Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum
The Nation magazine, May 8, 2000
1) Holly Burkhalter
Holly Burkhalter has more than twenty
years' experience in the human rights field. She is currently
advocacy director of Physicians for Human Rights and previously
worked for Human Rights Watch.
The date was April 16, 1994, and the place
was the Rwandan town of Cyahinda. Thirty-five hundred unarmed
Tutsi men, women and children had packed into a small Catholic
church, and 4,000 more crowded into surrounding church buildings
to escape from the Rwandan army and its death squads. But the
men came with their guns and machetes and clubs, surrounded the
parish buildings and attacked the helpless families within. In
a methodical and almost leisurely manner, they murdered their
day's quota--thousands--then came back the next day, and the next.
At the end of four days, some 5,500 unarmed
men and women, old people, toddlers and infants lay beneath the
pews and aisles and heaped on the altar, their blood and brains
splashed on the walls. The last to die at the church was a schoolgirl
who had been thrown alive into a deep hole. Other children came
to give her water to drink. When the local mayor learned of this,
he ordered the hole covered.
There may be those who firmly believe
that there should have been no military intervention to save the
people in the church and stop the genocide, but I doubt that many
of us would like to be counted among them. Whatever differences
may roil us over questions of when, where and who on earth should
intervene with military force to stop crimes against humanity
and genocide, there are times when it simply must be done, and
we know it.
Some people of conscience believe that
because of the violence the United States has sponsored, our government
has no business intervening to suppress vast crimes by others.
I disagree. The Genocide Convention does not oblige only those
treaty signatories with immaculate hands to prevent and punish
the crime of genocide. Our solemn treaty commitment requires the
United States to suppress genocide, even if shaming memories of
the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide and the disemboweling of Bosnia
Yet when the case for military intervention
to suppress genocide becomes as clear as that of Rwanda, it very
late to be finding one's conviction. The Rwanda genocide could
have been stopped, but it would have been far easier to prevent.
The international community possessed the will to do neither.
And so the situation remains to this day, notwithstanding UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan's magnificent articulation of a new doctrine,
wherein he placed suppression of crimes against humanity above
a country's claims of sovereignty.
That doctrine, welcome as it is, will
not save a single life if the great nations of the world do not
empower the UN to prevent and punish genocide and crimes against
humanity, or, if the international institution is incapable, do
it themselves. We as citizens should demand that our President
declare the principle that prevention and suppression of genocide
and crimes against humanity, and punishment of those responsible,
are of vital interest to the United States, and announce a program
to make this pledge meaningful. First, the United States should
contribute significant resources to help expand the UN's own capacity
to prevent or suppress genocide and crimes against humanity. The
creation of a standing UN rapid-response force is what is most
needed to respond quickly to incipient genocide. Since that is
not likely to happen with the current US Congress, however, we
should demand, at a minimum, that Congress support standby arrangements
where troop-contributing nations can designate, train and equip
ready units for emergency intervention. Moreover, funds should
be provided to double or triple the Secretary General's $50 million
reserve fund for preventive action.
Additionally, Congress should appropriate
funding to establish an enhanced UN peacekeeping command center
in New York and mobile command centers elsewhere to service a
rapid deployment to suppress genocide or crimes against humanity.
And, so that no world leader can claim, as Clinton did of Rwanda,
"I didn't know," the Security Council should demand
regular briefings by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and
High Commissioner for Refugees when vast crimes unfold. There
are other steps that the United States can take to prevent or
deter such events. Our own intelligence and diplomatic services
should be assigned and funded to collect documentation (including
radio and telephone intercepts and satellite photography) in countries
where there are early-warning indicators of mass killings to come.
Remember Rwanda? Watch for the stigmatization, discrimination
and targeted killings of ethnic minorities, a spike in weapons
imports, the spawning of heavily armed militias and the broadcasting
of chauvinistic and hate-filled political speeches. These genocidal
indicators should be widely publicized and used in support of
a concerted diplomatic initiative to pressure governments in those
Additionally, perpetrators should be denounced
by name, their visas scrapped and their overseas assets seized.
Foreign aid of all types except humanitarian should be suspended
and hate radio jammed. Extensive human rights monitoring by official
bodies such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or ad hoc
diplomatic arrangements such as the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer
Mission, should be initiated and funded.
Even if our President and Congress were
to pursue policies to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity
with a seriousness of purpose born of the certainty that failure
to do so would require American support for military intervention,
preventive measures would sometimes fail. When that happens, we
should demand that our government strongly support UN peacekeeping
and peace-enforcement operations, politically, materially, militarily,
financially and logistically.
