Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

From Bosnia in 1992 to Libya in 2011, military intervention to protect civilians during war appeared to herald a new era — the era of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Now, R2P has all but collapsed in the wake of conflicts in Syria; does humanitarian intervention still have a future?

As an undergraduate student in the U.S., I spent my first summer of university studying in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the site of the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Walking through the streets of the once-besieged Sarajevo and standing at the site of massacre in Srebrenica, I found myself carrying a central question: where was the international community during this conflict? Why, for all their military and political power, was Europe and the U.S. unable to stop such a horrifying war until it was too late for hundreds of thousands killed?

It is a question that I wrestled with once again a year later in Jordan, while speaking to refugees on the Jordanian-Syrian border who had fled rebel-held parts of Syria. This time, it was the very people who had suffered the conflict themselves who asked these questions of me: where was my country — the United States — during the siege of Aleppo, the destruction of Homs, the chemical attacks in Damascus? Why had we watched while thousands died, and done nothing?

Fifteen years ago, mass violence in Bosnia and Rwanda brought a similar kind of soul-searching amongst the international community, culminating in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect in 2004. The resolution, the first true codification of humanitarian intervention, compels the Security Council to act in cases of “genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law.”

While limited, for example only allowing for military force as a last resort when all others options are exhausted, R2P had noble intentions: to make “never again” — a phrase born from the horrors of the Holocaust and revived following the Rwandan Genocide — a reality.

I believed in R2P, despite its flaws; and I believed in the use of R2P as a tool to shape a more peaceful, more responsible world. But in the wake of the failure of the international community to respond to massacres in Syria, as well as Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere, a resolution that seemed to show such promise now appears all but dead.

In writing on the theme “What to do when your dreams of saving the world are shattered,” I’ve returned to the central issue I witnessed first in Bosnia and Jordan: the gap between the moral responsibility the international community claims to stand for, and the consistent failure of the world – and the U.S.  – to uphold these same principles when it comes to stopping mass violence.

The End of R2P?

When the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus in August of 2013, the United States appeared poised to launch the kind of military action that had characterized previous NATO intervention in Libya and Bosnia. This would never occur: Obama soon backtracked from military strikes, in response to both U.S domestic opposition and paralysis in the UN Security Council. His decision has since been described alternatively as the end of R2P and as the “epic failure of our age.”

While there is little doubt as to the failure of the Obama administration in find a solution to the Syrian Conflict, this singular event should instead be viewed as a piece of a larger story — one that recognizes the repeated failure of the international community to act to protect civilians in Syria, especially in the early years of the conflict. Unlike in Bosnia or Libya, efforts to invoke UN-mandated intervention under the Responsibility to Protect have consistently faltered, even in light of well-documented cases of government war crimes and indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

This fault for this stalemate is often placed – not without reason – on Russia’s unwavering support of the Assad regime. Yet blaming Russia solely for the tragedy of the Syrian War obscures a far more fundamental, and potentially longer-lasting, issue at play: an eroding belief by the international community in the legitimacy of the West, especially the United States, to intervene on humanitarian grounds.

It is a belief that is unfortunately far from unfounded, given the historical misuse of intervention for regime change.

From the adaptation of the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya as a vehicle for removing Libyan dictator Gaddafi to the long history of U.S interventions in Latin American nations and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Western military action has more often than not be in the service of security or political, rather than humanitarian, goals.

Using intervention as a tool for non-humanitarian ends served only to compromise the central character of the Responsibility to Protect: the morality of protecting civilians in conflict, and the moral imperative of the international community to act, by force if need be, in situations where these lives are threatened.

Rather than representing a new age of apathy to human suffering, international inaction in Syria instead should be viewed as the result of years of misuse, mistakes and misjudgments in intervention that have sapped the international community’s confidence in the responsibility of Western foreign policy, and the sincerity of its words when it claims to act in service to a moral cause. Through these decisions, the U.S. and its allies have undermined their own narrative as a responsible and positive force in the world, to the benefit of the “sovereignty-first” narratives of autocratic countries which seek to see humanitarian intervention drastically curtailed – or eliminated entirely.

The tragic result is in a newfound impunity for governments to abuse their people, supported by Russian and Chinese warnings of American regime change that have grown all the more persuasive in recent years, from Iran to Venezuela.

Those who suffer the most from this change are the people of Syria, Yemen, Libya and more, for whom international efforts to stop mass violence appear more and more remote of a possibility – the large fault of which lies on the shoulders of America, Europe, and their allies.

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

Nearly a three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, twenty-five years after the Rwandan Genocide, and fifteen years after the Responsibility to Protect, and the world has still yet to learn the lesson that mass violence in any part of the world reflects heavily on us all.

In the wake of the Syrian failure, there is new imperative to rethink the shared responsibility of the international community in conflict – a responsibility that fully grapples with the failures of interventions in Libya and Syria, that strives to reevaluate why we intervene, and that acknowledges what we sacrifice when interventions are conducted to support geo-political goals.  

