Humanitarian intervention

2004 04 02

This is what is happening in Western Sudan now.

The situation is complex and I can’t claim to understand what is going on there now. As I’ve said before, it would take quite a bit of argument to persuade me that intervention was the best option. But it seems to me that there are a whole range of appropriate things that could be done – condemnation, support for humanitarian operations, political pressure of various kinds, perhaps – perhaps – inducements for reform, and so on. Why isn’t anyone doing anything of this sort now?

The U.S. has its hands full now. Two war-torn countries reconstructed at a time, thank you very much. But the U.S. isn’t the only potential actor here. Where is the rest of the world? Where is Canada? Where is Europe?

When we get a situation like this, many people are inclined to think a) a military intervention is the only option on the table; and b) it’ll be the U.S. organizing the whole thing. Both assumptions are unhealthy, since they play directly into the whole neo-colonialist mindset that gets the U.S. in trouble so often. There are probably plenty of constructive non-military measures available, and they’re open to the rest of the world.

If the U.S. is so untrustworthy and rotten, then why won’t the rest of the world get off its ass and act once in a while?

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2004 03 29
[Iraq and sovereignty, again]

I’m still puzzling over something that I unfortunately don’t have time to explore now in any sort of detail. I think proponents of intervention in Iraq have been very sceptical that Iraq’s sovereignty could have counted for much before the war, given the character of the Ba’ath regime under Iraq. If recognizing sovereignty implies some sort of deference to the regime which claims it, then why not think that the depraved character of the regime makes any sort of deference, including recognition of sovereignty, out of question? Noticing this, the thinking goes, will help us to see why the U.S. had the right to intervene for humanitarian reasons.

Here’s a question I’ve asked before, but not seen discussed elsewhere let alone answered: How would we have felt if Iran had intervened in 2003 on a humanitarian pretext to depose Saddam Hussein?

I have to confess, as much as I dislike Saddam Hussein, and as much as I’m attracted to the idea that Iraq’s sovereignty couldn’t have counted for much under Saddam Hussein, I don’t think I would have been very happy about it. The fact is, I don’t trust Iran’s leaders. I wouldn’t have trusted their intentions, or had much faith in their ability to do much good in Iraq (beyond, of course, getting rid of Saddam Hussein).

If any pro-war types are reading this, I’m curious: Do you share my reaction? If you do, do you notice that your dislike for Saddam Huseein can survive undiminished even as you frown at the thought of a humanitarian intervention to depose him?

So this is something I suppose I wouldn’t mind seeing discussed a bit. One moral you might draw from this is that some (popular) accounts of humantarian intervention move too quickly from the claim that Iraq’s sovereignty was compromised by the despicable character of the regime to the view that the U.S. therefore had the right to intervene. For even if a country’s sovereignty is as compromised as can be, we might still doubt that it’s a sort of “humanitarian sitting duck” – that just anyone has the right to intervene.

I’ve written about ths once before. But so what. I’m still mulling it over. And I haven’t seen anyone else ask the question in exactly this way. Any help appreciated.

That’s the homework for the day. Think about it and let me know.

Now I have to go mark an enormous stack of exams.

p.s. Spare me the outrage about comparing Iran and the U.S. I don’t mean they’re exactly alike in every respect. In some ways, Iran would have been a more appropriate intervener; in other ways, of course, a less appropriate one. Enumerating those differences, and reflecting on why they make the difference they do, is one of the points of the exercise.

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2004 02 28
And another thing . . .

Here’s another way of making a point I’ve made in my remarks about Normblog’s position on the Iraq war.

Everyone agrees that North Korea is ruled by a vile regime, as vile at Saddam’s Ba’ath party was. But as far as I can tell neither Norm nor anyone on the pro-war left has advocated just going in and attacking North Korea.

And rightly so: For one, the human costs of such a plan rule it out immediately.

