2011 and the Future of Humanitarian Interventions

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2011 and the Future of Humanitarian Interventions

The topic of international humanitarian military interventions has occupied increasing attention in the discussions on international security over the past two decades. Much of this is attributable to many of the gruesome civil wars featuring ethnic cleansing and genocide witnessed during the 1990s; events that warranted international intervention.

Much of the discussion on the topic, however, has highlighted the challenges of intervention. An attitude of intervention-pessimism has predominated. Several reasons, such as the problem of international collective action, lack of domestic support, questions over legality, and confusions over goals and extent of the occupation, are cited to explain the problem. In the U.S., Somalia where in 1993 17 U.S. soldiers died after intense fighting with a Somali militia — events eternalized in the movie Black Hawk Down, has been repeatedly invoked to warn against intervention in foreign conflicts.

This year has seen two cases of international intervention: a major multinational NATO intervention in Libya and the French engagement in Cote d’Ivoire. These occurrences beg the question – are we beginning to overcome some of the problems traditionally associated with international humanitarian interventions? And do these cases better the prospects of future interventions in places that are desperately in need?

In looking to discuss the longer-term picture, it is helpful to first consider another question: in which cases do we typically see intervention? In the Kosovo war of 1999, as Serbian forces killed thousands of Albanians, NATO intervened on behalf of the former and bombed Yugoslavia, pushing its army out of Kosovo. In thick contract, just four years prior to this conflict, within three months, almost 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda in one of the worst genocides of our time. No intervention took place then, however. Astoundingly, the same Clinton administration that pushed for intervention in Kosovo, arguing that the murder of Albanians was of genocidal proportions, declined to even accept that what was underway in Rwanda was genocide till much later.

Moreover, since 2003 another civil conflict-turned-genocide has been taking place in Darfur, Sudan. Roughly 400,000 people may have now been killed in the genocide that features the Janjaweed, a militia of Sudanese Arabs with the backing of the Sudanese government, fighting non-Arab Sudanese of the region. Yet, no international intervention, such as that in Kosovo, has occurred. Similarly, a civil war, described by Howard French as “one of the most destructive wars in modern history,” has raged in the Congo since 1998. The death toll stands at an appalling figure of over five million. The conflict, however, gets almost no coverage in the West, let alone talk of intervention. On the other hand, NATO has intervened in a major way in Libya, carrying out almost daily bombing raids in an effort to help Libyan rebels topple the tyrannical government of Muammar Qaddafi. While the current administration has made at least no public statements advocating involvement in Darfur, Cote d’Ivoire or Congo, President Obama justified U.S. involvement in Libya through the heavy rhetoric of moral responsibility, proclaiming, “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

So why do Libya and Kosovo get international interventions when Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo are left alone? A deeper look reveals that the reason for selectivity may lie in the fact that in addition to facing humanitarian catastrophes, countries where interventions take place also happen to be important for geo-strategic or economic purposes for the intervening states. Whereas the plight of the Albanians was an essential factor in pushing for NATO bombings, as others have highlighted, preserving stability in the Balkan regions, containing Slobodan Milosevic’s power and reach, protecting NATO’s credibility and fostering its relevance were all essential factors that contributed to military engagement. Similarly, Libya has the 9th largest proven reserves of oil in the world, more than Nigeria, and also produces over 1.7m barrels of oil per day. As The Economist discussed in a recent posting, European nations happen to be the largest consumers of Libyan oil giving them a large stake in the political outcomes in that country. The current unrest in the Arab world is all the more a reason to safeguard these oil interests.

The only example that stands in opposition to this is the recent French intervention in Cote d’Ivoire. Following its 2010 presidential elections, the Ivory Coast fell into political turmoil that turned into an armed civil conflict between the forces of incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and president-elect Allasane Ouattara.  In April, France finally intervened, carrying out the UN resolution recognizing Ouattara as the legitimate president, and its forces helped Ouattara’s forces gain victory and arrest Gbagbo.

So where does this leave the prospects for international humanitarian interventions? Whereas 2011 features a mixed record, larger historical patterns oblige one to argue that countries where interventions are needed most will continue to face neglect, unless they are valued for strategic purposes. Thus, this year’s experiences will not necessarily become precedents and influence more interventionism in the future. Problems traditionally seen as impeding intervention, such as collective action, seeking domestic support, et cetera, will continue to persist in cases where the target country has nothing to offer in return for absorbing the financial and military resources of the intervening nations.

Nevertheless, two factors leave room for some optimism. First, the French intervention in the Ivory Coast shows that decisive military engagement in the early stages of a conflict can provide a quick victory and impede larger human catastrophe. Advocates of intervention can make the case that acting early can help contain the violence and instability and avoid having to make larger military commitments.

Second, altering the concept of intervention might brighten its prospects. As recent policy research has also argued, it is important to expand the definition of intervention. Intervention should be seen on a continuum where military intervention should be undertaken only after a host of other forms of diplomatic, civil-society and non-military methods of intervention have been utilized. Moreover, again the value of early action has to be realized. For example, a report on genocide prevention by the U.S. Institute of Peace argues for the creation of early-warning systems. A plan that utilizes various tactics chosen strategically based on the situation at hand might decrease the barriers to intervention.

Whereas 2011’s interventions will probably not bring a change of heart in world capitals, it has the potential to spark a conceptual reformation, one that can possibly positively impact the prospects for genuine international humanitarian interventions in the future.

Shehzad H. Qazi is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Founder of the Council on Strategic and International Affairs.

This article was originally published by SA Global Affairs.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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