Conceptually, humanitarian intervention is a rather beautiful thing. State sovereignty had been seen as absolute for 350 years, but then the universal human rights  regime emerged and the idea took hold that a state’s responsibility to defend its people trumped its right to territorial sovereignty. When a state massacres its people rather than protecting them, the human family, working through broadly legitimate international institutions, would intervene, militarily if need be, to spare the vulnerable. This has become known as the “responsibility to protect,” and you can read all about it here (PDF).

As one who believes in this principle, I can’t say that I “oppose” the no-fly zone established over Libya. The country offers a rather clear-cut example of a despotic government poised to massacre thousands of its own, and here is the international community responding forcefully to spare their lives. Perhaps it will be a text-book example of the “responsibility to protect” in action.

I imagine that most of those who “oppose” the action would like nothing more than to have their skepticism be proven to be unfounded.

At the same time, there is every reason to be deeply cynical about the prospects of success. Because while the principlesunderlying humanitarian intervention are well developed, the institutions charged with implementing them are certainly not.

For those of us who have long argued to develop those institutions more fully, this no-fly zone creates distinctly mixed feelings. Under the circumstances, doing nothing would not only be profoundly irresponsible, it would also violate our core belief in the imperative of respecting essential human rights. Yet, having studied our history, we also know that the potential for unintended consequences — for a bad situation to be turned into something worse — are real, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, or due to wishful thinking.

Books have been written about the challenges of humanitarian intervention, but here’s a very quick-and-dirty summary of three of the most daunting.

1) Mission creep

wrote yesterday that limited interventions — with promises that the goals will be limited and, in the case of no-fly zones and naval embargoes, that no ground troops will be deployed — are like a “gateway drug” leading all-too-easily to expanded conflict. This is an institutional reality — the Security Council states are now invested in this conflict, but there is no reason to be confident Gaddhafi’s regime will fall quickly. As the saying goes: “in for a penny, in for a pound” — having entered the conflict, the temptation to escalate our involvement — to add “regime change” and “state-building” to the agenda — is going to be difficult for the Security Council to resist.

You can go through the history of multilateral interventions — from Korea through Somalia (but not really in Rwanda!) — and what you’ll find in virtually every case is not a single Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, but a series of them authorizing ever-greater military involvement in the conflict. This reality cannot be ignored.

2) Insufficient resources

If the mission creeps — or, if it drags on — then history also suggests that we’re likely to end up with the worst of both worlds: a broad mandate coupled with insufficient resources to do the job right.

This is almost always the case in the UN system, which has no independent source of funding and must rely on the dues and pledges of its member states to undertake any action. It’s the same whether you want to talk about humanitarian intervention or relief from famine, drought or natural disaster. At the beginning, with shocking footage of rebel forces being massacred, children starving or tsunamis hitting the beach flashing across the world’s TV screens, it’s easy to commit all kinds of resources to help. But these actions are costly, and those resources have to be authorized by domestic legislatures. And it’s not just the money at stake — national governments also have to deal with all manner of domestic and international political calculations.

In the case of military interventions, under-funding can lead to disastrous results, with the most obvious example being the horrific failure of UNAMIR leading up to and during the Rwanda Genocide.

3) Politicization

Finally, the nature of the UN decision-making process itself is a huge challenge to these kinds of interventions being viewed as legitimate. Central to the “responsibility to protect” concept is that it is based on an imperative to uphold certain basic human rights, and not on international political (or economic) considerations. So the entire venture rests on the decision of when and where to intervene being made in some relatively apolitical fashion. In the real world, of course, given that the power of the Security Council, and thus the entire United Nations system, rests in the hands of the 5 permanent, veto-wielding members — the most powerful states, each with its own internal and external politics to manage — this is impossible to achieve.

That an intervention be widely perceived as legitimate is not just some abstract academic issue. Combatants are far less likely to engage in the political process that must always accompany such actions if they view them as prettied-up acts of neo-colonialism or cover for other, more powerful states’ agendas.

So, again, many who oppose — or are at least skeptical of humanitarian intervention — support it in theory, and have long argued for reforms that might address these issues.

Security Council reform — gradually phasing out the veto power enjoyed by “permanent 5,” or providing a mechanism to override a veto — has been a long-time goal of human rights activists. But, as you might imagine, the P-5 have fought it tooth-and-nail.

There have also long been calls for a dedicated and independent UN intervention force, which wouldn’t rest on the ad-hoc pledges of UN member states. Similarly, reformers have long argued that an independent funding mechanism for UN actions — both military and humanitarian — must be created through some variation of the “Lula Fund” or “Tobin tax.”

A final but important note: anyone who holds an idealized view of “clean” and “precise” modern warfare is simply deluded. As of this writing, there are reports of US cruise missiles being fired at targets in densely packed Tripoli, and French fighters engaging “regime tanks” on the ground. Despite being widely portrayed by the media as a UN air patrol designed to deny the regime’s forces the capacity to wipe out their enemies from above, Western powers are dropping munitions on Libya. Make no mistake: innocents will die. There will be “collateral damage” — it’s the nature of the game, and that can’t be ignored.

Rather than “opposing the no-fly zone,” I find myself deeply conflicted. Hopefully, it will work exactly as promised — lives will be spared, opposition forces will be emboldened and the Libyan regime will crumble under the pressure of international isolation. Hopefully, the skeptics among us will be proven wrong.

But it’s important to understand that the history of these adventures, no matter how well intentioned, doesn’t provide much cause for optimism. And one doesn’t have to be an “isolationist” to see that.

Tagged with:
About the Author

Joshua Holland

I write for AlterNet. I've written a book, The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy, which I recommend. You might also consider following me on Twitter.

Comments are closed.

.tags { display: none; }

Switch to our mobile site