Do-Gooder Dilemma: The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention

By Barnett, Victoria | The Christian Century, August 10, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Do-Gooder Dilemma: The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention


Barnett, Victoria, The Christian Century


DURING THE 1890s, almost 200,000 Armenians were murdered on the orders of the sultan of Anatolia, in what is now Turkey. It was the first modern manifestation of a phenomenon that has become all too familiar. The Armenians were the minority Christian culture in the Ottoman Empire, second-class citizens without many of the rights Muslims enjoyed. In the late 19th century they began to mobilize politically. The resulting Armenian reform and protest movement gained strength at a time when the Ottoman Empire was "the sick man of Europe," disintegrating under a burden of debt and corruption. Afraid that the Armenian movement could become a viable political opposition, Sultan Abdul Hamid II gave the Muslim Kurds--who shared the same territory as the Armenians--the arms to "defend themselves."

The world was outraged. U.S. journalists and activists, including Clara Barton, president of the American Red Cross, traveled to Armenia. International relief committees were formed, Christian and Jewish religious organizations sent aid to the Armenians, and the U.S. Congress passed a resolution condemning the massacres. None of this prevented the events that unfolded some years later, early in World War I, when the Turkish government decided that the Armenians posed a threat to national security and began to arrest, deport and murder Armenian leaders. This was followed by several waves of killings between 1915 and 1922. More than a million Armenians died through starvation, torture and outright murder.

Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris places the story of the Armenian genocide in its larger historical context, which includes the international response and the emergence of a fledgling human rights movement that, two decades later, turned its attention to events in Nazi Germany. Balakian's book also illustrates how quickly the victims of history are pushed aside and forgotten in the greater geopolitical picture. Adolf Hitler, addressing his generals as they prepared to invade Poland in 1939, told them to be as ruthless as Genghis Khan and ominously asked, "Who today ... speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

This is a powerful book, not only because it offers a compelling, readable narrative of the Armenian genocide, but also because it takes up the larger humanitarian and political questions genocide raises. The Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and the Cambodian, Rwandan and Sudanese genocides (or politicides, depending on one's interpretation) have sparked growing acceptance of "humanitarian intervention" that includes political and military initiatives as well as the more traditional humanitarian aid. This development has opened a Pandora's box of political dilemmas and--in the opinion of David Rieff--altered the very, nature and integrity of humanitarian work.

What can history teach us here? One of the strengths of Balakian's book is that it conveys the complexity and chaos in which genocides usually occur. The second wave of mass violence against the Armenians began during the early part of World War I, when the world's attention was on the larger picture. Still, leading diplomats and politicians in Europe and in this country immediately sounded the alarm. Henry Morgenthau Sr., U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1918, began sending dispatches to Washington as soon as the murders began and pushed ceaselessly for aid and intervention to stop the slaughter. Public figures ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to the British pacifist Bertrand Russell called for outside intervention. More important, a network of aid and Armenian solidarity groups still existed to attempt to aid the victims and to mobilize public opinion.

All this, however, was shaped by the context of the war and its immediate aftermath in Europe. President Woodrow Wilson wanted to maintain diplomatic relations with Turkey and thus opposed intervention. Though sympathetic to the Armenians' plight, he hoped to address it through structures like the League of Nations.

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