The Option to Protect The New Terms for Humanitarian Intervention
Part 2: Lessons of the Recent Past
The original aim of military intervention on humanitarian grounds was to protect defenseless civilians from assaults by their own government or other armed groups. The first experience of such intervention, the US-led mission in Somalia in 1992-93, ended in fiasco. Although the task of the US troops was to assist in relief operations to help the starving population, they were quickly drawn into fighting between rival warlords. After a dead US soldier was filmed being dragged like a trophy through the capital city Mogadishu, the United States withdrew. The lesson drawn from this experience was evident in the use of aerial bombardments to incapacitate enemy combatants in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999 prior to sending in ground troops. Somalia also made clear that military action to protect civilian populations must be linked with a plan to stabilize the political situation on the ground.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought this second lesson to the fore. These were wars waged with the intention of bringing about regime change and establishing democratic government. Humanitarian intervention thus gave way to the armed export of democracy, although this has taken different forms. In the case of Afghanistan the war was mandated by the United Nations, in the case of Iraq it was not. While the 1999 intervention in Kosovo was carried out without an express UN mandate, it was based on a NATO alliance. By contrast, the United States acted in Iraq outside the transatlantic alliance, supported only by a "coalition of the willing," whose presence was retrospectively legitimized by a UN mandate. The 2006 mission in Congo to ensure orderly democratic elections combined elements of these different variants. The mission was supported by the United Nations and the European Union, and even endorsed by the ruling regime. Yet here too the goal was the introduction of democracy.
The current situation in Congo has revealed once again that democracy cannot be guaranteed simply by holding free elections. Following the Congolese elections, EU troops were rapidly withdrawn without any safeguards in place against a relapse into civil and gang warfare. Such safeguards should have included exerting diplomatic pressure on neighboring Rwanda to prevent it from meddling in Congo's problems. Further peacekeeping duties were left to UN troops from African and Asian countries -- with what were plainly disastrous consequences.
The crisis in Burma in the summer of 2008 presented another facet of the challenge posed by humanitarian disasters. While Burma's autocratic regime did not cause the humanitarian crisis brought about by Cyclone Nargis, the junta exacerbated it by obstructing the delivery of international aid. Addressing the United Nations, Pope Benedict XVI called for international intervention in cases where states were unwilling or unable to protect their populations against the effects of humanitarian crises, irrespective of whether these crises were "natural or man-made." However, while calls grew for direct intervention in Burma -- including from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner -- it became increasingly evident that such undertakings were heavily dependent on prevailing constellations of power and interest.
In the case of Burma the main obstacle proved to be China, which even resisted a request for a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss sending in international troops to ensure the delivery of aid. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated at the time that it was essential to make clear to the Burmese military junta that the issue was not one of politics "but of saving human lives." And yet, as past experience has shown, this is precisely what dictators are unable or unwilling to believe when it comes to "humanitarian interventions." Indeed, from their point of view such suspicion is justified, since giving priority to the defense of human life and rights over absolute state power constitutes an assault on the megalomaniacal claims of dictatorial systems.
If the West intends to seriously entertain the idea of intervening in a country against the will of the national government, it must accept both the necessity of military means and the risk of violent confrontation with local power holders. It must also accept that such action may lead to a decline in relations with powers -- such as China and Russia -- that usually see humanitarian intervention as a masked attempt to extend Western influence. Moreover, in order to ensure the establishment of sustainable political and social structures following the disempowerment of a regime, the intervening powers must move rapidly from directly providing emergency aid to a program of nation building. This can take years, if not decades, of intensive engagement and requires enormous material investment. However, in the face of the problems being faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western countries, including the United States, are now reluctant to take on this task. The history of humanitarian interventions has thus taken a paradoxical turn since the 1990s. The increasingly comprehensive goals set for intervention and the setbacks experienced have brought us to a point where engagement in cases corresponding to the original model for humanitarian intervention -- the direct protection of civilians and refugees who are under threat -- now seems hardly viable.
The fatal consequences of this development are not limited to Congo. For years now they have been evident in the approach to the Sudanese province of Darfur. In order to avoid intervening itself, the West has sent in a poorly equipped African Union protection force, which is unable to do more than merely observe the murderous campaign being conducted by the Sudanese government and its militia allies against the country's black African population. This force was supposed to have been equipped with a robust mandate and increased to a total of 26,000 troops at the beginning of 2008. However, the delaying tactics of the regime in Khartoum and a lack of zeal on the part of the international community in fulfilling its obligations have rendered this plan meaningless.
The reluctance shown by Western governments is certainly in line with the mood of the Western public. The tendency to favor withdrawal is not only evident in the case of Iraq but also that of Afghanistan. Psychologically, Western societies are drawn in two directions. Images of suffering and violence presented by the media evoke an overpowering wish for something to be done immediately -- one that is articulated across a spectrum extending from the Pope to leftist humanists. However, once the high cost of concrete action becomes visible, the reaction of the public is to be appalled and reject further action.
Trial and Error
In historical terms, humanitarian interventions are still a new phenomenon. It is only since the 1990s that the international community has broken with the dogma of classical international law that prohibits interventions in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Since then, conceptions of international law have gradually shifted in the direction of international civil rights. However, the enforcement of such rights remains largely based on an arbitrary principle of trial and error -- with fundamentally uncertain outcomes. Of course, there can be no master plan tailored to deal with all the humanitarian catastrophes that could conceivably occur. However, more conscious, systematic foresight; more international coordination; and a more targeted division of labor in the prevention and pacification of conflicts are goals that are not only possible but indispensable if the international community is to avoid repeatedly being taken by surprise by crises.
The fundamental principle should be a renewed focus on ensuring that population groups under threat have a right to protection and that at least minimum legal standards apply. Although the goal of democratization should not be abandoned, it needs to be clear that implanting democracy is a long and complex process that requires a great degree of perseverance and determination. Such a process can only have a chance of success if a certain level of security and civil relations are established within a society. The United States has had to learn a cruel lesson in this respect in Iraq, and the Europeans are now learning it in Afghanistan. However, it is vital that broken dreams of democratic development are not used as a justification for standing idly by in the face of horrific violations of human rights.
In this respect it is worth reconsidering the idea of a "league of democracies," which was proposed by US Republican candidate John McCain during last year's election campaign. This concept is not new, and has previously been associated with the Democratic spectrum of US politics. An ongoing consultative committee of states sharing basic democratic and humanitarian values could help to better coordinate the process by which individual states or associations of states take responsibility for tasks in the field of international conflict management and focus on certain areas and regions in the longer term. Moreover, such an alliance could lend greater international legitimacy to urgent political and military interventions being blocked as a result of chronic resistance by particular powers within the United Nations. If the international community truly believes in fundamental human rights, it will realize that it is always within the national interest to help those who cannot help themselves.
Richard Herzinger is editor of Die Welt and Die Welt am Sonntag.
- Part 1: The New Terms for Humanitarian Intervention
- Part 2: Lessons of the Recent Past