The idea of humanitarian intervention has long been attended with warnings that it will be abused by powerful states seeking to justify wars fought not for humanitarian purposes but for self-interest. The problem of abuse has received renewed attention over the last decade in the wake of perceived abuses of the idea of humanitarian intervention in the US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq (2003), Russia’s intervention in Georgia (2008), and NATO’s recent intervention in Libya (2011).
While I would reject the claim that the Libyan intervention represented self-interested abuse of humanitarian principles by Western states, there is no doubt that the problem of abuse is firmly back on the international agenda today. States that have stood in the way of stronger international action on Syria, for example, have repeatedly warned that draft Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime, if adopted, could be manipulated by states to justify an illegitimate military intervention to overthrow the regime. Today, as in the past, the problem of abuse has led some critics to reject the idea that military intervention should ever be considered a legitimate means of protecting populations from mass atrocities.
This short piece tries to outline a way through this problem of abuse. I consider three reasons that might be offered for why we should embrace the idea of military intervention for the protection of populations in spite of its persistent abuse. I reject the first reason as unsatisfactory but endorse the second and third.
First, one reason that has sometimes been suggested for why we should continue to embrace the idea of humanitarian intervention is that, when states offer humanitarian arguments to justify their interventions, their arguments restrain their actions. The idea goes that states do not want to be exposed as hypocrites, and so when they invoke humanitarian principles they will restrict their actions to those that can be legitimated as humanitarian. This is an appealing argument, but it is simply not satisfactory. Consider the invasions of Iraq and Georgia. The use of humanitarian arguments to justify these interventions may well have restrained the intervening states to some degree, but it in no way did it ensure that they satisfactorily strived for humanitarian outcomes. The failures of the US-led coalition to take sufficient action to protect Iraqi civilians from harm both during the course of the invasion and in its aftermath, for example, are well known. The notion that humanitarian arguments generate humanitarian actions will not do.
Second, a more promising reason for embracing the idea of humanitarian intervention despite its persistent abuse is that abuse can be labelled for what it is and rejected. The mere appeal to the idea of humanitarian intervention or the related idea of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) does not automatically legitimize an intervention. Rather, the misapplication of humanitarian arguments can be rejected and illegitimate interventions can be condemned. Russia’s attempt to justify its invasion of Georgia as a necessary response to genocide, for example, was widely condemned. The appeal to humanitarian arguments did not allow Russia to ‘get away with’ their illegitimate intervention any more than they would have had they not invoked these arguments. Certainly, Russia was not punished in any material sense for their illegitimate intervention, but neither would it have been if it had not invoked humanitarian ideas. The emergence of international consensus around R2P has seen the bounds of legitimate intervention become increasingly well-defined in recent years – it must be authorized by the Security Council and can only be undertaken in response to the failure of a state to protect its population from specific crimes that are well defined in international law. The ability of states to justify abusive interventions that fall outside of these bounds, therefore, is tightly circumscribed.
Third, a similarly persuasive reason for not rejecting the idea of humanitarian intervention despite its abuse is that it is doubtful that the idea facilitates abusive interventions that would otherwise not occur. One indicator supporting this claim is that the emergence of the right of humanitarian intervention since the end of the Cold War has not been accompanied by an increase in instances of war between states. Another indicator is that, in those recent instances where states have abused the idea of humanitarian intervention to justify interstate war, such as in Iraq and Georgia, it seems likely that they would have resorted to force even if humanitarian arguments were not available. Russia did not even attempt to gain Security Council authorization for its intervention in Georgia. It knew that its humanitarian arguments would be rejected by the society of states, and yet it went to war anyway. Likewise, the fact that humanitarian arguments featured only belatedly and secondarily in the case for war against Iraq made by the US-led coalition suggests that they would have likely waged the war even if there was no humanitarian norm that they could appeal to.
Of course, what I have said here offers little comfort to those who have been or will be subject to abusive intervention. Abusive intervention is obviously a terrible thing and my intention is not to try and reason the problem away. My point is simply that ideas cannot be blamed for everything. We should not reject good ideas simply because they can be abused. A strong argument can be made that humanitarian intervention is a good idea. It is preferable to an absolute principle of non-intervention in the face of mass atrocities. It is an idea that, when used legally and effectively, can save many lives. There surely comes a point, once we have sufficiently clarified the bounds of good ideas, where we must lay the blame for abuse not upon the ideas themselves but upon the states that abuse them.
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