At the beginning of the twentieth century, 85-90 per cent of casualties in war were military. By the late 1990s, the proportions of a hundred years ago had been almost exactly reversed, so that nowadays approximately 80 percent of all casualties in war are civilian. (Mary Kaldor)
The emergence of a number of international institutions after the Second World War, most notably the United Nations (UN), apparently failed to prevent crimes committed in the name of race, ethnicity and religion. One only has to remember the atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The risk of genocide and mass murder has not been eradicated. It is still imminent. So is the question of humanitarian interventionism. There is a moral duty to prevent innocent civilians from being killed en masse. Many of the crimes committed could have easily been prevented. The victims are the scare on the consciousness of the international community.
Against that background, it is apparent that too often amoral isolationism and political cowardice have won over principled humanitarian interventionism and radical elimination of barbarism. The international community has lacked a comprehensive approach and commitment to prevent and combat annihilationism. History has shown that militarism has in practice been conducted mostly by a single state or a coalition of countries. The lines between legality and illegality have often been blurred. A new discourse over the concept of humanitarian interventionism and the institutional framework in which it should take place is required to secure the protection of future generations.
The questions which thus need to be addressed are the following: Is the UNSC the legitimate forum to make decisions on war and peace or should this be the nation state? Who determines the practicality and legality of military action? Where are the pitfalls and how can they be overcome?
Authority and legitimacy can, in the end, ultimately only derive from the practical and not theoretical efficiency of the respective actors.
UN Policy in Practise
Rwanda and Darfur: Clinically Dead Nations
Has the international community been able in the past to coherently confront genocide, mass murder and other crimes against humanity? Modern history suggests otherwise. After the League of Nations failed in 1939, the UN was established in 1945 equipped with the foundational mission to restore and maintain long lasting security between countries. It was meant to play a vital role in the defence of elementary freedoms. The organisation was crowned the guardian of international peace. The UN, however, has fallen disgracefully short of these ideals and is at the heart of the ailing international system.
In 1994, the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century took place in Rwanda, when the country of just 8 million experienced the numerical equivalent of more than two World Trade Center attacks every single day for over 100 days.
Before the killings started, Kofi Annan, at the time head of the UN peacekeeping force, was informed by General Romeo Dallaire, the UN military commander in Rwanda, that high profile Hutu military commanders were planning to massacre the Tutsi minority. Annan made it absolutely clear at the stage that, under no circumstances, were UN peacekeepers to be allowed to intervene. When the massacre finally began, the UN took its sordid policy of non-intervention further, withdrawing its forces from Rwanda and leaving the Tutsis defenceless. Further intervention was rejected by the UNSC. The killing only came to an end when an armed group of Tutsis rebels from Uganda took control over the situation. The interference, however, came 100 days and over 800,000 souls too late. The action of the UN constituted a clear dereliction of duty under the Genocide Convention. The institution became a silent witness to genocide.
Rwanda was not the UN’s only pejorative policy failure. The same inefficiency and impotence became apparent during al-Baschir’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Christian minority of Southern Sudan in 2003 to 2004 which resulted in the death over 400,000 innocent people. Up to the present day, the UN refuses to call the atrocities in Darfur genocide. The Genocide Convention is only invoked (and consequently humanitarian intervention sanctioned) if a regime deliberately intends to eliminate a specific group of people and according to the UN, such intent was lacking in the case of Darfur. It took the institution more than four years to push sanctions through the Security Council and when it finally succeeded hardly anyone was left to protect.
It thus comes as no surprise that General Dallaire reflected upon the UN’s record in Africa with contempt when he told an international conference in 2004 that nothing had changed since Rwanda and he
believe(s) that if an organisation decided to wipe out the 320 mountain gorillas there would be still more of a reaction by the international community to curtail or to stop that than there would be still today in attempting to protect thousands of human beings being slaughtered in the same country
Bosnia and Kosovo: The UN’s Darkest Chapter
The institution’s record of failures in genocide prevention was mirrored once more in the Balkan war. After the demise of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, war broke out in Bosnia in 1992. Over 100,000 Bosnians were killed by Serb regular and irregular forces in an attempt to create an exclusively Serbian territory. The genocide reached its peak in the massacre at Srebrenica which became the symbol for the UN’s tragic incompetence and ignorance. Within days, between 7000-8000 Muslim men were eliminated. This was the worst, single atrocity on European soil since 1945.
Scandalously, those who were killed lived in a so called safe havens, areas which were supposed to be protected by UN peacekeeping troops. But the Dutch battalion lacked the resources as well as the political mandate and authority to prevent the massacre, since UNSC Resolution 836 only authorised the use of force so long as this counted as self defence. Thus, they stood by and watched as impotent hostages.
