The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Humanitarian Intervention

November 29, 2011

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Joshua Goldstein and I make the case that humanitarian interventions, as part of a broader set of civilian protection mechanisms, are contributing to a reduction in mass atrocity events.

To some extent, widespread skepticism is understandable: past failures have been more newsworthy than successes, and foreign interventions inevitably face steep challenges. Yet such skepticism is unwarranted. Despite the early setbacks in Libya, NATO’s success in protecting civilians and helping rebel forces remove a corrupt leader there has become more the rule of humanitarian intervention than the exception. As Libya and the international community prepare for the post-Qaddafi transition, it is important to examine the big picture of humanitarian intervention — and the big picture is decidedly positive. Over the last 20 years, the international community has grown increasingly adept at using military force to stop or prevent mass atrocities.

The doctrine has become integrated into a growing tool kit of conflict management strategies that includes today’s more robust peacekeeping operations and increasingly effective international criminal justice mechanisms. Collectively, these strategies have helped foster an era of declining armed conflict, with wars occurring less frequently and producing far fewer civilian casualties than in previous periods.

The article is juxtaposed with a thoughtful piece by Ben Valentino. Although our articles are set up as a debate, I absolutely agree with him that there are far more cost effective ways to protect civilians with early prevention efforts.

The argument Joshua and I make about humanitarian intervention is about what needs to be done when those preventive efforts have failed and when we face an imminent threat to civilians. I am firmly committed to the idea that external military intervention cannot be taken lightly and should only be used as a last resort. Pillars one and two of R2P focus on the state’s responsibility to protect its own civilians and on the international community’s responsibility to help states do so. It is only if those efforts fail, that pillar three comes into play with the pledge that the international community is prepared to take action. (Parenthetically, it is all three pillars that constitute R2P — there is no way the UN General Assembly would have unanimously supported paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document if this was simply an intervention doctrine).

Even under pillar 3, however, the obligation is for the international community to respond with a wide range of instruments of statecraft prior to considering military intervention. In Libya, UNSC Res. 1970 was an effort to forestall a mass atrocity event without military intervention. As I argued in earlier posts, when that effort failed, and an attack on Benghazi was imminent, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force in UNSC Res. 1973.

Many still contend that it is too early to tell if Libya was a “success” of intervention because there may be difficulties to come. I agree that many challenges still exist. I have just finished co-editing a book with Patrice McMahon titled The International Community and Statebuilding: Getting Its Act Together that will be published in David Chandler’s Series on Intervention and Statebuilding from Routledge early next spring. The volume build’s on an earlier piece that I co-authored with Patricewritings on Bosnia on the long-term difficulties of consolidation post-conflict stability and peace.

Yet, as Joshua and I argue in the current article, the broader point is that mass atrocity events have been averted during recent interventions — something that has not happened in cases where the international community has hesitated, acted feebly, or failed to act:

Contrary to the claims that interventions prolong civil wars and lead to greater humanitarian suffering and civilian casualties, the most violent and protracted cases in recent history—Somalia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bosnia before Srebrenica, and Darfur—have been cases in which the international community was unwilling either to intervene or to sustain a commitment with credible force.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.