Not since the debate about the Kosovo War of 1999 has there been such widespread discussion of humanitarian intervention, including the semantics of coupling ‘humanitarian’ with the word ‘intervention.’ At one extreme of this debate about language stands Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, who is a staunch advocate of displacing the discourse on ‘humanitarian intervention’ by relying on concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (known as R2P). Evans was, in fact, co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that came up a decade ago with the idea of R2P. This approach to intervention was skilfully marketed it to the international community, including the United Nations. Arguing the conceptual case for R2P, Evans writes, “[b]y changing the focus from the ‘right’ to ‘responsibility,’ and from ‘intervene’ to ‘protect,’ by making clear that there needed to be at much attention paid to prevention as to reaction and non-coercive measures, and by emphasising that military coercion—which needed to be mandated by the UN Security Council—was an absolute last resort in civilian protection cases.’ [Evans, “Humanitarian intervention is only justified when…” Global Brief, Summer 2011, 60.]
Insisting that the coercive actions in the Ivory Coast and Libya show the benefits of this approach, as contrasted with the supposed failures of the 1990s to take action in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Evans feels so vindicated by recent events as to make the following plea: “So let us please lay ‘humanitarian intervention’ language to rest once and for all.” This raises three questions: should we? will we? does it really matter? My answer to the first two is ‘no,’ and to the third, ‘not much.’ My basic problem with the R2P approach is that it downplays the role of geopolitics in the diplomacy of both decisions to intervene and to not intervene. By hiding this fundamental element in the decision process behind a screen of moralising language talking of R2P rather than humanitarian intervention invites misunderstanding, as well as encourages imperial ambitions.
At the other semantic extreme is Michael Walzer, who writing in Foreign Affairs, insists that the idea of humanitarianism has become a central feature of world politics in the early 21st century. He starts his article with some hyperbolic language to this effect: “Humanitarianism is probably the most important ‘ism’ in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and general distrust of large-scale ideologies.” [“On Humanitarianism,” Foreign Affairs 90(No.4): 69-80.] I find such a sentiment to be so exaggerated as to defy reasoned discussion. One wonders has how such an incredible sentence escaped the scrutiny of the eagle-eyed editors of Foreign Affairs. Walzer appears to be suggesting that humanitarianism now eclipses realism and nationalism as an influential global force in the world of ideas and statecraft, which is not only farfetched and wrong, but especially surprising considering that Walzer is without question one of the world’s most respected and influential thinkers on the ethical dimensions of relations among sovereign states. His overall effort in the article is to demonstrate that this humanitarian impulse is a matter of duty for governments, and should not be treated as a species of charity, a potentially valuable distinction that becomes clear when he comes to discuss humanitarian intervention without even mentioning the R2P approach, presumably because it obscures rather than illuminates the underlying issues of choice.
Walzer looks behind the semantics of intervention to appraise the responses to situations where populations are genuinely at risk. He faults the UN Security Council as having a dismal record in the past due to its failures “to rescue those in need of rescuing,” giving Rwanda and Bosnia as examples. Walzer goes on to conclude that the “UN Security Council rarely acts effectively in crises, not only because of the veto power of its leading members but also because its members do not a strong sense of responsibility for global security, for the survival of minority peoples, for public health and environmental safety, or for general well-being. They pursue their own national interests while the world burns.”  This passage sounds to me like an old-fashioned reaffirmation, after all, of realism and nationalism, and is far more descriptively credible than Walzer’s assertion that humanitarianism is the recently emergent dominant ideology.
