The Argument about Humanitarian Intervention

Reference: Dissent Magazine /

Dissent Magazine, Winter 2002
By Michael Walzer

The question of humanitarian intervention has to be rethought thoroughly for our time. Today, it is nearly impossible to commit crimes against humanity in secret; efficient communication media will bring them to light immediately. We are more intimately engaged by them and with them than we were in the past. These acts that shock human conscience evoke the question of whether it is our responsibility to intervene, and what might be the moral justifications behind such intervention. By analyzing a range of examples, I want to discuss the question of humanitarian intervention in four regards: first, the nature of its occasions; second, the question of its preferred agents; third, the means how to meet the occasions; and fourth, the decision about the time to end the intervention.

There is nothing new about human disasters caused by human beings. We have always been, if not our own, certainly each other’s worst enemies. From the Assyrians in ancient Israel and the Romans in Carthage to the Belgians in the Congo and the Turks in Armenia, history is a bloody and barbaric tale. Still, in this regard, the 20th century was an age of innovation, first of all, and most importantly, in the way disasters were planned and organized and then, more recently, in the way they were publicized. I want to begin with the second of these innovations – the product of an extraordinary speed-up in both travel and communication. It may be possible to kill people on a very large scale more efficiently than ever before, but it is much harder to kill them in secret. In the contemporary world there is very little that happens far away, out of sight, or behind the scenes; the camera crews arrive faster than rigor mortis. We are instant spectators of every atrocity; we sit in our living rooms and see the murdered children, the desperate refugees. Perhaps horrific crimes are still committed in dark places, but not many; contemporary horrors are well-lit. And so a question is posed that has never been posed before – at least never with such immediacy, never so inescapably: What is our responsibility? What should we do?

In the old days, »humanitarian intervention« was a lawyer’s doctrine, a way of justifying a very limited set of exceptions to the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity (see, for example Hall 1904, 289ff). It is a good doctrine, because exceptions are always necessary, principles are never absolute. But we need to rethink it today, as the exceptions become less and less exceptional. The »acts that shock the conscience of humankind« – and, according to the nineteenth century lawbooks, justify humanitarian intervention – are probably no more frequent these days than they were in the past, but they are more shocking, because we are more intimately engaged by them and with them. Cases multiply in the world and in the media: Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo in only the past decade. The last of these has dominated the recent political debates, but it isn’t the most illuminating case. I want to step back a bit, reach for a wider range of examples, and try to answer four questions about humanitarian intervention: First, what are its occasions? Second, who are its preferred agents? Third, how should the agents act to meet the occasions? And fourth, when is it time to end the intervention?

The occasions have to be extreme if they are to justify, perhaps even require, the use of force across an international boundary. Every violation of human rights isn’t a justification. The common brutalities of authoritarian politics, the daily oppressiveness of traditional social practices – these are not occasions for intervention; they have to be dealt with locally, by the people who know the politics, who enact or resist the practices. The fact that these people can’t easily or quickly reduce the incidence of brutality and oppression isn’t a sufficient reason for foreigners to invade their country. Foreign politicians and soldiers are too likely to misread the situation, or to underestimate the force required to change it, or to stimulate a »patriotic« reaction in defense of the brutal politics and the oppressive practices. Social change is best achieved from within.

I want to insist on this point; I don’t mean to describe a continuum that begins with common nastiness and ends with genocide but rather a radical break, a chasm, with nastiness on one side and genocide on the other. We should not allow ourselves to approach genocide by degrees. Still, on this side of the chasm, we can mark out a continuum of brutality and oppression, and somewhere along this continuum an international response (short of military force) is necessary. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, for example, are useful means of engagement with tyrannical regimes. The sanctions might be imposed by some free-form coalition of interested states. Or perhaps we should work toward a more established regional or global authority that could regulate the imposition, carefully matching the severity of the sanctions to the severity of the oppression. But these are still external acts; they are efforts to prompt but not to preempt an internal response. They still assume the value, and hold open the possibility, of domestic politics. The interested states or the regional or global authorities bring pressure to bear, so to speak, at the border; and then they wait for something to happen on the other side.

But when what is going on is the ethnic cleansing of a province or country or the systematic massacre of a religious or national community, it doesn’t seem possible to wait for a local response. Now we are on the other side of the chasm. The stakes are too high, the suffering already too great. Perhaps there is no capacity to respond among the people directly at risk and no will to respond among their fellow citizens. The victims are weak and vulnerable; their enemies are cruel; their neighbors indifferent. The rest of us watch and are shocked. This is the occasion for intervention.

We will need to argue, of course, about each case, but the list I’ve already provided seems a fairly obvious one. These days the intervening army will claim to be enforcing human rights, and that was a plausible and fully comprehensible claim in each of the cases on my list (or would have been, since intervention weren’t attempted in all of them). We are best served, I think, by a stark and minimalist version of human rights here: it is life and liberty that are at stake. With regard to these two, the language of rights is readily available and sufficiently understood across the globe. Still, we could as easily say that what is being enforced, and what should be enforced, is simple decency.

