Experts debate humanitarian intervention

OTTAWA — As political violence rages on in Syria, many commentators have called for a humanitarian intervention.

The concept of humanitarian intervention is controversial, with many criticizing and defending it in both theory and practice.

Professor Thomas G. Weiss, director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies in New York City, recently wrote a book about the policy.

Speaking in a telephone interview from Germany, he defined a humanitarian intervention as “the use of military force against the express wishes of the government or political authority to enforce an international norm.”

Interventions are often seen as one way of implementing the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Lloyd Axworthy, who was Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1996 – 2000, helped craft the concept of human security, upon which R2P is based. Human security puts the rights of individual citizens above those of governments.

“Sovereignty becomes more of an earned right than an inherited right,” Axworthy explains.

“It’s a way of adapting or adjusting our traditional notions of sovereignty to take into account a different standard of behaviour for nations, governments, [and] people that elevates the idea of protecting civilians from undo violence and other risks […] that reach such a stage of intensity that they violate basic human rights principles.”

Daryl Copeland, who was a Canadian diplomat from 1981 – 2009, says humanitarian interventions are easier to support in theory than in practice.

“In principle, when you’ve got a large-scale violation of human rights, it’s not very difficult to conclude that something has got to be done. The question is what.”

Copeland, who thinks military force should always be a last resort, says interventions don’t always make a crisis better, and can even make it worse.

“Even under dire humanitarian circumstances, intervention isn’t always possible or desirable,” he says. “It seems to me based on our experience over the last couple of decades, that they stand a reasonable chance of making matters worse rather than better.”

The very concept of humanitarian intervention has also been the subject of criticism.

“There is a certain tension just in the two words,” Copeland says. “You’ve got two things that don’t really sit very comfortably side by side. If you just say the words human security bombing, it sounds very strange to me.”

Prominent American political critic Noam Chomsky is also sceptical of the concept. He believes the policy is simply a way for Western powers to pursue their own interests, similar to past policies of colonization.

“Just about every use of force is described in exalted, humanitarian terms.”

He says the term came into popular use shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Until then, every intervention, every act of aggression, always had a reflexive justification – you had to stop the Communists. Okay, 1989. No more Soviet Union, so you need some other framework to carry out the same actions, and intellectuals came along with the concept of humanitarian intervention.”

Professor Weiss says the use of force is often justified to stop a humanitarian crisis.

“There are problems with using military force, but there are also problems with not using military force.”

Lloyd Axworthy agrees that armed interventions can cause problems, but believes in many cases they’re still warranted.

“Sometimes it’s not very pretty,” he says. “[But] I still think the principle of providing fundamental protection to civilians against their own governments, or warlords, or whatever the other depredation may be, has to be held out as the first principle.”

Axworthy and Weiss both point to what they call successful interventions in the past, such as Kosovo and Libya, but both these operations have been criticized.

Chomsky wrote a book very critical of the intervention in Kosovo.

“Kosovo was the jewel in the crown, the perfect humanitarian intervention, except that it was condemned by that part of the world we don’t pay attention to, the global south.”

Daryl Copeland says the intervention in Kosovo went too far, caused too many civilian deaths, and was illegal according to international law because it wasn’t sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.

“I was working in Foreign Affairs at the time, and there was a certain amount of incredulity that we were bombing Belgrade based on some kind of an interpretation of the human security doctrine that we’d been promoting.”

Copeland also says the intervening powers in Libya went too far.

“They very clearly exceeded the Security Council resolutions, went far beyond measures required to prevent a possible massacre in Benghazi and got into full-scale regime-change mode and ended up basically taking sides in what effectively turned out to be a civil war.”

Axworthy agrees there was mission creep in Libya, but says it was warranted because of Gadhafi’s use of mercenaries and heavy artillery.

“Gadhafi’s government was hell bent on destroying [civilians] and you really had to ratchet up the response.”

He says it’s better to make an imperfect decision than none at all.

“If you get too wound up in all the possibilities that might happen, worrying that if you put your bets on the wrong horses and you’re not sure if they’re going to turn out to be Christian pure democrats or not, then you’re not going to do anything.”

Dr. Gerald Caplan, who is a columnist and expert on genocide and African studies, says countries will only intervene if it’s in their self-interest, which it’s often not. As a result, many disasters are ignored, such as past crises in Rwanda and Sudan.

“Every one of the five members of the Security Council had an interest in not intervening [in Rwanda and Sudan].”

Professor Stephen Saideman, who teaches international relations at Carleton University, says governments need some degree of self-interest to justify the costs of deploying their military forces.

“You’re just not going to get countries to spend large amounts of money and raise lots of political risks by endangering their own troops without some self-interest employed.”

Professor Weiss agrees.

“I think the humanitarian motivation has to be the dominant one, but it would be a little naïve to think that’s the only reason states do anything.”

Chomsky says Western powers have no interest in intervening in Syria, and are using the Russian Security Council veto as an excuse to do nothing.

“They don’t care about Russian vetoes. They do what they like. They’re appealing to the Russian veto because they don’t want to do anything.”

Axworthy says there needs to be an intervention in Syria, and that it should have already happened much earlier.

“Eventually there’s going to have to be some international intervention in Syria because if Assad goes, the place is just going to break into factions,” he says. “I think the line was really crossed when the Syrian Air Force started bombing civilians, which I think is pretty intolerable.”

He says at the very least they should establish a no-fly zone.

Stephen Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, isn’t so sure.

“Our own organization has always been very sceptical of the use of armed force,” Staples says. “Right now, nothing is telling me that we should start sending CF-18s to Syria.”

One thing most commentators can agree on is that preventing violence before it happens is the most desirable outcome.

“I think there have actually been a number of successful interventions,” says Saideman. “We just don’t really notice them, because we only notice when the guns are going off, and a successful intervention’s when the guns aren’t going off.”


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