Setting the Standard: Justifying Humanitarian Intervention

By Roth, Kenneth | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Setting the Standard: Justifying Humanitarian Intervention


Roth, Kenneth, Harvard International Review


Humanitarian intervention was supposed to have gone the way of the 1990s. The use of military force across borders to stop mass killing was seen as a luxury of an era in which national security concerns among the major powers were less pressing and problems of human security could come to the fore. Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone: these interventions, justified to varying degrees in humanitarian terms, were dismissed as products of an unusual interlude between the tensions of the Cold War and the new threat of terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001, supposedly changed all that by inducing a return to more immediate security challenges. Yet surprisingly, even with the campaign against terrorism in full swing, the past year has seen four military interventions that their instigators describe, in whole or in part, as humanitarian.

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In principle, one can only welcome this renewed concern for the fate of faraway victims. What could be more virtuous than to risk life and limb to save distant people from slaughter? But the common use of the humanitarian label masks significant differences among these interventions. The French intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003, later backed by a reinforced UN peacekeeping presence, was most clearly motivated by a desire to stop ongoing slaughter. In Liberia and the Ivory Coast, West African and French forces intervened to enforce a peace plan but also played important humanitarian roles. A handful of US troops briefly joined the Liberian intervention, but with little effect. All of these African interventions were initially or ultimately approved by the UN Security Council. Indeed, in each case the relevant government consented, though under varying degrees of pressure.

By contrast, of the various grounds used by the US-led coalition forces to justify the invasion of Iraq, only one--and a comparatively minor one at that--was humanitarian. The UN Security Council did not approve the intervention, and the Iraqi government, its existence on the line, violently opposed it. Moreover, unlike the relatively modest African interventions, the Iraqi invasion involved an extensive bombing campaign and some 150,000 ground troops.

The sheer size of the Iraqi invasion, the central involvement of the world's superpower, and the enormous controversy surrounding the war meant that it overshadowed the other aforementioned military actions. For better or worse, that prominence gave it greater power to shape public perceptions. As a result, at a time of renewed interest in humanitarian intervention, the effort to justify the Iraq war even in part in humanitarian terms risks giving humanitarian intervention a bad name. If that breeds cynicism about the use of military force for humanitarian purposes, it could be devastating for people in need of future rescue.

Since the Iraq war was not mainly about saving the Iraqi people from mass slaughter, there was little serious pre-war debate about whether it could be justified in purely humanitarian terms. Indeed, if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had been overthrown and the issue of weapons of mass destruction reliably dealt with, there clearly would have been no war, even if the success or government were just as repressive.

Over time, however, the original justifications for war lost much of their force. More than seven months after the declared end of major hostilities, weapons of mass destruction still have not been found. No significant prewar link with international terrorism has been discovered. The difficulty of establishing stable institutions in Iraq is making the country an increasingly unlikely staging ground for promoting democracy in the Middle East. More and more, the Bush administration's remaining justification for the war is that Hussein was a tyrant who deserved to be overthrown--an argument for humanitarian intervention.

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