Coming to specifics, Walzer understandably turns his attention to Libya as having generated a new debate about humanitarian intervention. He summarily dismisses leftist suspicions about Western recourse to hard power solutions to international conflict situations, but also acknowledges that this NATO intervention does not seem to be succeeding in making good on its initial humanitarian claim. Nevertheless, he gives the intervenors a surprising clean bill of health as far as their intentions are concerned: “Their motives were and are humanitarian, but not sufficiently shaped by considerations of prudence and justice.”  Walzer is alive to the complexity of international political life that makes him skeptical about endorsing generalised solutions to such general problems as what to do about a menaced civilian population. Instead he advocates a situational approach to gross civilian vulnerability. He argues that any state can serve as a humanitarian agent even without necessarily receiving permission from the international community for a use of non-defensive force. In Walzer’s words, “[t]here is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent.” He gives approval to several non-Western examples of humanitarian intervention: Vietnam in 1978 contra the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, India in 1971 contra Pakistan in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, and Tanzania in 1979 contra the bloody tyranny of Idi Amin in Uganda. These uses of force are endorsed as serving humanitarian ends even though they failed to receive any mandate to act from the Security Council and although in each instance, despite rescuing a vulnerable population, the predominant motivation to intervene seemed clearly non-humanitarian in character. In contrast, Walzer pushing to the outer limit his central thesis as to the rise of humanitarian diplomacy writes “In these circumstances, decisions about intervention and aid will often have to be made unilaterally…The governing principle is, Whoever can, should,”  which is the second extraordinary statement made in his article.
Such a volitional framework governing interventionary initiatives negates, without even an explanatory comment, the essential effort of contemporary international law to prohibit all international uses of force that are neither instances of self-defense (as defined by the UN Charter in Article 51) nor authorized by the UN Security Council. In this respect, Walzer seems to be endorsing a kind of ethical anarchism as the best available means for achieving global justice in these situations. At this point he veers back to his confidence in the purity of geopolitical motives by contending that ‘what drives’ these uses of force “is not only humanitarian benevolence but also a strong sense of what justice requires.”  This is written as if imperial ambitions even if packaged as ‘grand strategy’ should not be a concern. What about the protection of vulnerable states that are victimized by geopolitical maneuvers associated with resources, markets, and congenial ideology? It might be well to recall that it was a notorious tactic of Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy to intervene or threaten to do so for the sake of protecting German minorities being allegedly abused in neighboring countries.Returning to a comparison of perspectives, Evans sets forth a series of guidelines that he believes will make it more likely that uses of force in these interventionary settings will be respectful of international law while at the same time recognising the sensitivities in the post-colonial world about giving approval to military encroachments upon sovereign space, which are invariably of a North/South character if acted upon by the United Nations, that is, the North as agent of intervention, the South as the site where force is used. His five criteria are law-oriented, and deferential to the authority vested in the Security Council: (1) seriousness of the risk; (2) purposeful and discriminate use of force to end threat of harm; (3) force as a last resort; (4) proportionality of military means authorised with respect to the humanitarian goals of the mission; (5) the likely benefit of the contemplated use of force for those being protected.
Since Evans, unlike Walzer’s willingness to live with unilateralism, seeks a consensual foundation for such uses of force, he insists that the final mandate for an R2P operation must be shaped within the five-part framework set forth and based on a formal Security Council authorisation. Walzer argues more opportunistically, geopolitically naively, that states should be empowered to act even without proper authorisation if they have the will and means to do so. His examples of humanitarian interventions by non-Western states (Vietnam, India, Tanzania) were all neighbours of the target state, and at the time contested to varying degrees due to the play of geopolitical forces, not as a reflection of different levels of humanitarian urgency. In this regard, the strongest humanitarian argument was undoubtedly present in support of the Vietnam intervention in Cambodia to stop a massive genocide, but also the most controversial as it contravened the American policy at the time of placating China so as to increase pressure on the Soviet Union. Acting under the umbrella of R2P is most likely to generate intense controversy when the United States acts with or without European backing (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya), especially if the humanitarian claim seems marginal or as a cloak hiding strategic and imperial goals. Only in the Libyan debate did R2P figure prominently, and maybe led several of the members of the Security Council, including China and Russia, to abstain rather than to vote against SC Resolution that gave NATO the green light to commence its military campaign.
In this sense, Evans’ claims need to be taken seriously, but not because they represent a step forward, but rather because they weaken the overall effort of the UN and international law to minimize war and military options in international political life.
