The Checkered History of Humanitarian Intervention

The impending US strike on Syria is justified as necessary to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons on its citizens and prevent it from further employing them. The situation, says Washington, calls for “humanitarian intervention.”


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The following essay was published over two years ago in Foreign Policy in Focus (Aug 9, 2011). Written in the context of the NATO intervention in Libya that ousted Muammar Gaddafi and led to this death, the essay essentially deals with the same issues that confronts the international community as the US prepares for a unilateral attack on Syria.

Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring ten months ago, our hearts have gone out to citizens seeking to bring down corrupt dictatorships that are a plague on their people. In Tunisia and Egypt, the people rose and deposed dictators on their own. Armed supporters of the Mubarak regime did attack and even fire on people in Tahrir Square, but a massive crackdown was avoided when the military decided not to take the side of the dictator. Things have not been so simple since then. Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi came down hard on civilian protesters, providing the opportunity for the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to intervene militarily by waging an air war and arming the rebels. Today, massive repression by the Assad dictatorship to subjugate cities and towns in Syria that have risen in revolt against it has also sparked agitation for intervention in the West.

The issue has thus been posed: is it ever legitimate to supersede the principle of national sovereignty with a military intervention aimed at protecting citizens from their government? And if the answer is yes, what circumstances would justify this course of action and how should it be carried out?

Circumscribing National Sovereignty

Ever since the Peace of Westphalia that ended Europe’s wars of religion in 1648, the principle of the inviolability of the sovereignty of the nation-state has evolved to become the bedrock principle of international relations. Under the so-called Westphalian system, the nation-state emerged as the basic unit of international relations, sovereign unto itself and expected to respect the sovereignty of others, be these ruled by people or princes. If one state’s sovereignty was violated by another state, then it had the right to self-defense. If protection of one’s sovereignty necessitated assistance, then one had the right to invoke the support of other states to bring about the status quo ante even if that meant invading and punishing the aggressor state. Systems of collective security, like the United Nations, emerged to serve as the vehicles to govern the relations and application of the interrelated principles of national sovereignty, self-defense, and collective security. In recent years, the principle of national sovereignty has been limited from another quarter, from the expansion of the doctrine human rights. Ever since the tragic events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, there have been efforts to further circumscribe the principle of sovereignty to justify foreign state intervention when genocidal events or massive violations of human rights are taking place within a country. This enterprise has produced the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” or “armed humanitarian intervention.”

While the new doctrine has been acclaimed in the North, it has provoked controversy in the South, where states have only relatively recently acquired independence from colonial occupation by waving the banner of national sovereignty, where some nations, like the Palestinians, are still in the process of throwing off the yoke of foreign occupiers. Recent interventions, such as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya illustrate, in the view of many in the South, the perils of a course of action that may begin with good intentions on the part of those calling for it, but end up with detrimental consequences for the sovereignty of nations, the integrity of national territory, and the maintenance of regional and global peace and security.

Contrary to a common perception in the North, few in the South would argue that respect for a country’s national sovereignty is absolute. Intervention, however, in the view of many, including myself, can only be sanctioned if genocide is taking place in a country and if measures are taken to ensure that great power logic does not displace the original humanitarian intent.

Kosovo: How Great Power Logic Overwhelmed Humanitarian Intent

The NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, undertaken to protect Albanians in Kosovo, has been called a classic case of humanitarian intervention. But rather than be emulated, the Kosovo military intervention many say, is one the world cannot afford to repeat for the following reasons:

First of all, it was said to be in response to genocide, but most credible sources now say there was no genocide. There might have been murders, human rights violations, population displacement, but there was no genocide. The headline of an exhaustive investigation that appeared in the Wall Street Journal said it all: “War in Kosovo Was Cruel, Bitter, Savage; Genocide It Wasn’t.”

Second, it contributed mightily to the erosion of the credibility of the United Nations, when the US, knowing it would not get approval for intervention from the Security Council, used the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the legal cover for the war. NATO, in turn, was a fig-leaf for a war 95 per cent of which was carried out by US forces.

