Humanitarian Intervention Is a Cloak for Military Aggression

Despite the disastrous outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporters of US-led military intervention still claim war can be a humanitarian project. It can't.

US Navy personnel unloads supplies from a Navy helicopter at the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq, 2003. (Bob Houlihan / US Navy / Getty Images)

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” came to the fore as a justification for US-led military adventures in the Balkans and the Middle East. A number of recent events have revived our memory of those debates, from the ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan, just as the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was approaching, to the deaths of leading Bush administration officials such as Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.

For many people, the disastrous outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan will be enough to discredit the idea of humanitarian intervention. But past experience suggests that the justification it offers for military action is too useful to be discarded by the United States and its allies. Such arguments may well be used in support for future wars. We still need to address and refute the case for “humanitarian” warfare on its own terms.

Balancing Rights

It is now generally accepted that all humans possess a basic set of rights, deriving from their status as moral beings who are owed such rights. In this respect, we must now see human rights as a trans-historical and transnational phenomenon, although they are a product of modern history.

Since nation-states are historically contingent phenomena, the rights of nations, such as the right to national self-determination, cannot in principle override such universal rights. We do have an obligation to intervene across national boundaries to promote human rights.

As a normative attitude or set of principles to guide our action, this much is not really in dispute. It allows for all kinds of external initiatives — diplomatic, cultural, humanitarian, etc. — to correct wrongs and to promote justice.

However, the real point of disagreement does not concern the legitimacy or morality of intervention when it assumes such forms. The question is whether we can justify forcible military intervention from outside the country in question to prevent human rights violations.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the greatest single act of global political emancipation was decolonization. This established the formal principle of equality between all nations, and therefore of the right to national self-determination or national sovereignty as the supreme legal principle of the international political order.

This was and remains a crucial form of protection for the weaker and newly emerging countries in relation to the more powerful ones, in law if not always in practice. The tenets of international law in this respect constitute a major gain for global peace, security, and justice — particularly Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, which declares national sovereignty to be the supreme legal principle, and which is formally accepted by all UN member states.

Upholding Sovereignty

We can identify three broad positions on the issue of external military intervention in the name of human rights. The first position comes from those who would defend the existing framework of international law against such interventions.

They argue that it is naïve and wrong to believe that powerful states are motivated to intervene elsewhere for humanitarian reasons, and that the principle of humanitarian intervention by military means will never be applied consistently by the major world powers. Moreover, there is no agreed consensus among states about what the principles that could justify such interventions might be.

From this perspective, the level of order and justice currently provided in the world system by upholding the principle of nonintervention is much better than the disorder and injustice that would result if we were to accept periodic violations of that principle in the name of human rights. We must therefore not extend the two exceptions already provided for in the UN Charter when it comes to the use of force.

These exceptions can be found in Article 2(4) and in Article 51 of Chapter VII. The former concerns the right of a country to self-defense against the official armed forces of another country or countries. The right to self-defense can only be invoked against an actual attack or against a threat that must pass a certain “threshold of gravity” — in other words, it must be imminent or inevitable, not merely possible or probable. The doctrine of “preventive war” deployed by the United States or Israel in support of their use of force is not legitimate.

The second exception requires the authorization of the UN Security Council to militarily rectify a “breach” of international peace as a “last resort” measure. Such authorization will only be forthcoming if is there no veto by one of the Security Council’s five permanent members (the United States, the UK, France, China, and Russia).

This exception would allow the so-called P5, if they agreed with one another, to manipulate the other, non-permanent members into endorsing unjustifiable forms of military action. However, it remains a legal barrier to frequent military intervention with the UN’s sanction. If we made the defense of human rights into the basis for another exception, this would ensure more abuses in its name.

Advocates of Intervention

Supporters of some or all of the US-led military interventions since the end of the Cold War have put forward the second position. They argue that such interventions in the name of human rights are morally justified, even if they are currently in violation of international law. From this standpoint, the promotion of human rights is at least as important as international peace and security, if not more so.

Advocates of this position prefer to cite Articles 1(3), 55 and 56 of the UN Charter on human rights, claiming that these sections are more important than Article 2(4). All three articles, which refer to the promotion and defense of human rights “without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion,” nevertheless present this as a task to be performed within the framework of accepting “national sovereignty” and cooperation among nations. However, the supporters of humanitarian intervention claim that morality must trump legality in particular cases if moral considerations require the use of force to end slaughter.

They also present the motivations of would-be interveners as a less important factor than the outcome of the action they take. If the intervention ends human rights violations, that is what matters most. Since there are both short-term and long-term outcomes, the first can be cited to justify external military intervention to end a crisis, while the second can be cited to justify regime change and a long-running occupation.

Michael Walzer, one prominent liberal advocate of humanitarian intervention, coined the term “justice in endings.” According to this principle, even if an intervention was unjustified in the first place — for example, the invasion of Iraq, which Walzer initially opposed — the intervening power can still be justified in staying on as an occupier in order to bring about democracy. The judgement of how long the occupation must continue will rest, of course, with the intervener.

The Agency of the Oppressed

There is a third position that should be held by those on the Left, whether they are revolutionary socialists or simply genuine progressives. While this position is closer to the first than the second, it does allow in principle for military intervention in the name of human rights.

Such interventions can only be justified under very specific conditions, which by their nature are extremely rare. This position offers little comfort to those who would advocate support for imperialist actions by the United States or other powers, great or small, in the name of democracy.

This third position bases itself on the normative principle of respecting the freedom of peoples. It is morally and not just legally founded. This perspective recognizes the fact that we live in a world where different peoples are constituted as different nations. It therefore insists that we must respect the right of peoples to overthrow their own tyrants.

