Where and How?
Editorial from Commonweal
(October 22, 1999).
In the wake of international military intervention in East Timor, the cry was raised as it was in Kosovo: “If there, why not Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, or for that matter, Algeria, Chechnya, and Dagestan?” Why get involved in one country, while leaving others, often in far worse condition, to the ravages of civil war and human-rights violations? There are three competing arguments among those who ask that question by way of criticizing the current “unprincipled” approach to when and where we act to end human rights abuses. First, the question is asked by hawks who believe reliance on outside forces to resolve local conflicts is futile. Only a military victory by one party can ultimately resolve civic strife; someone must win and someone must lose, otherwise the war will simply be fought another day. Second, it is asked by those pacifists who oppose all military response. Pointing to the selective nature of such actions attests to the prejudicial, self-interested, or malevolent motives at play in choosing to . act, for example, in Kosovo but not in Rwanda. Hence do not intervene at all. For different reasons then, both hawks and doves oppose military interventions. The third group, genuine interventionists including human-rights advocates, believe that all violent civil struggles and human-rights violations are created equal. Therefore, international action ought to be taken almost everywhere to stop slaughter and ruin, whether it is born of ethnic and religious rivalries or internal political divisions. The principle of intervention should be universal and uncompromising.
No one of these strategies is likely to be soon implemented -- and recent history shows why. For understandable reasons, including the continuing power of the nation-state, an erratic and “unprincipled” course will mark international responses to civil war and human-rights violations for some time to come.
To intervene or not, when to act and how to act, are complex questions in a world in gradual transition from the inviolability to the permeability of the nation-state, a change fostered by instant communications and a slowly growing international consensus that human rights should trump national sovereignty. These were the themes of Secretary General Kofi Annan in opening the current session of the United Nations in September. He offers a sober analysis to those who would like to see established universal principles of humanitarian intervention. As an active interventionist himself, perhaps he sees the obstacles more clearly than most.
His address highlights three reasons for the uneven response of the international community:
And that is where he, and we, and the world are stuck somewhere between the recognition that human-rights violations cannot be ignored and a shortage of effective international mechanisms to remedy the civil strife that brings them about. The great challenge to the UN, and to those who have supported humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and East Timor, is to encourage the difficult move from coercion to conciliation. That is not so photogenic and dramatic as bombs and bullets, but if that is not what interventionists finally support, should we be intervening at all?
1999 Commonweal. Reprinted with permission.