The Enforcement of
Humanitarian Norms and the
Politics of Ambivalence
Edward C. Luck
Few questions have been posed more sharply or debated more heatedly within the United Nations in recent years than that of economic or military intervention to enforce humanitarian norms. In a series of speeches and reports beginning in mid-1998, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly and forcefully reminded member states of the moral, legal, and human consequences of failing to act in the face of mass atrocities in places like Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Sierra Leone. As he warned the General Assembly in September 1999, the tragedy of Kosovo “revealed the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights—wherever they may take place—should not be allowed to stand. ” 1 While the Secretary-General succeeded admirably in focusing intergovernmental attention on the humanitarian challenge, the subsequent debate demonstrated how deeply divided the member states remain on how principles of national sovereignty and humanitarian need should be reconciled. 2 The ambivalence of member states can be seen not only in debates about competing principles but also, more graphically, in their hesitancy to respond even to massive violations of humanitarian norms with effective economic or military enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In this chapter I address some of the reasons why such ambivalence should be expected from individual countries and why the UN's political culture itself emits mixed messages on this score. I then suggest some ways to address these doubts and uncertainties.
The international military responses to repression in Kosovo and East Timor in 1999 encouraged some observers to announce the arrival not only of a new doctrine but also of a new era of humanitarian intervention. 3 Sounding