We can oppose oppressive regimes from the outside in many different ways and offer material support to those fighting them, including arms supplies. However, that does not mean we would be justified in carrying out an external military intervention to overthrow such regimes.

In brief, we are not entitled to substitute ourselves for the oppressed peoples in question, for to do so would be to deny them their agency — the freedom to fight against their own tyrant. They have a right to claim our support, but we must respect them as the primary agent of their own future. It follows that we would not have supported an external military invasion to overthrow the Shah of Iran, the apartheid regime in South Africa, or British rule over one of its colonies.

Two Qualifications

In normative terms, there are only two qualifications to this principle. Firstly, if one side in a civil war calls for and receives external military help, the other side may be entitled to do the same. This happened, for example, in Angola in 1975.

A left-wing nationalist guerrilla force, the MPLA (Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which had been the leading force in the struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, came to power after decolonization. It faced opposition from a rival force, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), which had support from the United States and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

UNITA invited South African troops to intervene on its behalf in order to overthrow the MPLA government. At the MPLA’s request, the Cuban government sent its own soldiers to support the Angolan government against the South African invasion force, which was decisively defeated. Cuba also sent reinforcements to Angola in 1987–88 to repel a major offensive by the apartheid regime.

The second qualification is even more important. If we must respect the right of a people to overthrow their own tyrant, this presumes that the people in question can, in the first place, continue to exist. If their very existence as a people is at stake, then military intervention can be justified, regardless of what the intervener’s motives may be. However, mass expulsion does not qualify as a justification, since a people in exile retain their agency to struggle for justice.

Defining Genocide

Here one must be careful. Advocates of humanitarian intervention have repeatedly invoked the need to prevent “genocide” in support of particular wars. This raises the question of what constitutes genocide.

Unfortunately, the definition provided by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is of no help to us: “acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” But how “substantial” must the part of the population killed or threatened be to determine that mass atrocities have become a case of genocide?

If the very existence of a people is the criterion, then clearly the killing must be of a scale that is significant in proportion to the overall population. Of course, there is a grey area here. In the face of an ongoing massacre, when should one call for intervention?

There is no foolproof standard for making such a judgement call. However, this emphasis on proportionality would at least rule out a host of interventions that were rationalized in the name of preventing genocide yet were in fact unjustified, and which served to advance the economic or geopolitical interests of the invading force.

In 1999, for example, a US-led NATO coalition, backed by much of the Western media, claimed that the regime of Slobodan Milošević was carrying out a genocide against Kosovar Albanians. At that point, however, Serbian-Yugoslav forces had killed an estimated 1,500 to 2,100 people in the region, which could not be said to constitute genocide.

In the same period, the Turkish state, which remained a member of NATO in good standing, was responsible for violence of equivalent scale against its Kurdish population. There was no talk in Western capitals of air strikes to prevent “genocide,” or even a freeze on arms sales to Turkey.

East Timor, Rwanda, Cambodia

In the last half century, there have been just three occasions when the scale of a massacre meant that we could say the entire existence of a people was at stake. Tellingly, in none of these cases was there any question of the United States and its allies launching a humanitarian intervention. Indeed, those states refused to make much more limited steps to halt the violence.

From 1975 onward, East Timor was occupied by Indonesian forces and the just struggle of its people for national liberation faced murderous repression, which killed one-third of the total population (more than three hundred thousand people out of a total of around eight hundred thousand). The US government had given Suharto’s Indonesian regime an explicit go-ahead for the invasion and continued to support it to the hilt, as did Britain and Australia. There was no intervention to save the East Timorese, who finally won their independence only after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

A second example was Rwanda in 1994, when the Hutu-supremacist regime massacred a majority of the Tutsi people. Before the massacres, Tutsis were about 14 percent of Rwanda’s 7 million population, with the Hutu majority constituting 85 percent. It is estimated that at least four hundred thousand Tutsis were killed — probably considerably more than that. Once again, neither the United States nor any European power had any interest in intervening to prevent this slaughter. Rwanda, unlike the Balkans, had no strategic-political value for the West.

The head of the UN peacekeeping force, Canadian officer Roméo Dallaire, desperately called for reinforcements, insisting that an additional five thousand UN troops could put a stop to the ongoing massacres. But his plea fell on deaf ears: when France eventually sent a military force to Rwanda, it was in an attempt to prop up the genocidal regime, which was now facing defeat on the battlefield at the hands of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Finally, there is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia at the end of 1978, which put an end to the execrable Pol Pot regime that had killed at least a fifth of the Cambodian population. The Vietnamese leaders did not claim to be intervening for humanitarian reasons: they presented the invasion as an act of self-defense after repeated acts of military aggression by the Khmer Rouge, which had the support of China.

Whatever the motives behind the Vietnamese action, it produced an outcome devoutly to be wished for. For political and strategic reasons, both the Chinese and the US governments bitterly opposed the ouster of the Khmer Rouge. They continued to support the remnants of Pol Pot’s army, both politically and militarily, from their positions in Thailand.

Notoriously, the United States even voted at the United Nations to recognize Pol Pot’s ambassador as the legitimate representative of the Cambodian people. The Reagan administration channeled weapons to the Khmer Rouge throughout the 1980s, aiming to punish Vietnam for its victory in 1975.

By the standard embodied in this third position, all of the US military interventions since the 1990s were unjustified. Ideally, there could be a genuinely impartial international force that was not beholden to any major power, capable of intervening to maintain international peace and security.

Many people have hoped that such a force be established under the auspices of the UN.

But we should not confuse wishes for reality. We are very far from seeing a force like that materialize, and even if it did, the conditions under which it could intervene militarily would have to remain strict. In the meantime, we must not allow US empire-builders and their supporters to use the idea of humanitarian intervention in order to cloak themselves in the garb of moral rectitude and integrity.