In practice, even with a minimalist understanding of human rights, even with a commitment to nothing more than decency, there are more occasions for intervention than there are actual interventions. When the oppressors are too powerful, they are rarely challenged, however shocking the oppression. This obvious truth about international society is often used as an argument against the interventions that do take place. It is hypocritical, critics say to the humanitarian politicians or soldiers, to intervene in this case when you didn’t intervene in that one – as if, having declined to challenge China in Tibet, say, the United Nations should have stayed out of East Timor for the sake of moral consistency. But consistency isn’t an issue here. We can’t meet all our occasions; we rightly calculate the risks in each one. We need to ask what the costs of intervention will be for the people being rescued, and also for the rescuers, and for everyone else. And then we can only do … what we can do.

The standard cases have a standard form: a government, an army, a police force, tyrannically controlled, attacks its own people or some subset of its own people, a vulnerable minority, say, territorially based or dispersed throughout the country. (We might think of these attacks as examples of state terrorism and then consider forceful humanitarian interventions, such as the NATO campaign in Kosovo, as instances of the war against terrorism, avant la lettre. But I won’t pursue this line of argument here.) The attack takes place within the country’s borders; it doesn’t require any boundary crossings; it is an exercise of sovereign power. There is no aggression, no invading army to resist and beat back. Instead, the rescuing forces are the invaders; they are the ones who, in the strict sense of international law, begin the war. But they come into a situation where the moral stakes are clear: the oppressors or, better, the state agents of oppression, are readily identifiable; their victims are plain to see.

Even in the list with which I started, however, there are some nonstandard cases – Sierra Leone is the clearest example – where the state apparatus isn’t the villain, where what we might think of as the administration of brutality is decentralized, anarchic, almost random. It isn’t the power of the oppressors that interventionists have to worry about, but the amorphousness of the oppression. I won’t have much to say about cases like this. Intervention is clearly justifiable but, right now at least, it’s radically unclear how it should be undertaken. Perhaps there is not much to do beyond what the Nigerians did in Sierra Leon: they reduced the number of killings, the scope of the barbarism.

We can only do … what we can do – who is this we? The Kosovo debate focused on the United States, NATO, and the UN as agents of military intervention (for all the arguments, see Buckley 2000). These are indeed three political collectives capable of agency, but by no means the only three. The United States and NATO generate suspicion among the sorts of people who are called »idealists« because of their readiness to act unilaterally and their presumed imperial ambitions; the UN generates skepticism among the sorts of people who are called realists because of its political weakness and military ineffectiveness. The arguments here are overdetermined; I am not going to join them. We are more likely to understand the problem of agency if we start with other agents. The most successful interventions in the last 30 years have been acts of war by neighboring states: Vietnam in Cambodia, India in East Pakistan (now Bangla Desh), Tanzania in Uganda. These are useful examples for testing our ideas about intervention because they don’t involve extraneous issues like the new (or old) world order; they don’t require us to consult Lenin’s, or any other, theory of imperialism. In each of these cases, there were horrifying acts that should have been stopped and agents who succeeded, more or less, in stopping them. So let’s use these cases to address the two questions most commonly posed by critics of the Kosovo war: Does it matter that the agents acted alone? Does it matter that their motives were not wholly (or even chiefly) altruistic?

In the history of humanitarian intervention, unilateralism is far more common than its opposite. One reason for this is obvious: the great reluctance of most states to cede the direction of their armed forces to an organization they don’t control. But unilateralism may also follow from the need for an immediate response to acts that shock… Imagine a case where the shock doesn’t have anything to do with human evildoing: a fire in a neighbor’s house in a new town where there is no fire department. It wouldn’t make much sense to call a meeting of the block association, while the house is burning, and vote on whether or not to help (and it would make even less sense to give a veto on helping to the three richest families on the block). I don’t think that the case would be all that different if, instead of a fire, there was a brutal husband, no police department, and screams for help in the night. Here too, the block association is of little use; neighborly unilateralism seems entirely justified. In cases like these, anyone who can help should help. And that sounds like a plausible maxim for humanitarian intervention also: who can, should.

That sounds like a plausible maxim for humanitarian intervention also: who can, should. But now let’s imagine a block association or an international organization that planned in advance for the fire, or the scream in the night, or the mass murder. Then there would be particular people or specially recruited military forces delegated to act in a crisis, and the definition of crisis could be determined – as best it can be – in advance, in exactly the kind of meeting that seems so implausible, so morally inappropriate, at the moment when immediate action is necessary. The person who rushes into a neighbor’s house in my domestic example and the political or military commanders of the invading forces in the international cases would still have to act on their own understanding of the events unfolding in front of them and on their own interpretation of the responsibility they have been given. But now they act under specified constraints, and they can call on the help of those in whose name they are acting. This is the form that multilateral intervention is most likely to take, if the UN, say, were ever to authorize it in advance of a particular crisis. And it seems preferable to the different unilateral alternatives, since it involves some kind of prior warning, an agreed-upon description of the occasions for intervention, and the prospect of overwhelming force.