Yet what of those occasions when intervention
is clearly required to save helpless people from mass butchery,
but one or another member of the Security Council says no? During
the Rwanda genocide, it was, to our shame, our own government
that thwarted the UN. During the Kosovo crisis it was Russia,
and others will take their turn elsewhere. Are the victims less
deserving because Russia or China or the United States itself
has decided that they are not worth saving?
Imagine, if you will, that a government,
let's say Canada, acting under the auspices of the Genocide Convention's
command that genocide must be stopped and its perpetrators punished,
had bucked the will of a US-dominated Security Council in April
of 1994 and sent troops unilaterally to Rwanda. Imagine those
Canadian soldiers surrounding the church and parish buildings
in Cyahinda and a hundred places like it, defeating the machete-wielding
butchers whose only prowess was in slashing children, and leading
those thousands of families to safety. Condemn such an operation
as illegal and immoral because it did not bear the Security Council's
imprimatur? Not on your life. And not on theirs.
2) Mahmood Mamdani
Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan citizen, is
Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and director of the Institute
of African Studies at Columbia University. He received his doctorate
from Harvard and has previously taught at several African universities.
He is currently completing a political analysis of the causes
and consequences of the genocide in Rwanda.
Advocates of "humanitarian intervention"
argue that Rwanda needs to be a turning point in post-cold war
politics, one that will introduce a renewed consensus on human
rights into international politics. If the pledge that followed
the Holocaust--"never again"--could not be upheld because
of the cold war, they argue, the end of the cold war provides
the context necessary to renew that pledge and give it teeth.
The consensus around "humanitarian
intervention" brings together two different points of view.
For some, the end of the cold war provides a real opportunity
for observing a human rights standard internationally. Now that
dictators hitherto nurtured by the cold war--Saddam Hussein and
Slobodan Milosevic, for example--have been orphaned by its end,
they must be forced to observe minimal international human rights
standards. Should they fail to observe these standards, they must
be the target of armed humanitarian intervention.
For others, the end of the cold war entails
the danger that big powers may succumb to isolationism, and underlines
the need to hold those powers responsible for international policing.
From this point of view, the need for humanitarian intervention
arises precisely in those cases where powerful nations do not
have direct interests at stake and are thus unwilling to risk
anything. In those instances, say human rights activists, it is
vital to compel big-power intervention for humanitarian purposes.
In other words, if intervention is not a political necessity,
it must be made one through a popular crusade that demands it.
I disagree with those who call for "humanitarian
interventions" in the post-cold war era for one reason: I
think it necessary to judge each intervention on its own merit,
particularly its political merit. In a globalized world of highly
unequal actors, humanitarian intervention will be a name for big-power
intervention in practice. Every intervention will serve a complex
of interests, general and specific. There can be no such thing
as an unambiguous humanitarian intervention.
Like every turning point, Rwanda offers
us not one but several lessons. The UN did not just withdraw;
it also authorized a humanitarian intervention by the French,
code-named Operation Turquoise. That intervention did save many
Tutsi, but it also saved the political and military leadership
that carried out the genocide. As if to underline that "humanitarian
intervention" is indeed a political blank check, neither
the UN nor any other international forum has held the French accountable
for that intervention.
Rather than being an exception, doesn't
Operation Turquoise fit neatly into a history of imperial intervention
over the past several centuries? Didn't slaving powers portray
Africa as a state of nature where life was nasty, brutish and
short and where slavery salvaged the lives of its victims, introducing
them to the nobility of labor? And didn't colonial powers entering
Africa toward the end of the nineteenth century claim to be stamping
out slavery? In other words, hasn't every imperial intervention
claimed to be humanitarian?
In addition to the French intervention
in Rwanda, the US-led interventions in Iraq and Kosovo also teach
us that every intervention has its politics. Iraq brought home
the fact that the lives of ordinary Iraqis were dispensable, whether
they turned the intervention into an opportunity to remove the
dictatorship through popular action or whether the dictatorship
turned them into human shields against the intervention. Kosovo
brought that same lesson home in a different way: The lives of
individual pilots in the sky were far more precious than those
of the multitudes living on the ground.
This is not to say that every external
intervention is imperialist, but it is to say that calling an
intervention "humanitarian" cannot strip it of its politics.
If the cold war led to a single-minded focus on imperial powers,
the end of the cold war should not replace it with a single-minded
focus on local despots. If the cold war generated a preoccupation
with politics that lost sight of humanity, the end of the cold
war should not be turned into an invitation--or a temptation--to
disregard politics in the name of humanity.
Rather than calling for a type of intervention
that is free from political accountability, we should be placing
the question of accountability at the center of the discussion.
Globalization shows that we have enhanced technological capacities,
but it also underlines the need to put in place some kind of representative
governing structure internationally. At the very least, it calls
on us to examine the representativeness of the international arrangements
that now exist, from the UN to the Bretton Woods institutions.
