Thursday, February 08, 2007

Again on Humanitarian Intervention

In a previous post, I discussed what could be learned about humanitarian intervention from three such interventions not involving the United States. This post will discuss the International Crisis Group's guidelines for humanitarian intervention and see how well they apply in these three cases.

The International Crisis Group proposes five guidelines to determine whether humanitarian intervention is justified:

1) Just Cause: Is there serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur [such as mass killing or ethnic cleansing, but not "mere" oppression on a lesser scale]?

(2) Right Intention: is the primary purpose of the proposed military action to halt or avert human suffering, whatever other motives may be in play?

(3) Last Resort: has every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures will not succeed? [There may not be time to actually try non-military options, but there must be reasonable grounds to believe such measures would fail].

(4) Proportional Means: is the scale, duration and intensity of the planned military action the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective?

(5)Reasonable Prospects: is there a reasonable chance of the military action being successful in meeting the threat in question, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction?

How well do the three non-US interventions meet these guidelines:


1. Was there "serious and irreparable harm" occuring on such a scale as to justify military intervention? Yes, there was a savage war with one to three million people killed and 12 million driven from their homes.

2. Was India's primary motive humanitarian? No, India's primary motive was to be freed of the burden of 12 million Bengali refugees fleeing the war.

3. Could non-military options be ruled out? A difficulty question, since the Pakistanis were fighting what amounted to a foreign war and had to be supplied by air. Could India have halted the war by stopping air traffic? Most likely such an action would have led to war anyhow.

4. Did India use the minimum necessary force? Yes. The Indian Army attacked with overwhelming force, which was necessary to defeat the Pakistanis quickly. They withdrew within a few months.

5. Was there a reasonable prospect of success? The intervention succeeded in ending a terrible war, so the answer must be yes.


1. Was there "serious and irreparable harm" occuring on such a scale as to justify military intervention? Yes, relative to population the Khmer Rouge was one of the bloodiest regimes ever.

2. Was Vietnam's primary motive humanitarian? No, Vietnam was responding to senseless border attacks by the Khmer Rouge.

3. Could non-military options be ruled out? It seems unlikely the Khmer Rouge would have responded to anything short of war.

4. Did Vietnam use the minimum necessary force? The initial scale of intervention was appropriate. The duration was clearly excessive, and Vietnam's quasi-colonial behavior probably prolonged the conflict.

5. Was there a reasonable prospect of success? The intervention ended the ghastly slaughter, even if a lower-level conflict continued, so the answer must be yes.


1. Was there "serious and irreparable harm" occuring on such a scale as to justify military intervention? A close call. Idi Amin was a bloodthirsty tyrant, and by some accounts as many as one Ugandan in 40 was killed during his reign. But there was not so grave a crisis as in the other cases.

2. Was Tanzania's primary motive humanitarian? More so than in the other cases, but the primary motive was retaliation for a Ugandan invasion of Tanzania.

3. Could non-military options be ruled out? Idi Amin could have been assasinated, but the harm he did Uganda would have remained.

4. Did Tanzania use the minimum necessary force? The initial scale of intervention was, if anything, inadequate to secure the country. But Tanzania's continued meddling and attempts to dominate may have contributed to the later breakdown in order.

5. Was there a reasonable prospect of success? This intervention must be accounted a failure, since it led to a civil war every bit as bloody as Amin's rule.


Considering, then, how the International Crisis Group's guidelines have applied to real world humanitarian interventions, are they sound rules?

1. "Serious and irreparable harm." This guideline is the most important. Humanitarian intervention is justified only under the threat of "serious and irreparable harm."

2. Right intentions. This one is more problematic. Self interest will always be the main reason nations go to war. In all three cases, the intervening country was acting primarily out of self-interest. Indeed, one can argue that intervenors whose interests are at stake are more likely to take their responsibilities seriously than ones acting out of purely humanitarian motives. It certainly is true that a false humanitarian concern should not be a mere excuse for a power grab. A better formulation would be that legitimate self-interest may be the primary motive, so long as humanitarian concerns are secondary and imperialist motives are absent.

3. Last resort. Certainly if non-military options will stop the killing, they are preferable. But usually the time to use them was well before the killing starts.

4. Minimum force. Humanitarian intervention is a labor-intensive business that involves securing the whole country and protecting the whole population. The problem is usually not excessive force, but insufficient resources to do the job (as in Uganda). However, this guideline is sound if it means that the intervenor should stick to human protection and not branch out into imperialism (as did Vietnam in Cambodia). A better guideline here would be that that the intervenor must be willing both to commit sufficient resources to offer adequate protection, and to limit their use to human protection.

5. Reasonable prospects. This guideline is the second most important after "serious and irreparable harm." Indeed, one could argue it is even more important. If a humanitarian intervention is unlikely to succeed, it is best not attempted. The question, of course, is how to know its prospects.



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