But is it preferable in fact, right now, given the UN as it actually is? What makes police forces effective in domestic society, when they are effective, is their commitment to the entire body of citizens from which they are drawn and the (relative) trust of the citizens in that commitment. But the UN’s General Assembly and Security Council, so far, give very little evidence of being so committed, and there can’t be many people in the world today who would willingly entrust their lives to UN police. And so, if, in any of my examples, the UN’s authorized agents or their domestic equivalents decide not to intervene, and the fire is still burning, the screams can still be heard, the murders go on – then unilateralist rights and obligations are instantly restored. Collective decisions to act may well exclude unilateral action, but collective decisions not to act don’t have the same effect. In this sense, unilateralism is the dominant response when the common conscience is shocked. If there is no collective response, anyone can respond. If no one is acting, act.

In the Cambodia, East Pakistan, and Uganda cases, there were no prior arrangements and no authorized agents. Had the UN’s Security Council or General Assembly been called into session, it would almost certainly have decided against intervention, probably by majority vote, in any case because of great power opposition. So, anyone acting to shut down the Khmer Rouge killing fields or to stem the tide of Bengalese refugees or to stop Idi Amin’s butchery would have to act unilaterally. Everything depended on the political decision of a single state.

Collective decisions to act may well exclude unilateral action, but collective decisions not to act don’t have the same effect. In this sense, unilateralism is the dominant response when the common conscience is shocked. If there is no collective response, anyone can respond. If no one is acting, act.

Do these singular agents have a right to act or do they have an obligation? I have been using both words, but they don’t always go together: there can be rights where there are no obligations. In good Samaritan cases in domestic society, we commonly say that passersby are bound to respond (to the injured stranger by the side of the road, to the cry of a child drowning in the lake…); they are not, however, bound to risk their lives (see the useful essays in Radcliffe 1966). If the risks are clear, they have a right to respond; responding is certainly a good thing and possibly the right thing to do; still, they are not morally bound to do it. But military interventions across international boundaries always impose risks on the intervening forces. So perhaps there is no obligation here either; perhaps there is a right to intervene but also a right to refuse the risks, to maintain a kind of neutrality – even between murderers and their victims. Or perhaps humanitarian intervention is an example of what philosophers call an »imperfect« duty: someone should stop the awfulness, but it isn’t possible to give that someone a proper name, to point a finger, say, at a particular country. The problem of imperfect duty yields best to multilateral solutions; we simply assign responsibility in advance through some commonly accepted decision procedure.

But perhaps, again, these descriptions are too weak: I am inclined to say that intervention is more than a right and more than an imperfect duty (cf. Statman 1996). After all, the survival of the intervening state is not at risk. And then why shouldn’t the obligation simply fall on the most capable state, the nearest or the strongest, as in the maxim I have already suggested: who can, should? Nonintervention in the face of mass murder or ethnic cleansing is not the same as neutrality in time of war. The moral urgencies are different; we are usually unsure of the consequences of a war, but we know very well the consequences of a massacre. Still, if we follow the logic of the argument so far, it will be necessary to recruit volunteers for humanitarian interventions; the »who« who can and should is only the state, not any particular man or woman; for individuals the duty remains imperfect. Deciding whether to volunteer, they may choose to apply the same test to themselves – who can, should – but the choice is theirs.

A pure moral will doesn’t exist in political life, and it shouldn’t be necessary to pretend to that kind of purity. The leaders of states have a right, indeed, they have an obligation, to consider the interests of their own people, even when they are acting to help other people.

The dominance that I have ascribed to unilateralism might be questioned, commonly is questioned, because of a fear of the motives of single states acting alone. Won’t they act in their own interests rather than in the interests of humanity? Yes, they probably will or, better, they will act in their own interests as well as in the interests of humanity; I don’t think that it is particularly insightful, merely cynical, to suggest that those larger interests have no hold at all (surely the balance of interest and morality among interventionists is no different than it is among noninterventionists). In any case, how would humanity be better served by multilateral decision-making? Wouldn’t each state involved in the decision process also act in its own interests? And then the outcome would be determined by bargaining among the interested parties – and humanity, obviously, would not be one of the parties. We might hope that particular interests would cancel each other out, leaving some kind of general interest (this is in fact Rousseau’s account, or one of his accounts, of how citizens arrive at a general will; Rousseau 1968, Bk. II, Ch. 3). But it is equally possible that the bargain will reflect only a mix of particular interests, which may or may not be better for humanity than the interests of a single party. Anyway, political motivations are always mixed, whether the actors are one or many. A pure moral will doesn’t exist in political life, and it shouldn’t be necessary to pretend to that kind of purity. The leaders of states have a right, indeed, they have an obligation, to consider the interests of their own people, even when they are acting to help other people. We should assume, then, that the Indians acted in their national interest when they assisted the secession of East Pakistan, and that Tanzania acted in its own interests when it moved troops into Idi Amin’s Uganda. But these interventions also served humanitarian purposes, and presumably were intended to do that too. The victims of man-made disasters are very lucky if a neighboring state, or a coalition of states, has more than one reason to rescue them. It would be foolish to declare the multiplicity morally disabling. If the intervention is expanded beyond its necessary bounds because of some »ulterior« motive, then it should be criticized; within those bounds, mixed motives are a practical advantage.

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