The Case Against ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention
Words by Thomas Abildgaard
At the time of writing the US has pulled out of the joint nuclear deal with Iran, has all but sabotaged the purportedly coming nuclear talks with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and has been sliding towards increased involvement in Syria due to chemical weapons attacks that have just now been reported by the OPCW as likely, but have not been attributed to the al-Assad government . Meanwhile, the US has left many of their key diplomatic posts empty and is cutting funding to the State Department. The hollowing out of diplomatic options and appointment of warmongers like John Bolton, suggests it is likely that the US will enter a military conflict in one of these areas in the near future. However despite numerous US conflicts, the US Congress has not declared an official ‘State of War’ since 1942, and it is unlikely they will here. Rather, despite inadequate attempts at non-military solutions, pointedly backing out of existing solutions, and sabotaging potential solutions, these coming conflicts will likely be publicly justified under the modern rubric of ‘global security’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ for the good of the people of Iran, Syria, or North Korea.
Beginning in the early 1990s there has been a movement in international relations towards a consensus that states have a ‘Responsibility to Protect’—known as R2P—their citizens, which if they fail through oppression, genocide, or other crimes against humanity, could justify military intervention from other concerned states. The NATO intervention in Kosovo during 1999 is often seen as the first real test case of R2P and is often held up as an unmitigated success in halting what was presented as an emerging genocide. While that perspective lingers, the reality of Kosovo in 1999 more closely resembled a vicious civil war, with what Chomsky has called scattered “ethnic cleansing attacks committed against civilians by both sides.
It was not until NATO’s illegal 78-day bombing campaign that conditions were created for the situation to deteriorate further. Before the bombing, around 2 500 people had been killed in a patchwork of ethnic violence, largely between Serb and Albanian civilians. While the situation was terrible, both NATO and OSCE reports in the lead up to the bombing do not show signs of violence accelerating towards genocide. However, the chaos and violence inflicted by the bombing of military and civilian infrastructure created the conditions for a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing, resulting in 10 000 people killed, 1.4 million people driven from their homes, the destruction of the economy, and flooding nearby Albania and Macedonia with refugees housed in precarious camps.
Almost 20 years on, Kosovo has spent nearly ten years under an inadequate UN protectorate that allowed violence to continue, and has been independent for almost ten years. As of November 2017 there are still 201,047 registered internal displaced people in Serbia, mainly from Kosovo, corruption renders effective governance and economic revival impossible, and the war remains a palpable wound to many of its citizens. There were no easy answers to the situation in Kosovo 1999. However, the argument for the intervention relies purely on the counter-factual assertion that not intervening would have left a worse humanitarian situation despite evidence to the contrary. The stark reality is that Kosovo is a shattered region still far from recovery and that the NATO bombing and occupation contributed, and likely facilitated, this state of affairs.
Turning to the Middle East, the now seven-year-old intervention in Libya is often presented as a successful case of humanitarian intervention. The reality is that while the intervention resulted in the capture, brutal torture, and summary execution of former leader Muammar Qaddafi, it also led to countless civilian deaths, escalated the conflict beyond any possible resolution, and left a once prosperous state in ruins. According to Human Rights Watch, the initial 2011 US-NATO air strikes resulted in the deaths of 72 civilians, at least one-third of them children. As of 2017, war crimes including summary executions, civilian disappearances and corpse desecrations continue as the UN-backed Government of National Accord compete for power with the Interim Government. Other militia groups are active and terrorising the populace throughout the country, the economy is destroyed, public services such as the medical system and judiciary have been dismantled, and over 200 000 people have been internally displaced and subjected to torture, forced labour and sexual violence.
In their 2016 report on the Libya intervention, the British House of Commons Foreign Relations Committee found that the potential for genocide was exaggerated by rebel groups and Western powers, and the intervention was based on “little intelligence.” While Qaddafi’s rule was both dictatorial and often brutal, Libya had made strides forward in women’s rights and equality, and had become the richest and most developed country in Africa whilst remaining debt free. Turning this country into a quagmire of death and dissolution was not a success for the citizens of Libya, and Qaddafi, while a horrendous dictator, was no more so than the leaders of other longstanding ‘friends’ of the USA.
‘Humanitarian’ military interventions should never be referred to as a success. They are a failure of prevention. In this country our Governments have been perfectly happy to support the USA’s interventions, joining in the bombings and arming competing sides. Meanwhile, programs that would help prevent these catastrophes, such as increased foreign aid, building diplomatic ties, rethinking sanctions, increasing aid to refugees, accepting refugees, and fostering civil society in troubled regions, are neglected and defunded. We are willing to pour our blood and treasure into the acceleration of killing, but never to prevent it, and never to protect its victims. Instead, we continue their abuse.
Please reach out to Amnesty International and urge your MP to both end the harmful practices on Manus, to say no to ‘humanitarian’ wars, and to increase foreign aid.