Supporters of the impending U.S. strike on Syria claim that it is necessary to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons on its citizens and to prevent it from further employing them. The situation, says Washington, calls for “humanitarian intervention.” The following essay was originally published over two years ago in Foreign Policy in Focus (August 9, 2011). Written in the context of the NATO intervention in Libya that ousted Muammar Gaddafi and led to this death, the essay essentially deals with the same issues that confronted the international community at that time.
Events in Libya and Syria have again brought to the forefront the question of armed humanitarian intervention or the “responsibility to protect.”
Our hearts all go out to the unarmed demonstrators seeking to bring down corrupt dictatorships that are a plague on their people. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose and deposed dictators on their own. Armed supporters of the Mubarak regime did attack and even fire on people in Tahrir Square, but a massive crackdown was avoided when the military decided not to take the side of the dictator.
Things have not been so simple since then. Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi came down hard on civilian protesters, providing the opportunity for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to intervene militarily by waging an air war and arming the rebels. Today, the Assad dictatorship’s massive repression in cities and towns in Syria that have risen in revolt has also sparked agitation for intervention in the West.
Is it ever legitimate to supersede the principle of national sovereignty with a military intervention aimed at protecting citizens from their government? And if the answer is yes, what circumstances would justify this course of action and how should it be carried out?
Circumscribing National Sovereignty
Ever since the Peace of Westphalia ended Europe’s wars of religion in 1648, the principle of the inviolability of the sovereignty of the nation-state has evolved to become the bedrock principle of international relations. Under the so-called Westphalian system, the nation-state emerged as the basic unit of international relations, sovereign unto itself and expected to respect the sovereignty of other states, be they ruled by people or princes. The supremacy of national sovereignty as a principle, however, clashed with the reality of conflicts among states. Thus systems of collective security like the United Nations emerged both to protect and to circumscribe the exercise of the principle of national sovereignty.
In recent years, the principle of national sovereignty has been limited from another quarter, from the expansion of the doctrineof human rights. Ever since the tragic events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, there have been efforts to further circumscribe the principle of sovereignty to justify foreign state intervention when genocidal events or massive violations of human rights take place within a country. This enterprise has produced the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” or “humanitarian intervention.”
While the countries of the North have acclaimed the new doctrine, it has provoked controversy in the South, where states have only relatively recently acquired independence from colonial occupation by waving the banner of national sovereignty. Indeed, some nations, like the Palestinians, are still in the process of throwing off the yoke of foreign occupiers.
Recent interventions, such as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya illustrate, in the view of many in the South, the perils of a course of action that may begin with good intentions on the part of those calling for it, but end up with detrimental consequences for the sovereignty of nations, the integrity of national territory, and the maintenance of regional and global peace and security.
Contrary to a common perception in the North, few in the South would argue that respect for a country’s national sovereignty is absolute. Intervention, however, in the view of many, including this author, can only be sanctioned if there is substantial proof of genocide and if measures are taken to ensure that great-power logic does not displace the original humanitarian intent.
Kosovo and Great-Power Logic
The NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, undertaken to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, has been calleda classic case of humanitarian intervention. But the world can ill afford emulating the Kosovo military intervention.
First of all, the intervention contributed mightily to eroding the credibility of the UN, when the United States, knowing it would not get approval for intervention from the Security Council, used the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the legal cover for the war. NATO, in turn, was a fig-leaf for a war 95 percent of which was carried out by U.S. forces.
Although the humanitarian rationale was undoubtedly the purpose of some of its advocates, the operation mainly advanced Washington’s geopolitical designs. The lasting result of the Kosovo air war was not a stable and secure network of Balkan states but NATO expansion. That is not surprising, since ultimately that was what the air war was about. Slobodan Milosevic’s moves in both the earlier Bosnian crisis and in Kosovo, according to Andrew Bacevich, “called into question the relevance of NATO and, by extension, US claims to leadership in Europe.”
If it did not successfully manage Slobodan Milosevic, the United States could not have maintained its drive for NATO expansion. For the Clinton administration, such expansion would fill the security vacuum in Eastern Europe and institutionalize U.S. leadership in post-Soviet Europe. In Washington’s view, according to one analyst,
NATO enlargement would provide an institutional framework to lock in domestic transitions under way in Eastern and Central Europe. The prospect of alliance membership would itself be an ‘incentive’ for these countries to pursue domestic reforms. Subsequent integration into the alliance was predicted to lock in those institutional reforms. Membership would entail a wide array of organizational adaptations, such as standardization of military procedures, steps toward interoperability with NATO forces, and joint planning and training. By enmeshing new members in the wider alliance institutions and participation in its operations, NATO would reduce their ability to revert to the old ways and reinforce the liberalization of transitional governments. As one NATO official remarked: ‘We’re enmeshing them in the NATO culture, both politically and militarily, so they begin to think like us-and over time-act like us.’
