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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Revisited: The Drumbeat of "Humanitarian Intervention?"

Back in January 2009, I posted the following - which I now feel is appropriate to raise again in light of the attacks on Libya: The Drumbeat of "Humanitarian Intervention?"

With the arrival of a new U.S. president, the drumbeat of wars of self-protection seems to be dying out while a familiar old tune arises - suggesting the probable return to "humanitarian interventions." See here:

Regarding the "ongoing genocide" in Darfur, Sudan, Rice said the U.S. priority for the moment is reinforcing a U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission to protect civilians. She expressed concern that Sudan's government may retaliate against international peacekeepers and aid workers if the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant on genocide charges for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

These should not be confused with "humanitarian operations." Humanitarian operations are approved by countries affected by some disaster or another, such as the aid rendered to the victims of the tsunami of December 2004 or other efforts to assist areas impacted by storms or earthquakes. In such cases, military forces may end up working with non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross or transnational entities like the UN and its disaster contractors. In such cases, the role of the military is usually logistical support.

By contrast, in a "humanitarian intervention" armed force is used directly to intervene in a sovereign nation's affairs even against the will of the sovereign of the invaded or attacked nation.

In the last decade of the 20th Century such "invasions to save lives" include Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. In the world of the people who support such interventions, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq was not a humanitarian intervention because. . . well, because. In fact, Human Rights Watch asserted that the saving of thousands of Iraqis from Saddam's terror "gives humanitarian intervention a bad name."

Humanitarian intervention seems to be deemed appropriate when enforcing a "responsibility to protect." This new found responsibility is a code phrase for allowing older concepts like sovereignty to be discarded for some theoretical higher "right." This "responsibility to protect" is spelled out in a document authored by the somewhat Orwellian-named entity - the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). You can find the document here:

This report is about the so-called “right of humanitarian intervention”: the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate for states to take coercive – and in particular military – action, against another state for the purpose of protecting people at risk in that other state.

Of course, having posed the difficult question, the report goes on to justify such interventions:

(1) Basic Principles
A. State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the
protection of its people lies with the state itself.
B. Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.

As you might gather, these principles don't seem to be evenly applied, While the Balkans intervention was okay, no one seems to argue that it would have been okay to invade - on humanitarian grounds- China during the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution". For those of you unfamiliar with that time period:

Millions of people in China reportedly had their human rights annulled during the Cultural Revolution. Millions more were also forcibly displaced. During the Cultural Revolution, young people from the cities were forcibly moved to the countryside, where they were forced to abandon all forms of standard education in place of the propaganda teachings of the Communist Party of China.
Estimates of the death toll, civilians and Red Guards, from various Western and Eastern sources are about 500,000 in the true years of chaos of 1966—1969. Some people were not able to stand the cruel tortures, they lost hope for the future, and simply committed suicide.


Kofi Anin, former Secretary General of the UN discussed the changing view of sovereign rights here:

State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined—not least by the forces of globalisation and international co-operation. States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa. At the same time individual sovereignty—by which I mean the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the charter of the UN and subsequent international treaties—has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of individual rights. When we read the charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them.

In recent years, the many people of a liberal persuasion suggested that it would have been perfectly appropriate to engage in an armed invasion of Myanmar/Burma on humanitarian grounds following the devastating typhoon of May 2008. Time offered up Is it time to invade Burma? by Romesh Ratnesar:

. . .The trouble is that the Burmese haven't shown the ability or willingness to deploy the kind of assets needed to deal with a calamity of this scale — and the longer Burma resists offers of help, the more likely it is that the disaster will devolve beyond anyone's control. "We're in 2008, not 1908," says Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency relief coordinator. "A lot is at stake here. If we let them get away with murder we may set a very dangerous precedent."

That's why it's time to consider a more serious option: invading Burma. Some observers, including former USAID director Andrew Natsios, have called on the U.S. to unilaterally begin air drops to the Burmese people regardless of what the junta says. The Bush Administration has so far rejected the idea — "I can't imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday — but it's not without precedent: as Natsios pointed out to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government's consent in places like Bosnia and Sudan.

A coercive humanitarian intervention would be complicated and costly. During the 2004 tsunami, some 24 U.S. ships and 16,000 troops were deployed in countries across the region; the mission cost the U.S. $5 million a day. Ultimately, the U.S. pledged nearly $900 million to tsunami relief. (By contrast, it has offered just $3.25 million to Burma.) But the risks would be greater this time: the Burmese government's xenophobia and insecurity make them prone to view U.S. troops — or worse, foreign relief workers — as hostile forces. (Remember Black Hawk Down?) Even if the U.S. and its allies made clear that their actions were strictly for humanitarian purposes, it's unlikely the junta would believe them. "You have to think it through — do you want to secure an area of the country by military force? What kinds of potential security risks would that create?" says Egelend. "I can't imagine any humanitarian organization wanting to shoot their way in with food."