What makes these discussions serious is their bearing on life and death issues for vulnerable peoples and their supposed benefactors. On the one side, Noam Chomsky is right to worry about ‘military humanism,’ which he depicts as the grand strategy of hegemonic political actors being cleverly disguised as global public works projects. In effect, humanitarianism is the pathetic fig leaf selected to hide the emperor’s nudity. Chomsky points to ‘double standards’ as proof positive that whatever the explanation given for a particular intervention by the United States or NATO, the claimed humanitarian motivation is window dressing, and not the primary consideration. He treats Western silence about decades of brutal Turkish suppression of the Kurdish movement for human rights as an illuminating example of geopolitical blinkering whenever it seems inconvenient to take action on behalf of a victimised minority. In my view, the most extreme instance of double standards involves the failure of the UN System or ‘a coalition of the willing’ to take any action protective of the Palestinian population enduring an oppressive occupation for more than forty-four years, despite the direct UN and colonialist responsibility for the Palestinian ordeal.
On the other side of this debate among progressives is Mary Kaldor who worries that without the intervention option dreadful atrocities would take place with even greater frequency. She supported intervention to protect the endangered Albanian population of Kosovo, fearing that otherwise the genocidal horrors of Bosnia would likely have been repeated, including even the risk of reenacting the grisly massacre of Srebrenica. At the same time, Kaldor was not indifferent to the risks of great power abuse, and tried, in the manner of Gareth Evan, to condition her endorsement of intervention with a framework of guidelines that if followed would make the restraints of international humanitarian law applicable and minimize the exploitative opportunities of intervening powers. This framework was embodied in the report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo on which Kaldor was an influential member. That report also took account of the inability of the intervenors to win UN Security Council approval (in this instance, because of the expectation of Russian and Chinese vetoes). The report took the position that in situations of imminent humanitarian catastrophe it would be legitimate to intervene if the capabilities were available to exercise effective proportionate force, although unlawful given the UN Charter prohibition on all non-defensive claims to use force. It is, of course, not generally desirable to create exceptions to restraints that enjoy the status of fundamental rules of international law, but it can seem even more discrediting for the role of law in world affairs to be paralyzed in humanitarian emergencies by rigid rules and procedures that produce inaction, and expose vulnerable peoples to the ultimate abuse of genocide or severe crimes against humanity.
There is no right and wrong in such a debate. Both orientations are in touch with relevant realities, and there is no principled way to choose between such contradictory concerns beyond an assessment of risks, costs, and likely effects of intervention or inaction in each instance depending on its overall properties. Judgment here is necessarily operating in a domain of radical uncertainty, that is, nobody knows! This raises the crucial question, what to do when nobody knows? It is this unavoidable responsibility for a decision when the consequences are great and available knowledge is of only limited help that points to the difficulties of the human condition even putting to one side the distorting effects of greed, ambition, ciVilizational bias, and the manoeuvres of geopolitics. The late great French philosophical presence, Jacque Derrida, explored this dilemma in many discourses that related freedom to responsibility, with some collateral damage to Enlightenment confidence in the role of reason in human affairs. For Derrida, making such decisions is an unavoidable ordeal that is embedded in what it means to be human, combining helplessness with urgency.
I would suggest two lines of response. First, there are degrees of uncertainty, making some decisions more prudent and principled, although inevitably with the unclear contours with respect to envisioning outcomes given ‘the fog of war.’ In this regard everything is guesswork when it comes to composing a balance sheet of horrors. Still, it seems plausible to insist that Rwanda in 1994 was a lost opportunity spare many lives taken in a genocidal onslaught, a claim strengthened now and later by the preexisting presence of a UN peacekeeping force in the country, and the informed judgment of both the UN commander on the ground and many observers. General Roméo Dallaire indicated at the start of the crisis that 5,000 additional troops plus a protective mandate to act from the UN could have prevented most of the killings, estimated to be over 800,000. (Dallaire commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda; see also Linda Malvern, Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, Verso, 1994.). From the perspective of prudence, the fate of minorities trapped in major states is almost always an unattractive option, although non-military initiatives of support and censure may have positive effects in some instances. It is unattractive because the costs would be high, the target state has major capabilities, the scale of an effective intervention would exceed the political will to protect a threatened minority, and most important, there would be a high risk of starting a general war.