But they do not accuse themselves of failing to “resist evil” when they fail to advocate a war against North Korea, as they do accuse the anti-war left for failing to advocate a war against Iraq.

Now, I think that the obvious and immediate risks of attacking North Korea are considerably more daunting than the obvious and immediate risks of attacking Iraq were prior to the war. But I think that if you take a hard look at the likely long term consequences of the war in Iraq, there’s a good case to be made for the view that the cases are considerably closer than a first glance might suggest.

So here’s one thing worth noting: That last observation is a non-moral claim, in the sense that it’s a predictive claim about how things are likely to turn out, not about how they ought to turn out. And here’s the next thing: If Norm and other had accepted this non-moral claim, their position on the war against Iraq might well have been the same as their position on North Korea, i.e., don’t do it.

And that despite the fact that they – and we – are all anxious to resist evil.

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2003 09 13
[Humanitarian interventions]

Among the rationale’s cited for the war in Iraq was the humanitarian one. I think many well-meaning people (including myself!) who wouldn’t ordinarily have trusted Bush to pick up their groceries were moved by this line of argument. Perhaps not moved all the way, but nevertheless moved. And I noticed a general pattern which I came to term ‘Iraqitis': the more people knew about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the more they were willing to sanction anything, just anything, to get him out of power. I think I had a touch of Iraqitis a few times during the buildup to the war, as I read Human Rights Watch reports and the like, though never severe enough to short-circuit my brain when it came to forecasting the likely outcomes of an invasion.

The same considerations moved many progressives and liberals over Kosovo: this sick in the stomach feeling that enough is enough and that force is the best option. (In fact, I think Kosovo played an important and underappreciated role in lowering – even further – the American threshold for the use of military force. Whether you supported Kosovo or not, that was one of its effects. So don’t forget to weigh it in the balance of good and evil achieved by the war.) Before then, it was the failure to act in Rwanda – and I believe that Rwanda called for a military response – that gave an extra force to the notion, as people in the West began to digest what they had allowed to happen.

Fair enough.

As I said, I’m at least open to this kind of argument, even if it’s unpersuasive in particular cases.

But humanitarian justifications for war are becoming popular enough that it’s very important now to recognize how very dangerous they can be and how open to abuse they are. What is desperately needed now is more historical context, because I think that a number of historical cases give us special reasons for humility, and special reasons to put humanitarian justifications for particular wars under intense scrutiny, even if we accept them in principle. Today, I have in mind two examples. The first is the conquest of the “New World”. This was, it is astonishing to recall, promoted by appeal to humanitarian concerns: the desire to stamp out cannibalism (save them from themselves!), whose prevalence was greatly exaggerated, and the desire to save their souls for Christianity. The Crusades were also promoted, perhaps even sincerely, by appeal to goals which were religious and moral. And we could go on.

The examples do not debunk the notion of a humantarian justifications for war. But they ought to teach us to be extremely suspicious of them.

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2003 07 24
Liberia, again

Things have gotten steadily worse, worse in Liberia, just when you might have concluded that they had nowhere to go but up.

Bush is taking heat for this. This is surprising, to say the least. A few weeks ago, no one was paying any attention to the conflict at all – now it’s in the New York Times almost every day.

I think that questions about intervention and moral responsibility are complicated. Some cases of intervention may be permissible without being obligatory, and if that’s the case, a country isn’t necessarily being hypocritical when it intervenes in one case but not another.

So does this get the U.S. off the hook? Well, I remain undecided about whether the U.S. specifically has a moral responsibility to intervene. Surely if it does, it’s not alone. Europe has the means to intervene as well. And so, apparently, do other African countries – though this may lead to more unhappiness in the long run.

Suppose we decide that the U.S. has no moral responsibility to intervene. Matters are further complicated by the fact that it hinted it would intervene. The hint seems to have been prompted by a desire to look good while touring Africa. It’s inconceivable to me that the hint was sincere: I just can’t imagine the admin giving a shit about Liberians. Or if it was sincere, it was sincere in the very minimal sense that they thought it might be feasible to send a few military trainers or a very small support force.

