Humanitarian Intervention Revisited

By Smith, Michael J. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Humanitarian Intervention Revisited


Smith, Michael J., Harvard International Review


Is There a Universal Policy?

By the time we have come to the point of discussing intervention of one kind or another, we are on the edge of failure. The situation has become desperate. Identification, prevention, and deterrence have failed, and we are on the edge of the abyss of genocide--indeed the horror may already have begun. Events have overtaken foreign office contingency plans, diplomatic consultations, Security Council meetings; people are in danger. At this point, we (and who, exactly, constitutes "we" is a point to which I shall return) face a stark choice: acquiescence or action. As ethnic violence rips through the postCold War world, the international community, individual states, and the array of non-governmental organizations will face choices like this. Do we intervene, if necessary with military force, or do we continue to temporize and rationalize our collective inaction?

Most recently, the grim situations in Kosovo and Rwanda provide concrete reminders that the topic concerns real people struggling to survive in desperate situations of conflict. But much about preventing genocide is complex, difficult, and controversial--all the more reason, of course, to keep in mind our central purpose of preventing genocide by whatever means possible. The danger is to turn the imperative of a "creative breakthrough" in world politics into a pious wish expressed by those who live in the safety of a rich and stable state.

Agreeing on Language

The difficulties begin even with language. One may well question how easily one can join the terms "just" and "humanitarian" to the militaristic notion of intervention, redolent as it is of Marines, gunboat diplomacy, or, say, the Vietnam War. That war produced a feast of Orwellian obfuscation: brutal removal and resettlement of villagers became "forced draft urbanization," civilians were bombed and killed if they failed to leave "free-fire zones," and, most famously, the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 was more politely called an "incursion." Given Orwell's injunction about clear language--that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity"--and with respect to those with misgivings about the militarized notion of the term, I think justice and lucidity require us to insist on the blunt term of "intervention." Why? Because all too often, more than "humanitarian action" or some form of "peacekeeping" is required. The NATO bombing of Serb positions in Sarajevo in 1995 can only with difficulty be called an "in tercession"; yet I would argue that this military action ("intervention" in plain language) was essential for creating the conditions for the Dayton Peace Accord.

Traditional international law defines "intervention" as "forcible interference in the domestic affairs" of another state. As I have argued elsewhere, it makes most sense to think of intervention as involving a spectrum of possible actions, ranging from mild diplomatic protest to military invasion, even occupation. When we consider forcible action for the purpose of preventing genocide, we may need to do more (or less) than separate presumed combatants. As in Sarajevo, we may need to bomb the positions of one party in an effort not so much to "win" as to change the calculations of one set of actors, to raise the cost of continuing on the path of genocide. We may need to "intercede" with a peacekeeping force until a political settlement is negotiated; but more than this, we may need to monitor procedures and/or establish institutions that follow from negotiation. As in Cambodia, we may need to stay and supervise elections; as in both Bosnia and Rwanda, we may need to establish an International War Crimes Tribu nal. In short, "just humanitarian intervention" can include a whole range of actions occurring over an indeterminate period of time.

There is another difficulty of language: the very meaning and implications of the term "genocide" itself. Because the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide directs its signatories to take action "appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide," states are often reluctant to employ the term even when undertakings that plainly amount to "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group" are occurring. …

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