The point is to make these institutions accountable to those who
will suffer the consequences of the decisions they make.
3) Ronald Steel
Ronald Steel's most recent books are In
Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy (Simon
& Schuster) and Temptations of a Superpower (Harvard).
All during the cold war American intervention
was a dirty word on the left. It was usually taken to mean interfering
in other countries to suppress radical movements, always under
the catchall justification of anti-Communism. But over the past
decade, with the disappearance of the ideological foe, what was
once viewed as repressive and self-serving is now described as
responsible and humanitarian. Enter "Operation Just Cause"
in the Balkans and what is described as "virtuous intervention."
Since the end of the cold war the United States has intervened
with military force in five internal or regional conflicts: Somalia,
Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the first two the United States
acted alone; in the others it was aided to one degree or another
by allies. In each of these interventions the results have been,
to say the least, disappointing. Saddam Hussein is still in power,
Somalia is still ruled by warlords, Haiti is still mired in misery
and oppression, Bosnia has been effectively partitioned into ethnic
enclaves and Kosovo is being ethnically purified under the aegis
of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The "virtuous" part of these
interventions has been more in the intentions than the consequences.
Does this mean that the principle of humanitarian intervention
is wrong or doomed to failure? No, but it does provide some important
First, interventions that are purely "humanitarian"
and far removed from obvious concerns about national security
can be sustained only if they are relatively cheap in lives and
resources; have at least a veneer of international approval; confront
situations that are genocidal, in that they threaten the very
existence of a people; and can be resolved by military action.
The five interventions of the past decade do not easily fill these
requirements, and have fallen short of their ambitious goals.
By contrast, the one intervention that
we should have undertaken, that we could have accomplished quickly
and successfully, and that was shameful not to have undertaken
was in Rwanda. There, with several thousand armed men we could
have prevented the murder of an estimated 800,000. But it was
only Africa, after all, and a few of our soldiers might have been
shot, and it was all so primeval and distant, and it was hard
to find any political advantage in it.
Where we have intervened the reasons have
not always been exclusively humanitarian or virtuous: In Kuwait
we also sought to protect the sources of cheap oil; in Somalia
in part to get embarrassing TV coverage off the nightly news;
in Haiti to stanch the flow of refugees to Florida; in Bosnia
and Kosovo to assert America's continued leadership of Europe
through NATO. The two major interventions described as "humanitarian"--Bosnia
and Kosovo--did end the fighting and some of the human rights
abuses. But only for a time. In Kosovo as in Bosnia, the peacekeepers
cannot be withdrawn lest fighting resume. This is because the
interventions ignored, and in some cases exacerbated, the political
nature of the disputes. The issue in both cases was that of self-determination:
the right of an ethnic group to secede from an existing state.
In Bosnia, the United States (and the Europeans) endorsed this
principle; in Kosovo it fought in support of an armed separatist
group but maintains that it opposes the total detachment of the
province from Serbia.
The trouble with the principle of ethnic
self-determination is that its pursuit could lead to the destruction
of a great many existing states and widespread warfare of the
kind seen in places like Sri Lanka. Based on the exaltation of
tribal loyalties, it invites majorities to be intransigent, furnishes
pretexts for repression and leads to civil wars. It also denies
the basis of our own social compact and our declared allegiance
There are times when foreign intervention
in support of an ethnic group may be necessary: when its people
are targeted for genocidal extermination (as were the Tutsis of
Rwanda and the Jews of Nazi Europe), when they have been subjected
to severe and repeated crimes against humanity, and when there
have been persistent human rights abuses over a sustained period
of time against an ethnic community.
In relatively few cases do these conditions
apply. But that's all the more reason to draw the lines strictly
so that intervention can be undertaken with maximum public support.
Whether it will be successful depends on more than virtue or righteousness.
It demands the commitment of all sides to a workable accord. It
depends on being framed and enforced in such a way as to bring
greater stability to the area. It requires support for domestic
groups actively seeking a political settlement--not those simply
using foreign intervention to further their own purposes. And
it must be applied in such a way as to discourage resentful ethnic
separatists from using foreign humanitarians to dismember existing
The more intervention strays from concerns
over self-defense, the more subjective it becomes. To say that
we have the right to intervene anywhere we choose to protect our
self-defined "values and interests" is to open the door
to other nations to defend their own--as they define them. A humanitarian
impulse could, through abuse, become a geopolitical nightmare.
This is why intervention should be an international undertaking--not
because we need the physical support of other nations but to temper
the dangers of self-righteousness and self-delusion.
4) Mary Kaldor
Mary Kaldor is director of the Global
Civil Society program at the London School of Economics and author
of New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford).