The hint has played an important role in the way events are now unfolding on the ground. Actors on the ground, to be sure, bear primary moral responsibility for the chaos and death currently being unleashed. But by dropping the hint, the U.S. injected itself into events, because an actor itself in this drama.

If they had no intention of going in the first place, they shouldn’t have dropped the hint.

The admin has gotten itself into a real pickle. Now everyone is watching to see what the U.S. will do. And they’ve started to perk up to the horrors on the ground that made intervention seem desirable. I’m not sure where the story will go, but for Liberians, I doubt it will go well.

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2003 07 02
More on Liberia

The NYTimes has a piece today on the Bush admin’s deliberations on Liberia. The piece suggests that there is a real chance that the U.S. will actually get involved. This seems quite unlikely. (In another development, the U.N. Security Council team sent to stall – oops! – investigate the matter has recently returned home. This will raise the pressure on the Security Council to look decisive – oops! – to act.) The piece provides a rather good case against any U.S. intervention, though:

Yet former administration officials said there was reluctance at the Pentagon to get involved in a complex and violent dispute that does not involve a compelling issue of national security for the United States, especially when American troops are already deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I have a hunch that the Pentagon isn’t alone on this.

The piece also suggests that the U.S. might get involved under certain conditions. But don’t get hopeful (if you want intervention, that is). Check out the conditions:

On Monday, Ambassador James B. Cunningham, Washington’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told colleagues that the United States could send troops in the event of a peaceful negotiated settlement supported by other countries and on condition that President Taylor step down and turn himself over to the special court in Sierra Leone.

Gotta say, that ain’t particularly likely.

This is a tricky issue and it’s not obvious (to me, at least) what to do. I’ve just spent several months slagging the Bush admin for invading another country without thinking very hard about all the possible consequences. So I’m not keen to jump into advocating a military intervention without a clear idea of what it would accomplish and how it would accomplish it. Notice, also, that there are substantive measures that the rest of the world could take short of military intervention. To take just one example, Western countries might put more pressure on Western companies profiting from the chaos there (and in the DRC).

There is one aspect of the U.S.’s approach which I like, and that is refusing any deal that let’s Taylor off the hook. In the short run, I admit, this position is only going to make things worse. Taylor will have that much less reason to bargain or negotiate if he’s only negotiating his way into prison. Still, Taylor doesn’t have many options either way, and there seems to be a compelling interest in pressing for justice here.

If I’ve got time in the next few days, perhaps I’ll try to work out my thoughts a little more clearly on this.

I do notice a rather deafening silence on the issue from those pundits who were asking – nay, imploring – the anti-war movement to think of the freedom of the Iraqi people last spring. (Send counterexamples, if any, to:

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2003 05 14
Chaos in Central Africa

What follows is a piece from the U.N. News Service about the chaos currently gripping central Africa. I’m not sure why I’m posting it – perhaps I’m protesting the fact that no one else seems to give a shit. Is there a moral to be drawn from it? Three things come to mind:

a) Much of this chaos is a result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The genocide played a major role in destabalizing the entire region. The roots of the current conflict are complex, of course, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. Still, every time I read about the millions who have perished in the fighting over the last few years, I am reinforced in my belief that never in history did the West have a chance to save more lives with fewer resources than 1994. If the West had acted, it could very probably have taken the edge off the worst. That’s not to say that central Africa would be a nice place now, but chances are it wouldn’t be hell on earth.

b) Pleas for help with the conflict have been issuing from the UN for a few weeks now. As far as I can tell, they’ve been met with nearly complete silence. I suppose I can understand the reluctance to intervene in a complex and perhaps intractable conflict. Still, would it hurt to report the conflict? There’s virtually nothing in the papers about this. Surely the sheer scale of human suffering warrants more mention than it’s now getting.

c) Western companies have profitted from this chaos. Central Africa is rich in resources, and the resources have played an important role in prolonging the conflict. Conflict diamonds are only the start of a long sordid tale of profit from misery. The current outrage, especially prevalent among conservatives, at French companies who did business with the former Iraqi regime would be far more convincing if the same group of outraged critics could bring themselves to condemn the Western companies currently doing business in central Africa.

