Academic journal article Parameters

Humanitarian Intervention and the War in Iraq: Norms, Discourse, and State Practice

Academic journal article Parameters

Humanitarian Intervention and the War in Iraq: Norms, Discourse, and State Practice

Article excerpt

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq inevitably led to attempts by President George W. Bush and others in his Administration to use humanitarian justifications to defend the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime. (1) This argument has predictably triggered an intense debate among scholars, the media, and human rights advocacy groups as to whether the Iraq invasion constitutes a "humanitarian intervention," (2) which means using military force in other states to halt human rights abuses or otherwise promote human rights. A particularly outspoken critic of this tactic has been the director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, whose compelling essay in the 2004 Human Rights Watch Worm Report contends that the invasion of Iraq was not a legitimate humanitarian intervention, nor should it be considered such. (3) It is true, as Roth and others argue, that the principal justifications originally given for the war in Iraq were Saddam's alleged possession of WMD--including his failure to reveal and discontinue relevant weapons programs as required by various Security Council resolutions--as well as the regime's purported ties to terrorists linked with al Qaeda. As of this writing, no weapons have been found and there has been no credible evidence presented of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda prior to the war. (4) Herein lies the appeal to the United States of the humanitarian argument. As Alex Bellamy writes, "The 2003 war in Iraq is important because it represents the first time a group of intervening states have justified their actions by referring to the humanitarian outcomes that were produced by acts primarily motivated by non-humanitarian concerns." (5)

It is true that the United States has a history of using military force for various purposes and attempting to justify it (unconvincingly) in the name of advancing democracy, particularly in Central America during the 1980s. (6) Recent trends in the conduct of and discourse on humanitarian intervention based on state practice during the Cold War and the 1990s, however, can be interpreted as lending credibility to the Bush Administration's argument that the resort to force in Iraq can be justified on human rights grounds. In important ways, the war in Iraq conforms to many of the international norms (legal or otherwise) previously invoked by both scholars and governments to justify past humanitarian interventions. Thus, while ambiguous, the emerging normative legal framework relevant to humanitarian intervention serves to afford a certain amount of legitimacy, at least in the abstract, to the Iraq war as a justifiable humanitarian intervention. That the invasion of Iraq maintains a sort of "abstract normative acceptability" as a humanitarian intervention makes the concern by Human Rights Watch and others even more urgent, for it fundamentally affects what is perceived to be the legitimate use of military force in international relations. (7)

Before 9/11, norms on humanitarian intervention were developed and applied in an international security milieu in which there was less concern about the possibility that a humanitarian justification for military force could provide cover for nonhumanitarian military campaigns, such as those associated with the "war on terror." As such, the normative development of the rules on humanitarian intervention--however informal these rules may be--emerged in a certain way, with a great deal of attention being given to what was learned from previous experience with humanitarian interventions. (8) Until the Iraq war, the most contested instance of military force of the time was probably the 1999 Kosovo intervention, which subsequently colored discussions on how to best govern humanitarian intervention, and for finding ways for it to be undertaken in the event that the UN Security Council fails to act. (9) Because of the urgency of getting states to act against perpetrators of gross human rights violations, much of the discourse on humanitarian intervention after Kosovo but before 9/11 became such that Security Council authorization was seen as less important, and mixed motives in armed intervention were deemed permissible (and according to others, motives were even discounted). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.