In early February, violence broke out
in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, when groups of Serbs went from
apartment to apartment throwing grenades and beating people. French
KFOR troops withdrew to another part of town. UN police tried
to intervene but were outnumbered. Eventually Danish troops came
to their assistance, "acting on their own individual initiative,"
according to the BBC report, and "not at the orders"
of the French commanding officer. According to the UN police,
"the Danes were superb."
There are similar stories about Danish
soldiers during the Bosnian war, where they disobeyed UN orders
and fired back at Serbs attacking UN convoys. The Danes were criticized
for not keeping to the UN mandate, but they were effective in
protecting humanitarian corridors.
A genuine humanitarian intervention is
much more like policing than warfighting or traditional peacekeeping.
Soldiers are supposed to kill under orders. Their job is to fight
in wars, which are supposed to be directed against other states.
Unlike criminals, they are legitimate bearers of arms. Indeed,
soldiers are considered heroes and not murderers; they kill to
defend their countries and are applauded for their bravery. They
do not feel morally responsible for the violence because they
kill at a distance. They kill at a psychological distance because
they are obeying someone else's orders, and often at a physical
distance because they drop bombs or fire artillery shells and
do not come face to face with their victims.
In contrast, police are supposed to enforce
the rule of law domestically; their job is to protect the public
from crime. They are expected to protect victims of crime and
to capture criminals. They are expected to be present on the ground
and to use their own initiative. They are supposed to save as
many lives as possible, including the criminals who should stand
trial. They are not supposed to kill or use violence except in
defense and, within the rule of law, they are individually accountable
for their actions.
Humanitarian intervention has to be understood
as a new phenomenon, not simply in terms of goals but also in
terms of methods. The idea of overriding state sovereignty in
defense of human rights marks not just a conceptual break with
a state-centered view of the world but a practical break with
traditional forms of warfighting. Conventional war between states
has become an anachronism. In contemporary wars in places like
Eastern Europe or Africa, most violence is directed against civilians
and involves an array of techniques, including population displacement,
especially "ethnic cleansing"; atrocities like torture,
systematic rape and massacres; and destruction of infrastructure
and historic buildings. The aim is to control territory by sowing
fear and hatred. This method of warfare directly violates the
laws of war as well as the various postwar conventions and treaties
on human rights.
In this type of war, humanitarian intervention
has to be understood not as warfighting (intervention on one side
or the other) or as peacekeeping (keeping the sides apart and/or
guaranteeing cease-fires) but as international law enforcement.
If contemporary wars have become a mixture of war and massive
violations of human rights, then intervention has to become a
mixture of policing and military operations. The aim is to restore
legitimacy by countering the strategy of sowing fear and hatred
with a strategy of winning "hearts and minds" by containing
violence and operating within the framework of international law.
This involves the direct protection of civilians and the arrest
of individual war criminals. Instead of offensive operations against
a military enemy, humanitarian intervention should be defensive
and non-escalatory. Humanitarian intervention involves new techniques
such as the creation of safe havens and safe zones, as well as
The role of UNPROFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina
did represent a weak form of humanitarian intervention in the
imposition of safe havens and humanitarian corridors. The problem
was that the troops were poorly armed and ordered not to use force,
and their lives were privileged over the lives of those they were
supposed to protect.
In contrast, NATO's airstrikes against
Serbia last year were much more in the tradition of warfighting.
Although the goal was humanitarian intervention, the practice
was conventional war. Instead of directly protecting civilians
on the ground, NATO conducted offensive operations against the
Serbian military machine, including its infrastructure in Serbia.
This approach actually had counterproductive consequences, since
it allowed Slobodan Milosevic to mobilize public opinion in Serbia
and to speed up ethnic cleansing on the ground. It is true that
in the end Milosevic capitulated, but the war led to a double
ethnic cleansing. As Gen. Wesley Clark put it, you "cannot
stop paramilitary murder on the ground with airplanes."
Forging a new type of humanitarian intervention
requires a restructuring of armed forces. It means emphasis on
ground troops rather than on sophisticated equipment for long-distance
killing. But above all, it requires a cognitive and moral transformation
in the way we understand the legitimate use of violence. Soldiers
have to behave more like police officers. Whereas in military
operations the aim is to minimize casualties on your own side,
even if this means maximizing casualties on the other side, in
humanitarian intervention the aim is to minimize all casualties,
even if this means risking the lives of the soldiers/police officers.
Whereas soldiers kill at a distance, humanitarian intervention
means a presence on the ground. Above all, whereas soldiers obey
orders unquestioningly and become cogs in a collective machine,
the new international law enforcers have to take individual responsibility
for local situations and make difficult judgments about how to
respond based on their own knowledge and conscience. Even if they
did disobey orders, the Danish peacekeepers seemed to understand,
more than anyone else, what humanitarian intervention ought to
Foreign Policy page