Human Rights Watch, an organization I admire very much (though occasionally dissent from), has released an interesting paper by Kenneth Roth (their head honcho guy) on the Humanitarian argument in favour of the war in Iraq.
Despite a touch of lawyerprose, it’s a good, solid piece, and it deserves to be widely read.
The piece is all the more striking because HRW usually declines to take a position on jus ad bellum (the justice of the case for war) issues, preferring to focus on jus in bello (the justice of the actual fighting) stuff. They stuck to that during the Iraq war, declining to take a position on the justice or legality of the U.S. cause and instead focusing on violations of the laws of war during the fighting. But HRW has decided to weigh in publicly on the humanitarian justification for war, partly out of fear that the Bush administration is badly discrediting an argument which sometimes desperately needs to be made.
I agree with almost the entire piece. But agreement is boring. So here’s a passage I thought was a bit silly:
In noting that prosecution was not tried before war, we recognize that the U.N. Security Council had never availed itself of this option in more than a decade of attention to Iraq. The councilâ€™s April 1991 resolution on Iraq (resolution 688), in condemning â€œthe repression of the Iraqi civilian population in many parts of Iraq,â€ broke new ground at the time as the first council resolution to treat such repression as a threat to international peace and security. But the council never followed up by deploying the obvious tool of prosecution to curtail that repression. Yet if the U.S. government had devoted anywhere near the attention to justice as it did to pressing for war, the chances are at least reasonable that the council would have been responsive.
Whatever. The corruption and cynicism of the French and the Russians and the Chinese appears to have escaped Roth. (Earlier in the piece, he praises French motives (!) in their 2002 humanitarian interventions in Africa. Ugh.)
Roth also has interesting things to say about the role of intentions in judging the humanitarian justification for war. Roth does not insist that intervening countries have pure motives. Still, he thinks that motive counts. I find this interesting because I spent many hours discussing questions about motives and the issue of hypocrisy in general with my students last year when I was teaching a class on the war. Roth’s argument for insisting that motive counts doesn’t depend on claims about their intrinsic value. Rather, he thinks that bad motives tend to have lousy consequences. In principle, I’m open to this line of attack. But I think Roth is wrong here:
To begin with, if invading forces had been determined to maximize the humanitarian impact of an intervention, they would have been better prepared to fill the security vacuum that predictably was created by the toppling of the Iraqi government. It was entirely foreseeable that Saddam Husseinâ€™s downfall would lead to civil disorder. The 1991 uprisings in Iraq were marked by large-scale summary executions. The governmentâ€™s Arabization policy raised the prospect of clashes between displaced Kurds seeking to reclaim their old homes and Arabs who had moved into them. Other sudden changes of regime, such as the Bosnian Serb withdrawal from the Sarajevo suburbs in 1996, have been marked by widespread violence, looting, and arson.
That just doesn’t seem right to me. The best explanation for what happened was sheer incompetence, since there’s no satisfactory hypothesis connecting motives plausibly ascribed to the admin with what actually happened.
Roth speaks with rare sanity about the significance of international approval for the war:
There is considerable value in receiving the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council or another major multilateral body before launching a humanitarian intervention. The need to convince others of the appropriateness of a proposed intervention is a good way to guard against pretextual or unjustified action. An international commitment to an intervention also increases the likelihood that adequate personnel and resources will be devoted to the intervention and its aftermath. And approval by the Security Council, in particular, ends the debate about the legality of an intervention.
However, in extreme situations, Human Rights Watch does not insist on Security Council approval. The council in its current state is simply too imperfect to make it the sole mechanism for legitimizing humanitarian intervention. Its permanent membership is a relic of the post-World War II era, and its veto system allows those members to block the rescue of people facing slaughter for the most parochial of reasons. In light of these faults, oneâ€™s patience with the councilâ€™s approval process would understandably diminish if large-scale slaughter were underway. However, because there was no such urgency in early 2003 for Iraq, the failure to win council approval, let alone the endorsement of any other multilateral body, weighs heavily in assessing the intervenorsâ€™ claim to humanitarianism.
I think that’s exactly right. The anti-war crowd got awfully worked up about the failure to get a SC resolution prior to the war, though that would likely not have satisfied many of them. It sometimes got so that the backing of the SC seemed to be the sole criterion on which many people would judge the justice of the war. Nuts, I say. There are unjust international laws, just as there are unjust domestic laws. In addition to what Roth points out, the real significance of the failure to get SC backing was this: That on top of everything else that was wrong with the war, it violated international law. Unfortunately, it was difficult to make that point without sounding as if international law were all important.