Mr. Egeland seems to lack the imagination that others possess.

Once deemed a virtually dead concept- "so 1990s" - the "selfless" use of power seems to be making a comeback. Kenneth Roth wrote in a 2004 article in Harvard International Review:

The use of military force across borders to stop mass killing was seen as a luxury of an era in which national security concerns among the major powers were less pressing and problems of human security could come to the fore. Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone: these interventions, justified to varying degrees in humanitarian terms, were dismissed as products of an unusual interlude between the tensions of the Cold War and the new threat of terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001, supposedly changed all that by inducing a return to more immediate security challenges. Yet surprisingly, even with the campaign against terrorism in full swing, the past year has seen four military interventions that their instigators describe, in whole or in part, as humanitarian.

The tsunami aid rendered counts as a humanitarian intervention, according to Mr. Roth, but the invasion of Iraq does not, "Since the Iraq war was not mainly about saving the Iraqi people from mass slaughter..."

Selecting places in which humanitarian intervention are acceptable is tough work. However, if one begins with the premise that the intervening nations have nothing to gain by such intervention then justification seems to come easier to some minds. Intervening in Iraq = "bad" because it has oil. Intervening in Myanmar ="good" because it has nothing of use to the world. Go figure.

That a forced entry for "humanitarian" reasons might result in armed resistance by the ruling forces of the invaded land or by bands of clan-based groups(as in Somalia in the 1990s) and the deaths of soldiers of the invading forces seems not to bother the pro-humanitarian interventionists much, if at all.

Will they be keeping "body count" lists of those who fall? I wonder.

Back in July 2008, there was a debate of sorts on humanitarian intervention (HI) in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts from here, the debate bearing the title "Why not invade Darfur?" From the "anti" HI side:

By the traditional standards of international law, which require state consent and conforming state practice for a customary law norm to emerge, the duty to protect remains much more of an aspiration than a law. It is difficult to understand why the protection of a foreign population should merit greater presumed legitimacy than the protection of one's own population, which underlies all national-interest-driven uses of force, including preemptive ones. After all, fair-minded critics of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars would agree that the Bush administration undertook these interventions to protect the security of the American people.

Notwithstanding the legal and moral hypocrisy associated with humanitarian interventions, there are, of course, instances in which humanitarian intervention is appropriate. There is no shortage of misery in today's world, including genocide, ethnic cleansing and rampant war crimes, poverty and starvation. Alleviating at least the worst cases is a worthy project.

Yet, international humanitarian interventions, whatever their moral appeal, have to be judged by the same hardheaded standards as traditional national-interest-driven interventions. How compelling is the humanitarian problem in a particular place compared with other places? Are the equities clear-cut or are all the sides of a conflict equally unsavory? How does one define success? Is regime change the objective? What are the likely costs of a successful intervention? How many casualties and how much collateral damage should be anticipated? Are sufficient military resources available? The important thing is not to become entangled in a halfhearted, indecisive mission with unclear or excessively soft rules of engagement, as was the case with the Clinton administration's deployment of U.S. forces to Somalia. Such interventions produce no good results. War is too serious of a business to be play-acting, and there is no substitute for victory, something those -- in Europe and elsewhere -- who call the loudest for humanitarian interventions should keep in mind.

From the "pro" HI side:

I would argue that we have as much of a strategic interest and moral duty to stop the genocide in Darfur as we did to stop the rule of Saddam Hussein. Morally, it is clear: Hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered in Darfur. We should stop this massacre if we can. Strategically, it is not as direct. That region of Africa does not impact our immediate national security interests -- which is why intervention there is not popular. Indeed, intervention in Africa is rarely considered in even the worst of situations.

Would the interests of developed nations not be served by a stable, democratic Africa as much as they would be by a stable and democratic Middle East? Are dictators such as Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, less dangerous than Hussein? David, you and many conservatives spent so much time demonizing Hussein that other threats started to pale in comparison. You seem to have said he was worse than Hitler or Stalin, for example, telling one interviewer in April 2003 in an effort to justify the invasion: "Despite the quite deplorable record amassed by people like Hitler or Stalin, I am not aware of instances where they have targeted their own civilians."