New York, May 14 2003 5:00PM
As heavy fighting continues to rage in the town of Bunia in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a top United Nations relief official today voiced fear of a looming humanitarian disaster in the area and warned of ethnic tensions that conjured up “shades of Rwanda in 1994.”

The situation on the ground in Bunia continues to be “extremely difficult and volatile,” with intense fighting going on between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in the town itself, as well as around the airport, according to a UN spokesman. The local headquarters of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) is wedged in the area between the two groups.

Carolyn McAskie, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York that the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and the ethnic tensions in Bunia conjured up “shades of Rwanda in 1994,” where men, women and children rose up and attacked their neighbours.

Whole villages in and around Bunia were slaughtering each other – a deeply disturbing aspect of the hostilities that Ms. McAskie feared was “Rwanda-like,” although “nothing could match the scale of Rwanda.” Still, there had been hundreds of casualties “that we know of” in the last few weeks or so, she added, stressing that the humanitarian situation was “extremely dangerous, even desperate; the focus was on very basic life-saving interventions.”

The dire security situation – where a “rather nasty cocktail” of rebel groups and dissatisfaction with local authorities was playing on ethnic hatreds – meant that relief agencies were “down to the minimum in terms of providing the most basic human needs” such as plastic sheeting for shelter and high-protein biscuits.

Ms. McAskie noted there were just eight humanitarian personnel on the ground right now – including a surgeon, nutrition specialist, and water and sanitation expert -doing what they could. Despite the evacuations, she and others, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), were trying to keep a core group in place. Other teams and supplies were on standby, but needed a more secure environment in which to operate. Supplies were being moved up from Goma, but incoming flights tended to be sporadic. The first priority was to find a way to stop the fighting.

Asked how large a force would be needed to suppress the fighting, Ms. McAskie said Ugandan troops had been “keeping a lid on it”. They had anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 troops. “We have 800 personnel now, and estimates of what was needed were some three times that,” she said.

Joining Ms. McAskie at the briefing was Margaret Carey of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. She said that the new troops would have to be able to use force. The Mission was a peacekeeping operation and, therefore, lightly armed. It was basically comprised of guard units. What was needed now was the rapid deployment of well-equipped, well-trained troops, under a mandate that permitted the use of force. In terms of the total numbers needed, she thought the key was enforcement power and capacity.

Meanwhile, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said a shell landed in the UN Mission’s compound, killing one person and wounding 13 others. “I can now confirm the reports on the wires yesterday that one woman was killed yesterday while inside the UN Mission’s Bunia headquarters” he said, adding that a civilian was in fact killed by a stray bullet while she was in the compound, and one mortar shell also landed in the compound.

MONUC has also reported that two UN military observers have been missing since 11:00 a.m. local time Tuesday from Mongbwalu, five kilometres north of Bunia. “All attempts are being made to locate them,” Mr. Eckhard said.

There has also been an increase in the number of internally displaced persons seeking shelter at the Mission’s Bunia headquarters, and a makeshift medical clinic has been organized there to deal with the situation.

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2003 01 28
[Roth on the Iraq War]

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 council’s April 1991 resolution on Iraq (resolution 688), in condemning “the repression of the Iraqi civilian population in many parts of Iraq,” 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 Hussein’s downfall would lead to civil disorder. The 1991 uprisings in Iraq were marked by large-scale summary executions. The government’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, one’s patience with the council’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 intervenors’ 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.

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