A major aspect of the politics of NATO expansion was securing the continuing military dependence of Western European states on the United States. Washington could then quickly take advantagevia the NATO air war against Serbia of the European governments’ failure to follow through on an independent European initiative in the Balkans to prove that European security was not possible without the American guarantee.
In addition, the air war soon triggered what it was ostensibly meant to end: an increase in human rights violations and violations of international treaties. The bombing provoked the Serbs in Kosovo to accelerate their murder and displacement of Albanian Kosovars, while doing “considerable indirect damage” to the people of Serbia through the targeting of electrical grids, bridges, and water facilities–acts that violated Article 14 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention, which prohibits attacks on “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”
Finally, Kosovo provided a strong precedent for future violations of the principle of national sovereignty. The cavalier way in which the liberal Clinton administration justified setting aside national sovereignty by reference to allegedly “overriding” humanitarian concerns became part of the moral and legal armament that would be deployed by people of a different party, the Republicans, in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the right-wing thinker Philip Bobbitt saw it, the Clinton administration’s actions in Kosovo served as “precedents” that limited the rights of sovereignty of non-democratic regimes, “including the inherent right to seek whatever weapons a regime may choose.”
Afghanistan: Creating a Worse Situation
When the invasion of Afghanistan took place in 2001, the North put up little resistance to the U.S. move to oust the Taliban government. Washington took advantage of sympathy for the United States generated by 9/11 and the image of the Taliban government sheltering al-Qaeda to eliminate negotiations with the Taliban as an option. Using Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which sanctioned retaliation in self defense, the United States invaded Afghanistan with little protest from European countries. But to strengthen its position, the Bush administration not only used the rationale of crushing the threat of al-Qaeda to the United States. It also painted its move into Afghanistan as a necessary act of humanitarian intervention to depose the repressive Taliban government–one that was justified by the precedent of Kosovo. Invoking the humanitarian rationale, NATO member states like Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands also eventually sent armed contingents.
Like the Kosovo air campaign, the Afghanistan War soon showed the pitfalls of humanitarian intervention. As in Kosovo, great-power logic soon took over. Hunting for bin Laden yielded to the imperative of establishing and consolidating a U.S. military presence in Southwest Asia that would allow strategic control of both the oil-rich Middle East and energy-rich Central Asia. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seized on Afghanistan as what one analystdescribed as “a laboratory to prove his theory about the ability of small numbers of ground troops, coupled with air power, to win decisive battles.” The Afghanistan invasion’s main function, it turned out, was to prove obsolete the Powell Doctrine dictum about the need for a massive commitment of troops in an intervention, which the administration used later to persuade skeptics to support its strategic objective of invading Iraq.
The campaign in Afghanistan soon ended up doing what it was supposed to eliminate: terrorizing civilians. U.S. bombing could not, in many cases, distinguish military from civilian targets, which was not surprising since the Taliban enjoyed significant popular support in many parts of the country. The result was a high level of civilian casualties. One estimate, by Marc Herrold, placed the figure of civilian deaths at between 3,125 and 3,620, from October 7, 2001 to July 31, 2002. According to the UN mission in Afghanistan, 9,579 civilians were killed in the conflict between 2006 and 2010.
The campaign also ended up creating a political and humanitarian situation that was, in many respects, worse than that under the Taliban. One of the fundamental functions of a government is to provide a minimum of order and security. The Taliban, for all their retrograde practices in other areas, were able to give Afghanistan its first secure political regime in over 30 years. In contrast, the regime of foreign occupation that succeeded them failed this test miserably. According to a report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “security has actually deteriorated since the beginning of the reconstruction in December 2001, particularly over the summer and fall of 2003.” So bad is basic physical security for ordinary people that one-third of the country has been declared off limits to UN staff and most NGOs have pulled their people from most parts of the country. The Washington-installed government of Hamid Karzai does not exercise much authority outside Kabul and one or two other cities, which prompted then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to state that “without functional state institutions to serve the basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority and legitimacy of the new government will be short-lived.”
Worse, Afghanistan has become a narco-state. The Taliban were able to significantly reduce poppy production. Since their ouster in 2001, poppy production has gone up 40-fold and 20 times as much additional land has been brought under poppy cultivation. Many of Afghanistan’s top officials and legislators have been involved in the heroin trade, the most prominent of these being the brother of President Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council until his assassination a month ago.
Many Afghans would say that this life is no improvement over Taliban rule for at least the Taliban could provide one thing: basic physical security. This argument may not cut any ice with upper and middle class people in the North that live in safe suburbs or gated communities. But talk to poor people anywhere, and they put great value on ridding their shantytown communities of criminals, drug dealers, and corrupt policemen.