Milosevic was encouraged by the events in Bosnia and convinced any international alliance to stop him would crack even further. In 1999, his army invaded the province of Kosovo, killing over 10,000 men of military-age and expelling and additional 1.5 million Kosovars from their homes. Again, the UN did nothing to prevent the atrocities. Milosevic finally submitted and withdrew after a 78 day air operation by NATO. Its intervention however came belated and reluctant. The reason for that was that, at the time, NATO was still without UN authorisation and without the genocide convention being invoked. NATO only intervened after pressure from the United States and United Kingdom governments and threats to send ground troops into Kosovo. These would not have been restricted by the UN mandate REO, thus constituting a much more serious challenge to the Serbians.
It is worth noting that, when genocide was halted or prevented in recent years, it was because either a single government or coalition of states acted against the perpetrators. Whenever responsibility was left to the UN or when intervention was collectively agreed to be undesirable, genocide was facilitated. Governments thus play a vital role in the prevention of genocide and more importantly their leaders do.
For example, UK policy on the Balkans underwent a drastic change with the transition from the government of John Major to that of Tony Blair. The British government’s role evinced such hostility towards the Bosnian government that the Bosnians even considered filing a charge against Britain for assisting genocide in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary at the time, blocked all initiatives by other countries and international institutions which might have put an end to the fighting. Margaret Thatcher later remarked that Hurd made “Chamberlain look like a warmonger”.
When Labour took office in 1997, Blair completely reversed the approach of the British government, not only in the Balkans but also in Africa. In his Chicago speech of 1999, he introduced the Doctrine of the International Community, perhaps the single boldest attempt by a Western statesman to promote the idea of humanitarian interventionism. Blair argued that “acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter” and that the international community had “learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work”. He thus urged the US to “never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism”, saying “the world cannot afford it”, while at the same time promising to bolster European defence capabilities.
Importantly, his words were followed by actions, convincing the tentative Clinton to join Britain in preparing to send ground troops into Kosovo, and by sending UK forces into Sierra Leone, preventing another Rwanda, after the UN failed once more to protect the civilian population from Charles Taylor’s Liberian child militia.
Legality and Morality
The question of authority on the legality and morality of intervention is dependent upon the identity of the potentially intervening parties and is closely connected to the analysis of who decides where and when to intervene. The capability of the UN to determine questions of legality and morality is readily bought into question.
Comparing Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, provides illuminating examples. In the case of Iraq, UNSCR 1441 was unanimously adopted by the UNSC and called for “all necessary means” to bring Iraq back into compliance with previous UNSC Resolutions. This constituted the casus belli for military action. In case of Libya, UNSCR 1973 called for “all necessary measures” to prevent the possibility of mass killing by the Libyan government. This was passed with 10 votes for, five abstentions and none against. In case of Kosovo, no resolution was adopted at all. Overall, the legal case for intervention in Libya and Kosovo is less clear and coherent than for intervention in Iraq, however the legality of the Iraq war is continuously challenged in popular perception.
The capability of the UN to determine moral justification for intervention is equally brought into question by the dysfunctional nature of the UN as a decision-making body. In order to make the complexity of the issue more clear, we must take into account a question asked by a former British Labour Minister, after the UNSC Resolution on Libya:
Suppose China or Russia had vetoed resolution 1973, rather than abstained. Would that make military action that would otherwise be morally right, to avert explicitly threatened carnage, and supported by the Arab League, morally wrong?
While the outcome of intervention in Libya is yet undetermined, the Kosovo intervention demonstrably prevented the occurrence of a Bosnia-style genocide in Kosovo and was thus justified morally by the result. It is important to remember that this took place without authorisation from the UNSC and has been classified as an illegal action by international legal experts. In 2000, the Independent International Commission on Kosovo identified Russia’s “rigid commitment to veto any enforcement action” in the UNSC against the Serbian regime as the primary reason for “forcing NATO into unmandated action”.
Undemocratic Member States
The UN’s incapacity derives from several, fatal institutional flaws. The first results from the composition of UN membership, in particular undemocratic member states. In 1987, 60 per cent consisted of dictatorial regimes. In 1991, this proportion was 50 per cent. Still, the institution is far from being a predominantly democratic body. Freedom House’s World Democracy Index 2010 notes that only 46 per cent of countries in the world are free (89). 54 per cent are either just partly free (58) or not free at all (47). 192 of those nations are members of the UN (excluding “partly free” Abkhazia and the “not free” Palestinian territory).