Third, the humanitarian rationale was undoubtedly the purpose of some of its advocates, but the operation eventually mainly advanced Washington's geopolitical designs. The lasting result of the Kosovo air war was not a stable and secure network of Balkan states but NATO expansion. That is not surprising, since eventually that was what the air war was mainly about. Slobodan Milosevic's moves in both the earlier Bosnian crisis and in Kosovo, according to Andrew Bacevich, "called into question the relevance of NATO and, by extension, US claims to leadership in Europe." (Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: the Reality and Consequences of US Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 163.)

If it did not successfully manage Slobodan Milosevic, the US could not have supported its drive for NATO expansion. For the Clinton administration, such expansion would fill the security vacuum in Eastern Europe and institutionalize US leadership in post-Soviet Europe. In Washington's view, according to one analyst:

NATO enlargement would provide an institutional framework to lock in domestic transitions under way in Eastern and Central Europe. The prospect of alliance membership would itself be an 'incentive' for these countries to pursue domestic reforms. Subsequent integration into the alliance was predicted to lock in those institutional reforms. Membership would entail a wide array of organizational adaptations, such as standardization of military procedures, steps toward interoperability with NATO forces, and joint planning and training. By enmeshing new members in the wider alliance institutions and participation in its operations, NATO would reduce their ability to revert to the old ways and reinforce the liberalization of transitional governments. As one NATO official remarked: ‘We're enmeshing them in the NATO culture, both politically and militarily, so they begin to think like us-and over time-act like us.’" (G. John Ikenberry, "Multilateralism and US Grand Strategy," in Stewart Patrick and Shepard Foreman, eds, Multilateralism and US Foreign Policy (Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 2002), pp. 134-135)

A major aspect of the politics of NATO expansion was securing the Western European states continuing military dependence on the United States, so that the European governments' failure to follow through on an independent European initiative in the Balkans was quickly taken advantage of by Washington via the NATO air war against Serbia to prove the geopolitical point that European security was not possible without the American guarantee.

Fourth, the air war soon triggered what it was ostensibly meant to end: an increase in human rights violations and violations of international treaties. The bombing provoked the Serbs in Kosovo to accelerate their murder and displacement of Albanian Kosovars. Indeed, most of the violations took place after the bombing began and apparently in response to it, making the NATO action virtually an incitement to Serb violence, as Noam Chomsky put it. while doing "considerable indirect damage" to the people of Serbia through the targeting of electrical grids, bridges, and water facilities--acts that violated Article 14 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention, which prohibits attacks on "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population."

Finally, Kosovo provided a strong precedent for future violations of the principle of national sovereignty. The cavalier way in which the liberal Clinton administration justified setting aside national sovereignty by reference to allegedly "overriding" humanitarian concerns became part of the moral and legal armament that would be deployed by people of a different party, the Republicans, in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the right-wing thinker Philip Bobbitt saw it, the Clinton administration's actions in Kosovo served as "precedents" that limited the rights of sovereignty of non-democratic regimes, "including the inherent right to seek whatever weapons a regime may choose." (

Afghanistan: How Humanitarian Intervention Created a Worse Situation

When the invasion of Afghanistan took place in 2001, there was relatively little opposition in the North to the US move to oust the Taliban government. Washington took advantage of sympathy for the US generated by the Sept. 11 events and the image of the Taliban government sheltering Al Qaeda to eliminate negotiations with the Taliban as an option and invaded Afghanistan, using Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which sanctioned retaliation in self defense, with little protest from European countries. But to strengthen its position, the Bush administration not only used the rationale of crushing the threat to the US coming from Al Quaeda. It also painted its move into Afghanistan as a necessary act of humanitarian intervention to depose the repressive Taliban government--one that was justified by the precedent of Kosovo. Invoking the humanitarian rationale, states belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization like Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands also eventually sent armed contingents.

Like the Kosovo air campaign, Afghanistan soon showed the pitfalls of humanitarian intervention.

First, great power logic soon took over. Hunting for Bin Laden yielded to the imperative of establishing and consolidating a US military presence in Southwest Asia that would allow strategic control of both the oil-rich Middle East and energy-rich Central Asia. Moreover, Afghanistan was seized on by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as what one analyst described as "a laboratory to prove his theory about the ability of small numbers of ground troops, coupled with air power, to win decisive battles." The Afghanistan invasion's main function, it turned out, was to demonstrate that the Powell Doctrine's dictum about the need for a massive commitment of troops to an intervention was obsolete-a view that skeptics had to be persuaded to accept before they could be convinced to take on what emerged as the Bush administration's strategic objective: the invasion of Iraq.