Iraq: Humanitarian Intervention Perverted
Although the main rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was Saddam’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), an important supporting rationale was regime change for humanitarian reasons. When no WMDs materialized, the Bush administration retroactively justified its intervention on humanitarian grounds: getting rid of a repressive dictatorship and imposing democratic rule.
The rest is history. Iraq today is a base for U.S. geopolitical control of the oil-rich Middle East. It is a state propped up by U.S. military power, its oil resources and its wealth geared primarily to serve the West. A drastically weakened polity, the country is threatened by the centrifugal forces of ethnic and sectarian conflict. Secular values and the status of women have been eroded by fundamentalism. Rampant crime and terrorism have generated a high level of physical insecurity. As for economic conditions, per-capita output and living standards are well below their pre-invasion levels, and the population lives in a state of chronic insecurity, with 55 percent of Iraqis lacking access to safe water, one million people lacking food security,6.4 million dependent on food rations from the public distribution system, and 18 percent of the work force unemployed..
Humanitarian intervention has reduced what used to be one of the most advanced countries of the Middle East to this deplorable state.
Preemptive Humanitarian Intervention
The Libyan case will perhaps go down as one of the worst abuses of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. At first, the events there unfolded pretty much like those in Egypt, with the popular uprising seemingly on the way to deposing a corrupt dictatorship. But the dictator, his military forces, and his social base held on, fighting back with military power, inflicting civilian casualties, and undoubtedly committing human rights violations in the process. At that point, the situation degenerated into a civil war. Outside Libya, defectors from the Gaddafi regime managed to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution to impose a no-fly zone over much of Libya, which the United States, England, and France leaped to impose to the consternation of Germany, China, Russia, and other countries that abstained from the Security Council resolution.
The Libyan intervention was not based on actual genocide, indeed not even on potential genocide but on a rhetorical threat of revenge that went viral in the media. In his March 11 speech, Gaddafi urged his supporters to “show no mercy” and go “house to house” in Benghazi, which President Barack Obama seized on to warn that genocide was about to take place. In fact, as many commentators have noted, Gaddafi’s words were directed at rebel fighters, not civilians, and in the very same speech, he promised amnesty to those “who throw their weapons away.”
Indeed, after NATO went to war, human rights investigators from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found no evidence of genocide or the deliberate targeting of civilians or aircraft being used on protestors and crowds or mass rape. This is not to say that there were no instances of brutal actions by Gaddafi’s troops. But there was no evidence for the genocide and massive and systematic violations of human rights that formed the pretext for intervention.
During the Libyan intervention, the objective of regime-change quickly supplanted the rationale of establishing a no-fly zone , with NATO aircraft carrying out offensive operations against the government’s tanks and infantry and targeting Gaddafi’s suspected hiding places in Tripoli, killing, among others, one of his sons. The struggle between Gaddafi and the NATO-supported rebels has now devolved into a war of attrition, bringing about a worse situation for civilians than that which prevailed before the intervention in terms of civilian casualties, infrastructure destroyed, and economic suffering.
A Sorry History
Contemporary humanitarian intervention suffers from three primary defects. Great-power logic soon overwhelms the humanitarian rationale for intervention. Such interventions often exacerbate bad situations. And humanitarian intervention sets a very dangerous precedent that can be used to justify future violations of the principle of national sovereignty. NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict helped provide the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the justifications for both interventions in turn were employed to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and the NATO war in Libya.
Governments should of course pressure a regime to end the repression of its citizens. Moves to cut off military exports that allow a regime to repress its people are entirely legitimate, as are economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts to denounce and politically isolate a repressive regime. But these actions are very different from invading a sovereign country or bombing its government, military forces, and government supporters to achieve regime change.
In the exceptional case of genocide being carried out by a government, military intervention must be carried out with extreme care. In the view of many policymakers and analysts in the South, the following steps must be followed.
First, the evidence for genocide must be substantial. Second, the intervention must be a last resort, after all efforts at stopping the genocide by diplomacy, military export bans, and economic sanctions have failed. Third, the UN General Assembly, not the Western-dominated Security Council, must legitimize the intervention. Fourth, military units belonging to hegemonic powers — in particular, the United States and NATO — must not be allowed to participate in the intervention. Fifth, the expeditionary force must aim only at stopping the genocide, must withdraw once the situation has stabilized, and must refrain from sponsoring and propping up an alternative government and engaging in “nation-building.”
With these guidelines, very few humanitarian interventions would have qualified as valid and carried out legitimately in the last 40 years. There are perhaps only two: the Vietnamese invasion to remove the blood-thirsty Khmer Rouge from power in 1978 (though this lacked UN sanction) and the UN-led multinational force INTERFET that ended the genocidal killingsand deportations of Timorese by Indonesian-backed militias in 1999.
Perhaps there is no better way to sum up the tragic odyssey of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention than by invoking the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.