As a result, the UN exists of a large proportion of undemocratic, even totalitarian, members which do not derive their legitimacy from their people’s mandate. Many of these states do not acknowledge the founding principles of the UN, some having appalling human rights legacies and some have committed genocide and mass murder. Russia and China are permanent members of the UNSC, yet have been guilty of a whole swath of violations of the institution’s ideals.
Questionable Voting System in the UNSC
The second fatal flaw is closely connected to the first. It can be identified as the voting procedure in the UNSC. As the individual perspectives of UN’s member states vary, the policy of the institution runs the danger of being manipulated in the particular interests of specific member states, thus leading to decisions which are morally questionable, to say the least.
This can happen in three ways: a) a member of the P-5 effectively vetoes a resolution; b) it abstains from the vote and so delivering a subtle message making it difficult for the proposed resolution to gain political legitimacy and c) it sometimes requires no more than a threat by a P-5 member to veto a specific resolution, in order to avoid a vote taking place at all.
The Janus-Face of State Sovereignty
The final flaw derives from the institutional definition of national sovereignty which is firmly rooted in the UN’s Charter:
Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter. (United Nations, 1945, Article 7.2)
While the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty was a successful outcome, after a long period of interstate wars, it does not necessarily protect a nation’s inhabitants in a time where the likelihood of conventional wars has rapidly decreased and that of intrastate conflicts has increased. As in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, it can be an invitation or even absolution to a state to inflict unlimited repressive measures upon its citizens. Raphael Lemkin best summarised the Janus-face of state sovereignty by stating that it must stand for “conducting an independent foreign policy, building of schools, construction of roads (…)” but cannot be allowed to be “conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people”. The question that arises is if the price which is paid for the concept of inviolable territorial borders is not too morally high? Governments know all too well that the UN’s norm of non-intervention (Article 2.7, UN Charter) – derived from the principle of state sovereignty gives de facto immunity for all measures of repression or even crimes against humanity. This is not just an obstacle to humanitarian interventionism but, strictly speaking, radically contradicts the principles outlined in the Genocide Convention and the Principle of Responsibility to Protect. The UN is thus caught between two irreconcilable duties.
Reforming the UN
The UN is incapable of adjudicating the legality, morality and practicality of intervention in the affairs of a member state. Humanitarian idealism cannot reside in an institution which is incapable of separating national interest from commitments to a progressive set of ideals. As the UN’s policy record has demonstrated, there exists no certainty that judgments made by international institutions in multilateral decision-making procedures are more appropriate to a situation than unilateral decisions.
However, it would be incorrect to dismiss the concept of an international framework in which humanitarian interventionism should take place. Multilateralism provides a wider forum for debate and greater safeguards. Furthermore, in the absence of limitations on the action of states, this concept of legitimate unilateralism is vulnerable to abuse as military action might not undertaken for humanitarian ends but instead for simply to serve national interests.
The UN could have the potential to confront genocide and mass murder effectively and fulfil the humanitarian ideals to which it remains (at least nominally) committed. But a fundamental transformation needs to take place in which the UN is institutionally reappraised and its duties, authority and jurisdiction re-examined. It is worth remembering that the institution was founded in a period in which priority was given to the prevention of interstate wars. Given that the nature of war has drastically changed, so must the assumptions of the UN. While civil policies, such as development aid and good governance programmes, should be acknowledged as worthy, the institution is unfit to provide military protection in conflict zones (Rwanda and Bosnia). Consequently, the UN must re-consider its role in forcing the world community to honour the humanitarian commitments made following the Second World War. The institution has to improve its capabilities and must be equipped with the necessary legal authority to have an active military policy. Several institutional changes are thus inevitable.
As the Freedom House analysis has illustrated, the UN currently exists of more than a third undemocratic member states, a condition which is incompatible with its founding principles. A stricter and more effective policy of punishment in case of a breach of the UN Charter is thus required. Additionally, the UN lacks political conditionality designed inter alia to promote democracy, freedom and the rule of law amongst their members. If Iran stones women for alleged adultery, it should have no place in the UN’s Women’s Rights Commission. If a regime, as in the case of Iraq, Sudan or more recently Libya, conducts mass killings within the state borders, their diplomats should be immediately, if only temporarily, expelled from all offices within the UN. Not responding to crimes against humanity is an affront to democracy idealism, precisely the principles the UN is bound to protect.