Second, the campaign soon ended up doing what its promoters said they would eliminate: the terrorizing of the civilian population. US bombing could not, in many cases, distinguish military from civilian targets-not surprising since the Taliban enjoyed significant popular support in many parts of the country. The result was a high level of civilian casualties; one estimate, by Marc Herrold, placed the figure of civilian deaths at between 3,125 and 3,620, from Oct. 7, 2001 to July 31, 2002. According to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, 9579 civilians were killed in the conflict between 2006 and 2010. (

Third, the campaign ended up creating a political and humanitarian situation that was, in many respects, worse than that under the Taliban.

One of the fundamental functions of a government is to provide a minimum of order and security. The Taliban, for all their retrograde practices in other areas, were able to give Afghanistan its first secure political regime in over 30 years. In contrast, the regime of foreign occupation that succeeded them failed this test miserably. According to a report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "security has actually deteriorated since the beginning of the reconstruction in December 2001, particularly over the summer and fall of 2003." So bad is basic physical security for ordinary people that one third of the country has been declared off limits to United Nations staff and most NGO's have pulled their people from most parts of the country. The Washington-installed government of Hamid Karzai does not exercise much authority outside Kabul and one or two other cities, prompting then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to state that "without functional state institutions to serve the basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority and legitimacy of the new government will be short-lived."

Worse, Afghanistan has become a narco-state. The Taliban were able to significantly reduce poppy production. Since they were ousted in 2001, poppy production has gone up 40 times and 20 times additional land has been brought under poppy cultivation. ( Many of Afghanistan’s top officials and legislators have been involved in the heroin trade, the most prominent of these being the brother of President Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was head of Kandahar’s Provincial Council until he was assassinated a few months ago. (

Can one really honestly claim that this life is an improvement over Taliban rule? Many Afghans would say no, saying that at least the Taliban were able to provide one thing: basic physical security. Now, this argument may not cut any ice with upper and middle class people in the North that live in safe suburbs or gated communities. But talk to poor people anywhere, and they put great value on ridding their shantytown communities of criminals and drug dealers.

Iraq: Humanitarian Intervention Perverted

One cannot dissociate the US expedition in Iraq, now widely accepted as a brazen imperial venture, from the precedents created by humanitarian intervention in the Balkans and Afghanistan. While the main rationale for the invasion of Iraq by the United States was Saddam’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), an important supporting rationale was regime change for humanitarian reasons. When it became clear that there were in fact no WMDs, the Bush administration retroactively justified its intervention on humanitarian grounds: getting rid of a repressive dictatorship and imposing democratic rule.

The rest is history: Iraq today is a base for US geopolitical control of the oil-rich Middle East; a state propped up by US military power, its oil resources and its wealth geared primarily to serve the West; a drastically weakened polity threatened by the centrifugal forces of ethnic and sectarian conflict; a society where secular values and the status of women have been eroded by fundamentalism and a high level of physical insecurity exists owing to rampant crime and terrorism criminals and terrorists. As for economic conditions, per capita output and living standards are well below their pre-invasion levels and the population lives in a state of chronic insecurity, with 55 percent of Iraqis lacking access to safe water, one million people lacking food security, 6.4 million dependent on food rations from the public distribution system, and 18 per cent of the work force unemployed. (

This is the deplorable state to which humanitarian intervention has reduced what used to be one of the most advanced countries of the Middle East in terms of human development indicators.

Libya: the Folly of Preemptive Humanitarian Intervention

The Libyan case will perhaps go down as one of the worst abuses of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. At first, the events there unfolded pretty much like those in Egypt, with the popular uprising seemingly on the way to deposing a corrupt dictatorship. But the dictator, his military forces, and his social base held on, and fought back with military power, inflicting civilian casualties and undoubtedly committing human rights violations in the process. At that point, the situation degenerated internally into a civil war. Repeat: Gaddafi was no isolated dictator; he had a base; this was a civil war.

Outside Libya, defectors from the Gaddafi regime managed to get the United Nations Security Council to obtain a resolution to impose a no fly zone over much of Libya, which the United States, England, France and NATO immediately leaped to impose to the consternation of Germany, China, Russia and other countries that abstained from the Security Council resolution.