Saving humanitarian intervention requires rethinking foreign policy assumptions long thought infallible, in exchange for the harder task of recognizing how often intervention has been misused and questioning the doctrine of the modern era of foreign policy responsible. The success of the Responsibility to Protect in the post-Syrian War era depends on acknowledging these past misdeeds and striving not to repeat the same mistakes, in order to ensure that the world is better prepared to act when the next instance of violence arises once again.

Only then can we create a more responsible form of humanitarian intervention, and move closer to fulfilling the central promise of “never again.”

Photo Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Andre T. Richard, US Department of Defense. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

What do you do when your faith in the U.N. is shattered?

I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a Humanity in Action Fellowship in 2017 properly jaded. I had just completed a year-long stint with the U.N. office of PAX, where I worked on a series of reports outlining the particular cruelty and inhumanity of the sieges in Syria at the height of media coverage of the siege of Aleppo. It’s safe to say that I had a lot of feelings about spending the next month somewhere that had been kept under the longest siege in Europe since WWII.

Scrap of paper in front of government building which reads 1 March 1992: "do you vote for a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina - Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and of other people living in it?" 
5 April 1992: First victims are killed at a peace rally
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

A frequent theme my cohort returned to—as is often (justifiably) the case in these conversations—was the failure and inadequacy of organizations such as the U.N. or USAID, and the Western states that frequently dominate them, to deliver on their promise to protect civilians and maintain international peace and security. And this is a fair point, the U.N. is one of the most powerful international institutions, but still is unable to effectively prevent, end, or resolve violent conflict—and if the UN is unable (or unwilling) to stir up political will to prevent or end conflicts, then what hope is there?

Scrap of paper in front of monument of canned beef, which reads the UN has trouble sending humanitarian aid to Sarajevo. The average civilian lives on 159g of food a day. When aid does arrive, citizens find biscuits and canned mean that had expired 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the UNSC "strongly condemns these acts of unspeakable brutality." UNSC Resolution 798, 18 Dec. 1992
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

During one incredibly poignant moment of my month in BiH, I was sitting at the back of the bus with a member of my fellowship who had lived through the war. He told me that as a child he hated the U.S. because of its inaction and resented having to suffer through trauma that no one should have to, while the U.S. stood by waiting, watching, pretending to care. But that wasn’t what stuck with me—it was that he shrugged, rather casually, and said, “but look at what is happening in Syria, and here I am, I’m doing nothing. So, who am I to judge?”

Scrap of paper in front of yellow high rise building which reads, Sniper Alley. Roughly 5-15 people were wounded each day by snipers, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019
Scrap of paper in front of apartment complex, which reads 15 Jan 1993
8 civilians killed, 20 wounded by mortar shell while waiting for water. Azra & Asim Lačević were among the victims, leaving behind their children, Berin & Delila, who were among the severely wounded.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

But isn’t that the whole point of an international community? Aren’t we exactly who is to judge? If not each of us, then who will judge the massive failure of the West and its international institutions?

Scrap of paper in front of marketplace which reads UNSC resolution 816 "deploring the failure of some parties concerned to cooperate dully with United Nations Protection Froce (UNPROFOR)" 
31 March 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It is in the spirit of these questions that I compiled this photo essay during my time in Sarajevo. I wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of what the U.N. presents in official documents versus the lived experience of conflict. I was inspired by my colleagues—as well as the speakers who addressed us over the month we were there—to explore a Sarajevo that feels quite distant from the city you’ll find today. It is actually there, right below the surface, which in many ways feels like it is begging to be shown, not to be forgotten. I spent several days reading through UNSC resolutions about Bosnia, especially any that were around key dates and times. I explored the few resources online about the siege, and compiled enough information to create my own “walking tour” of the city.

Scrap of paper in front of broken concrete painted red to evoke blood spatter which reads of the 11,541 people killed during the siege, 1,601 of them were children. 
UNSC Resolution 820: "Deeply alarmed and concerned about the magnitude of the plight of innocent victims of the conflict" 
-17 April 1993-
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

I wanted to explore things that felt important to me personally, but also call attention to sites that—specifically tourists—might walk past without a second glance. Because of this, all of the sites photographed are easily accessible, notable, and are frequently seen or visited locations. The project is organized more or less chronologically, in order to give the viewer a visual timeline of the siege. The third photo in the series is irony meeting irony, as the canned beef monument—a literal larger than life rendering of a can of beef much like the ones dropped by ICAR, which Sarajevans would “rather die than eat”—is itself a jab at western aid agencies’ complete failure to provide humanitarian assistance.

Scrap of paper in front of state of a man yelling in a park which reads UNSC Resolution 819 "Demands that all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surrounding areas as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act." 
17 April 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

In the background of the fourth photo, you can see the Hotel Holiday—the infamous yellow hotel that was notoriously inhabited by journalists bravely covering the siege—sitting along what was once one of the most dangerous streets to navigate, but is now one of the main thoroughfares and trolley lines in the city. The photo of the brewery was taken only one block from my apartment in Sarajevo, which felt exceptionally moving, to learn that there had been, within my lifetime, a massacre at a place I had just gotten drinks.