Further, the UNSC voting system requires urgent reform. It is unrealistic to expect countries such as China and Russia, with long records of human rights abuse, to properly reign over the protection of human rights in the world. Accordingly, the option of weighted voting should be considered, lowering the threshold necessary to pass a resolution on substantive matters in the Security Council.
Lastly, the blue helmets must be equipped with the power and resources to defend themselves, yet at the same time conducting an active policy in situations of human rights abuses. It is a strange policy for the UN troops to only have the limited right to defend themselves if attacked when tasked with preventing attacks upon civilians. Although, the genocidaires are solely responsible, the UN cannot negate its self-inflicted passivity. As Mary Kaldor argues
cosmopolitan law-enforcement may mean risking the lives of peacekeepers in order to save the lives of victims. This is perhaps the most difficult presupposition to change (…). The argument about humanitarian intervention resolves around whether it is acceptable to sacrifice national lives for the sake of people far away.
This policy has made the UN an unwilling and silent witness to genocide and mass murder in contravention of its own ideals which are only of any worth, if applied universally. Realistically, however, fundamental reform of the UN is highly unlikely in the near future and remains so in the long-term. If changes occur at all, these will be limited and restricted.
The Role of NATO
As argued above, the UN lacks moral authority to decide over war and peace, given its highly questionable composition of member states and their respective authorities. Countries which breach the most fundamental principles of the UN on the domestic front are in an inappropriate position, to say the least, to judge, defend and uphold them externally. The UN’s failure to confront these members allowed lawless Russia and China, central powers in the UNSC, to deeply corrupt the UN’s capability to confront genocide and mass murder.
An institution with far greater moral integrity, legitimacy and credibility is NATO, as a result of its overwhelming democratic nature. Like the EU, NATO requires members to to meet genuine democratic criteria. Consequently, in contrast to the UN, none of the 28 members, with the possible exception of Turkey, have a record of severe human rights abuses and are classified by Freedom House’s World Democracy Index, as free and democratic countries governed by the rule of law. It would thus be a worthy and on top of all legitimate consideration to transfer the UNSC to NATO or, alternatively, set up an independent body similar to the UNSC within NATO which can, if required, overrule the adjudication of the UN
It is naive to assume the possibility of preventing all genocides, mass murder and ethnic cleansing campaigns before they occur. Most of the crimes committed in the past twenty years, however, could have easily been prevented. The authority and legitimacy to decide over war and peace can, in the end, ultimately only derive from the practical and not theoretical efficiency of the respective actors. It is thus essential to reframe the political discourse of humanitarian interventionism.
When mass killing was halted or prevented, it was because either a single government or coalition of states acted against the perpetrators. Whenever responsibility was left to the UN genocide was facilitated. It has proven the international community’s impotence to protect and liberate innocent civilians from the brutal and tyrannical reign of their suppressors. The UN’s fatal principles of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention have created a climate in which dictators are encouraged and invited to inflict intolerable cruelties upon their own people with impunity. The institution’s membership and voting procedure has further diminished the capability of developing a consistent and morally sound approach to crimes against humanity, although consistency is probably too much asked for from any international actor.
The current situation is an affront to humanity and betrayal of our fundamental principles which are only of any worth, if applied universally. If the point of prevention and settlement has indeed passed, the international community must be willing and prepared to protect the lives of innocent people with all necessary means. There must be a line no sovereign should ever be allowed to cross. Against that background, countries engaging in humanitarian militarism should be confident of defending their policy against those who prefer inaction or moral grandstanding. The concept is far from perfect but proved to be the only adequate solution to most of the conflicts in contemporary history.
Christopher Hitchens put it accurately when he said that, before action too place
Slobodan Milošević was cleansing and raping the republics of the former Yugoslavia. Mullah Omar was lending Osama bin Laden the hinterland of a failed and rogue state. Charles Taylor of Liberia was leading a hand-lopping militia of enslaved children across the frontier of Sierra Leone, threatening a blood-diamond version of Rwanda in West Africa. And the wealth and people of Iraq were the abused private property of Saddam Hussein and his crime family. Today, all of these Caligula figures are at least out of power, and at the best either dead or on trial.
Under such circumstances, there no longer exists the choice between war and peace; only the choice between war and something worse. Genocide is worse than war and so is mass murder. The examples of Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur where genocide was not prevented, contrasted to those of Kosovo, Sierra Leone and recently Libya, where campaigns focusing on mass murder were successfully stopped, should provide the necessary political legitimacy. Those who oppose humanitarian interventionism have to understand that, if innocent people are killed en mass, the decision not to intervene is as much a declaration of interest as a decision to intervene is a commitment to bring to justice those who commit such crimes.