The Libyan intervention will be remembered as one that was not based on actual genocide, indeed not even on potential genocide but on a rhetorical threat of revenge that went viral in the media. In his March 11 speech, Gaddafi urged his supporters to "show no mercy" and go "house to house" in Benghazi, which US President Barack Obama seized on to warn that genocide was about to take place. In fact, many commentators have noted, Gaddafi’s words were directed at rebel fighters, not civilians, and in the very same speech, he promised amnesty to those “who throw their weapons away.”

Indeed, after NATO went to war, human rights investigators from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found no evidence of genocide, deliberate targeting of civilians, aircraft or anti-aircraft guns being used on protestors and crowds, or mass rape. ( This is not to say that there were no instances of brutal actions by Khadafy’s troops. It is simply to point out that there was no evidence for the genocide and massive and systematic violations of human rights that formed the pretext for intervention. What we had was a series of interviews and images that was being subliminally projected by CNN as genocide.

The second thing that the Libyan intervention will be remembered for is how quickly the rationale of establishing a no-fly zone was supplanted by the objective of regime change, with NATO aircraft carrying out offensive operations against the government’s tanks and infantry and targeting Khadafy’s suspected hiding places in Tripoli, killing, among others, one of his sons. The struggle between Khadafy and the NATO-led rebels degenerated into a war of attrition, bringing about a worse situation for civilians than that which prevailed before the intervention in terms of people killed and wounded, buildings and roads being destroyed, and economic suffering. In the end, it was the offensive use of NATO airpower against Khadafy forces in Tripoli and later Sirte, not the rebel forces on the ground, that broke the stalemate and defeated Gaddafi.

Before NATO intervened, a victorious Libyan domestic uprising, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, was possible, though these would have had its twists and turns. After NATO came in, the Libyan process became one of an external force aggressively imposing one of the factions in a civil war on the country.

Summing up a Sordid History

The sorry record of contemporary humanitarian intervention shows that it must not be deployed except under very, very exceptional circumstances for the following reasons:

First, great power logic soon overwhelms the humanitarian rationale for intervention;

Second, humanitarian military intervention often creates a worse situation than that which existed;

Third, humanitarian intervention sets a very dangerous precedent that is used to justify future violations of the principle of national sovereignty. One cannot but conclude from the historical record that NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict helped provide the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the justifications for both interventions in turn were employed to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and the NATO war in Libya.

This is not to say that governments may not resort to actions to pressure a regime to end repression of its citizens. Cutting off military exports that allow a regime to repress its people are totally legitimate, as are economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts to denounce and politically isolate a repressive regime. But there is a big difference between these moves and invading a sovereign country or bombing its government, military forces, and government supporters to achieve regime change.

The Exception

In the exceptional circumstance that there must be military intervention owing to genocide being carried out by a government, the sorry record of interventions underlines that the process must be carried out with extreme care. In the view of many policymakers and analysts in the South, all or most of the following conditions must be present:

First, systematic violations of human rights are deplorable, but for intervention to be justified, it must be genocide that is taking place, and the evidence for it must be substantial—certainly, in the Libyan case, not simply on a speech promising revenge or a fantastic rumor reported by the western media that a regime has chartered a ship to ferry Viagra to be supplied to troops so they could commit mass rape!

Second, the intervention must be carried out as a last resort, after all efforts at stopping the genocide by diplomacy, military export bans, and economic sanctions have failed.

Third, the intervention must be legitimized by the General Assembly of the United Nations, and not by the Western-dominated Security Council.

Fourth, military units belonging to hegemonic powers must not be allowed to participate in the intervention. Fifth, the expeditionary force must aim only at stopping the genocide, withdraw once the situation has stabilized, and must refrain from sponsoring and propping up an alternative government and engaging “nation-building.”

With these guidelines, very few humanitarian interventions have qualified as being either justified or carried out properly in the last 30 years. In the author’s judgment, there are perhaps only two: the Vietnamese invasion to remove the blood-thirsty Khmer Rouge from power in 1978 (though this lacked UN sanction) and the UN-led multinational force INTERFET that ended the genocidal killings and deportations of Timorese by Indonesian-backed militias in 1999.

Perhaps there is no better way to sum up the tragic odyssey of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention than by invoking the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

photo by Isaac Alvares Brugada

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