Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum - Mary Kaldor

By Kaldor, Mary | The Nation, May 8, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Humanitarian Intervention: A Forum - Mary Kaldor


Kaldor, Mary, The Nation


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.

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