Intervene with Caution

Ian Williams

Three years ago, U. N. Secretary General Kofi Annan asked, “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?” It was a good question. A year ago the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty tried to answer Annan’s question. The commission’s report, “A Responsibility to Protect,” described intervention as self-evidently dangerous and susceptible to abuse, and went on to lay down strict “precautionary principles” to prevent perversion of the concept (see box).

Anticipating such dangerous precedents as Iraq, the Canadian report concludes:
Military intervention for human protection purposes is an exceptional and extraordinary measure. To be warranted, there must be serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur … large scale loss of life, [or] ethnic cleansing.
There were indeed grounds for such intervention in Iraq in the ’80s, but at that time the United States and United Kingdom were supporting the Iraqi regime.

In the recent Iraq war, by contrast, one of the worst misdeeds that George W. Bush committed, in collaboration with Tony Blair, was to bring humanitarian intervention into disrepute. By invoking Saddam Hussein’s tyranny as a pretext for attacking Iraq, as he did in his speech to the United Nations last September, the President reached fairly spectacular depths of hypocrisy, since it was his country, his party and indeed his father who had supported Saddam when he was perpetrating these crimes.


Sadly however, many so-called leftists have shown a similar lack of principle. Their answer to Annan’s question is to deny that Rwanda or Srebrenica happened, or to justify them, or, more chillingly, to argue that such atrocities are the price that has to be paid to maintain the principle of (U. S.) nonintervention. It is difficult to understand why any genuine socialist would defend, especially on principle, the inalienable sovereignty of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic, since that would have required them to defend the Argentinean and Chilean juntas, and, indeed, the Apartheid-era leaders of South Africa. Surely a left or internationalist response to events such as those in Rwanda, East Timor, or currently in the Congo should be to demand more timely intervention, not to deny the principle. However, the part of the political spectrum that used to preach proletarian internationalism and the impending demise of the bourgeois nation state is now all too often the most resolute defender of national sovereignty, no matter how objectionable the rulers of a country may be.

Today, Cuba preaches the doctrine of national sovereignty to cover its executions and its imprisonment of dissidents, but its practice in Africa and Latin America was somewhat different. Che Guevara was killed while engaged in some deeply serious interference in the internal affairs of Bolivia, for which he had Havana’s direct support.

There are indeed serious grounds to worry about the prospects of world peace if any nation were to claim an inalienable right to intervention. But until George W. Bush recently got dangerously close to espousing that concept, no one did. Even so, we should not let the President’s misappropriation of humanitarian intervention alienate the concept from its natural owners, the left.

Let’s consider the origins of humanitarian intervention. Historically, international law has been based upon the premise that what countries did to their own citizens, inside their own borders, was no one else’s business. And until very recently, if you were a head of state, you were deemed to have total impunity for any crimes committed in your name. On the face of it, this cannot be a good thing—unless you are a head of state with murderous tendencies.


Although the U.N. Charter is based upon the sovereign equality of member states and noninterference in each others’ affairs, U.N. resolutions against South African Apartheid back in the ’40s showed that members themselves thought there were some limits. And in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created at least moral obligations upon every member of the United Nations to respect human rights.

The first recent invocation of the concept of humanitarian intervention was the confused moves in the ’80s to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq. The Western allies, reluctantly dragged in by popular pressure following TV coverage of what the Baathists were doing, imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. At the time, according to the United Nations’ legal department, the only precedent they could find for “humanitarian intervention” was Adolf Hitler’s invocation of the plight of the Sudeten Germans as an excuse to attack Czechoslovakia.

Since then, humanitarian intervention has been driven largely by popular opinion. In the ’90s, the public began to clamor for political leaders to “do something” about Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor. In most of these cases, if politicians took any action, it was usually a reluctant and half-hearted response to the polls.

To those who complain that the Western powers have been too eager to intrude in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, I say there has not been enough intervention. Firmer action by the international community in Bosnia would have stopped ethnic cleansing affecting millions and prevented some 200,000 deaths in Bosnia. In 1994, the United States vetoed any attempt to reinforce U.N. troops in Rwanda, leaving 800,000 to die on the altars of national sovereignty and Western indifference. In the cases of Cyprus, Western Sahara, East Timor, and the Occupied Territories, the United Nations should have intervened more forcibly. In so doing it would merely have been acting to reverse occupations already condemned by the Security Council.

Like the Canadian Commission, most proponents of humanitarian intervention see it as a tool to be used only very sparingly, and then only with the strictest safeguards against abuse by the unscrupulous such as Bush. There are not that many situations where the perils of intervention outweigh the benefits; arguments about when and where to intervene should not be about absolutist (and often expedient) principles but about practical outcomes.

Ironically, some on the left, not content with letting atrocities happen in the name of non-interference, now also join with the far right in their suspicion of international courts and tribunals that threaten justice against the perpetrators. We hear that the international tribunals are “victor’s justice, ” or imperialist kangaroo courts. One just has to look at the eclectic group of defenders of Slobodan Milosevic, many of whom also saw the better side of Saddam Hussein when he fell out with the United States. To use one of their own classic formulations, “objectively” those who deny the applicability of international humanitarian laws are supporting impunity for Kissinger and Pinochet as well.

In the end, if they think about it, I’m sure that most readers of In These Times are happy that men like Ariel Sharon or Robert Mugabe now have to check with their lawyers before calling their travel agent. But they would be happier if their crimes were stopped at an earlier stage.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, now available from Nation Books.
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