, then intervention has to become a mixture of policing and military operations. The aim is to restore legitimacy by countering the strategy of sowing fear and hatred with a strategy of winning “hearts and minds” by containing violence and operating within the framework of international law. This involves the direct protection of civilians and the arrest of individual war criminals. Instead of offensive operations against a military enemy, humanitarian intervention should be defensive and non-escalatory. Humanitarian intervention involves new techniques such as the creation of safe havens and safe zones, as well as humanitarian corridors.

The role of UNPROFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina did represent a weak form of humanitarian intervention in the imposition of safe havens and humanitarian corridors. The problem was that the troops were poorly armed and ordered not to use force, and their lives were privileged over the lives of those they were supposed to protect.

In contrast, NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia last year were much more in the tradition of warfighting. Although the goal was humanitarian intervention, the practice was conventional war. Instead of directly protecting civilians on the ground, NATO conducted offensive operations against the Serbian military machine, including its infrastructure in Serbia. This approach actually had counterproductive consequences, since it allowed Slobodan Milosevic to mobilize public opinion in Serbia and to speed up ethnic cleansing on the ground. It is true that in the end Milosevic capitulated, but the war led to a double ethnic cleansing. As Gen. Wesley Clark put it, you “cannot stop paramilitary murder on the ground with airplanes.”

Forging a new type of humanitarian intervention requires a restructuring of armed forces. It means emphasis on ground troops rather than on sophisticated equipment for long-distance killing. But above all, it requires a cognitive and moral transformation in the way we understand the legitimate use of violence. Soldiers have to behave more like police officers. Whereas in military operations the aim is to minimize casualties on your own side, even if this means maximizing casualties on the other side, in humanitarian intervention the aim is to minimize all casualties, even if this means risking the lives of the soldiers/police officers. Whereas soldiers kill at a distance, humanitarian intervention means a presence on the ground. Above all, whereas soldiers obey orders unquestioningly and become cogs in a collective machine, the new international law enforcers have to take individual responsibility for local situations and make difficult judgments about how to respond based on their own knowledge and conscience. Even if they did disobey orders, the Danish peacekeepers seemed to understand, more than anyone else, what humanitarian intervention ought to mean.

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