But do we have the resources to intervene? This is where we differ again, David. Your choices (Iraq, perhaps Iran) mean that almost all our military would be engaged in these battles, or what you call "the provider of security services" to the world.

Another question that almost always remains unanswered in suggesting the need for humanitarian interventions is which nations have the airlift and sealift capacity to conduct such operations and sustain forces in the field. Once again, good-hearted amateurs discuss tactics without bothering about logistics. In posts following the Christmas tsunami, I hit on the former UNer Mr. Egeland (see here and here)for his "magic happens" wish lists in humanitarian operations. And I've been to planning meeting at which, when the issue of logistics is raised, every eyeball turns to the U.S. representatives.

As usual in military matters, the self-interest of the country which is contemplating involvement ought to serve as a guide to any combat operation whether it is couched in terms of "humanitarian" or not. Asking American soldiers and sailors to risk death and spending the national treasure and limited military equipment on operations that do not serve the interests of the nation must be carefully considered before falling victim to some internationalist standard of a "responsibility to protect."

Initial thoughts. more to follow.

Photo Credit:
Displaced children in South Darfur near the town of Nyala. [Photo archive UN/Evan Schneider]
Well, the time has come for more thoughts. You might enjoy reading this piece on A War We Don't Need: Why is America intervening in a Libyan civil war?:
Contrary to pithy bumper-sticker truisms, war is occasionally the answer. But can anyone explain why it's the answer now? At the moment, at least, polls insist that Americans are generally supportive of the United States' intervening in the civil war now raging in Libya, so someone must have an ironclad case.

President Barack Obama pins his rationale for intervention on a "humanitarian threat." A noble cause, no doubt. It's too bad that the folks in old Darfur missed out on those laser-guided missiles American and French fighter jets deploy to help avert massacre and man-made hunger. Maybe the victims didn't say please. Maybe the city dwellers of Pyongyang will be more convincing.
. Or Ben Stein's One World Government Obama:
Look at it this way: Where did Mr. Obama get the authority to commit United States forces to war in Libya? There was no declaration of war. There was no authorizing resolution by Congress allowing money to be spent on a war against Col. Gaddafi. As far as I know, there was no meeting of Mr. Obama and top leaders of Congress to discuss the subject in even rough form, let alone detail. There was no lengthy buildup in which the Congress was "allowed" to express the people's opinion on whether we want to be in a third concurrent war.

There was just a vote by the United Nations Security Council, a very far from unanimous vote, and suddenly, the President's Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton, solemnly announced that we were at war.

But, when did we amend the Constitution to declare that the United Nations had control over our military? When did we abolish the part of the Constitution that said Congress had the right to declare war? Now, I well know that in recent postwar conflicts, we don't have declarations of war. But we have Congressional debates. We have funding votes. We have a sense of the Congress or some kind of resolution.
So far no American servicemen or women have lost their lives in this "humanitarian intervention." If that changes, there should be a whole lot of questions about their sacrifice in an intervention in a civil war of another nation.You know, like all those who questioned our participation in the Vietnam "civil war."

A non-military intervention air strike? (Reuters photo)
UPDATE: Speaking of whom, how about old Senator (anti-war activist and Vietnam vet) John F. Kerry? Well, hurrmph hurrmph, "This is no intervention," he has declared. On Face the Nation (which face did he use?), Mr. Kerry stated:
"The last thing we want to think about is any kind of military intervention. And I don't consider the no-fly zone stepping over that line," Kerry said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday."
Of course he wouldn't. {end update}

Oh, and the fact that the "coalition" is falling apart? Cobbled together by people who have never operated in a coalition environment, I guess, because it was predictable (and predicted) by those of us who have. Why the splits? No common purpose and a total lack of leadership. I hope Europe is ready for the fallout.


  1. There was no coalition to start with. It was kind of like a liberty incident. Everyone got so high on emotions and unrefined idealism that they impuslively pressed the button before anyone thought through why they were doing it and what the consequences might be.

  2. "Act in haste, repent at leisure" as the old SWO saying goes.

  3. Anonymous11:15 PM

    1. The very least we should expect from Clinton would have been a presentation to the UN showing the evidence, gathered by the vast US intelligence collection resources, of Libyan govt (yes govt) attrocities.

    2. Along the same lines, Iam surprised that the media in rebel held areas have not broadcast video of civillian deaths, mourners and funerals.

    3. I also question just how much land the rebels control considering I read they were preparing for an attack from south of Bengazi.