The Libyan intervention in 2011 was falsely labeled and the mission authorised was light years away from the operational goals of the NATO operation. In effect, this amounts to a disguised form of an unlawful use of force, but coupled with a dereliction of duty on the part of the Security Council to ensure that the gap between its mandate and the actual operation was closed. Besides, those who are being protected, or more accurately, being helped in a struggle for control of the country, were a shadowy organisation thrown together on the spot, lacking in cohesion, and almost from the outset having recourse to violence in a manner that violated the spirit and character of the inspiring Arab Spring popular movements in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, there was a humanitarian challenge, as the dictatorial leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, was delivering bloody rants and the civilian population, under siege in Benghazi, was definitely in a situation of imminent risk. Under these circumstances, a carefully delineated protective move under UN auspices could have been justified, but it would have depended on placing NATO troops in situations of potential danger. The kind of air campaign that has been waged by inflating and exceeding the actual UN mandate depicted in Security Council Resolution 1973 has been discrediting for UN peacekeeping and authority. It has been ineffectual in stopping the violence in Libya, and likely responsible for its spread. At the same time, so far the intervention has resulted in not a single NATO casualty (while causing a rather large number of Libyan civilian deaths). Whether the stalemate in the conflict will produce a negotiated compromise remains uncertain, but the shaping and execution of the intervention is suggestive of the inadequacy of either allowing the decisions and policies relating to humanitarian catastrophe to be made by governments on the basis of their own calculus or through reliance on a UN framework that is susceptible to major geopolitical manipulation.
There is a preferable, although imperfect, alternative that has been around for several years: the establishment of a UN Emergency Peace Force (UNEPF) capable of being activated through the joint authority of the Secretary-General and a super-majority of two-thirds of the membership of the UN Security Council in reaction to either a humanitarian catastrophe arising from political policies or conflict, or a natural disaster that exceeds the response capabilities of the national government. The UNEPF should ideally be funded through some kind of small global tax imposed on the sale of luxury goods, international travel, currency transactions in financial markets, or some combination. If this proves to be impractical, then voluntary contributions by non-permanent members of the UN Security Council would be acceptable. The whole idea would be, to the extent possible, to break the present links between ‘humanitarian interventions’ and geopolitics. The only means to do this would be through the creation of a maximally independent international agency for such undertakings that would engender confidence in its good faith and through its prudent tactics and effective operations. Unlike such delegated interventions as the Gulf War of 1991, the Kosovo War of 1999, and the Libyan War of 2011, UNEPF would rely on tactics that were geared toward minimizing risks for a threatened population and would operate under the strict supervision of the mandating authorities while carrying out an interventionary or relief mission. UNEPF capabilities would be constructed from the ground up, with separate recruitment, training, doctrine, and command structure.
This seems like such a sensible innovation for the benefit of humanity that it may seem puzzling why it has never gained significant political support from UN members, but it should not be. For decades global reformers have been advocating a UN tax (often named a ‘Tobin Tax’ after James Tobin, an Nobel economist who first floated such a proposal) and the kind of UNEPF recommended above (for instance, carefully outlined in a proposal developed by Robert Johansen in collaboration with other scholars, a prominent political scientist who has for years been associated with the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at Notre Dame). Such a practical solution to this daunting challenge is not on the table because it would weaken the leverage of geopolitical actors over the resolution of conflict situations. Reverting to the earlier discussion of Walzer, it is precisely because humanitarianism is marginal to the conduct of world politics that makes the UNEPF proposal seem utopian. In relation to Evans, geopolitical forces can accommodate his framework, which is probably well-intended, but provides intervening states with a rationalisation for their desired uses of force without significantly interfering with the discretion to intervene and not to intervene. As the Libyan debate and decision confirms, geopolitics remains in control despite recourse to the framing of action by reference to R2P. If we want more principled and effective action in the future, it will require a great deal of pressure from global civil society in collaboration with middle powers, the sort of coalition that led to the surprising establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 over the opposition of such international stalwarts as the United States, China, Russia, and India.
Richard A. Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.