Scrap of paper in front of church which reads on average, 329 missiles were fired at Sarajevo daily. On 22 July 1993,  3,777 missiles hit the city in a single day.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

The photo after this one is taken at the Markale Market in the center of the city, where some of the largest massacres once took place at the height of the siege. Today there is little more than a memorial wall, mostly hidden by the vendors. The Sarajevo Rose depicted is not one of particular note, as these memorials span the city, serving as their own unassuming reminder that we are never too far from history. I wanted to remind both myself and others, through the juxtaposition of the official documents about the conflict with the current state of the city, that the consequences of our actions are not theoretical—as they can sometimes feel as we sit in our comfortable London classrooms—but are in fact painfully real.

scrap of paper in front of dilapidated buildings which reads 10,000 buildings were completely destroyed. 100,000 buildings were heavily damaged. 
UNSC: "Decides to remain actively seized of the matter"
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It’s something I have come back to a lot during my time at SOAS. As students at a highly critical university, learning about international institutions, norms, transitional justice, and peacebuilding through decolonial and feminist perspectives can make the world seem disheartening—but at the same time it helps prepare you for the realities of how the world functions. That being said, it’s natural to feel burnt out every so often, to wonder why we’re even bothering or if we should have just gone into banking or marketing. Or worse, to feel like you’ll have to end up working for and perpetuating the very systems about which you’ve spent an entire post-graduate degree learning. Because I very much want to continue working in the field of advocacy and transitional justice, this is something I have to reconcile on a daily basis.

scrap of paper in front of view of large village which reads UNSC resolution 900 "emphasizing the crucial importance of achieving complete freedom of movement for the civilian population and humanitarian goods and of the restoration of normal life in Sarajevo, determined to restore essential public services in Sarajevo" 
4 March 1994
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

This was as maddening to navigate in BiH as it is today. Once you become aware of just how deeply broken everything is, it is incredibly daunting—and to be frank, depressing—to feel like one day it will be up to you to fix it all. I wish I could tell you that I’ve come to the solution, but I think we’ll have to keep on working through it together. I desperately want to do something right in a world that makes it feel nearly impossible, I hope that exploring what you can do when your faith is shattered can be one small thing to help us understand our positionality a bit better.

From Low-Level Crimes to Murder: The Failure of the Retributive Criminal Justice System in the United States

In October 2018, my 23-year-old brother was charged with first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. This accusation came only a few months after he was released from a correctional facility for possession of marijuana and theft of the amount between $100 and $750.

In the days that followed his arrest, I grappled with a plethora of questions. Why did my brother escalate from low-level crimes to murder? Was this acceleration related to his history of drug abuse? Did I do enough to support him when he got out of the correctional facility? My brother went into a correctional facility having committed minor infractions, but exited with severe psychological issues and an untreated drug addiction. He re-entered society incredibly unstable and went on to perpetrate a much more serious violation.

This is not to say that my brother should not be held accountable for his actions, but rather that his experience in the system had quite the opposite effect of its intention: instead of rehabilitating him, incarceration helped make him into a murderer.

My brother is a stark reminder that the retributive criminal justice system, which holds that the proper response to criminal activity is a punishment equivalent to their offense, is both inefficient and detrimental to individuals and communities. And he is just one case in a sea of millions of other vulnerable people who now share the same fate.

The Prison-Industrial Complex of the United States

The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. A disproportionate number of people of color and individuals with lower socioeconomic status represent the majority of the population behind bars. Acclaimed legal scholar, advocate, and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander (2010) writes about how mass incarceration in the U.S. is a form of racial and social control in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She contends that the U.S. targets marginalized communities through the executions of “the drug war” and the “get tough movement.” Supposed crime reduction strategies–along with the ever-expanding policies of targeting undocumented immigrants–allow private prisons to receive a per diem from the U.S. government for each inmate incarcerated. In turn, corporations exploit these individuals for cheap labour, a practice known as the prison-industrial complex (PIC). This is clearly problematic. As the retributive criminal justice funnels mostly black and brown bodies into prisons, companies profit off of their presence in prisons.

The entire retributive system is based on an assumption that once an inmate is released from incarceration, they will reintegrate into society with a better understanding of how to respect the rights of others and follow the societal norms associated with responsible citizenship, but this assumption is unfounded. It is highly evident that the retributive criminal justice system is failing to prevent future crime. In fact, the retributive system tends to induce reoffending at an enormous financial, emotional, and social cost to individuals and communities.

If incarceration actually facilitated rehabilitation, then the assumption that inmates would afterwards reintegrate as ideal citizens might make sense, but there is ample evidence that shows otherwise. Individuals that re-enter their communities after incarceration face myriad challenges, such as stigmatization, barriers to housing and employment, and mental health and/or addiction issues. Alexander describes these challenges as a form of permanent, second-class status in which those who have been incarcerated can be legally discriminated against, denied the right to vote and automatically excluded from juries. While individuals and organizations have diligently tried to aid individuals reintegrating into society, the consistently high rates of recidivism provide insight into the disturbing reality that sending people to jail doesn’t work.

Reform vs. Transformation

In order to confront the failed U.S. carceral state, we should pursue three objectives. First, we ought to follow Alexander’s call-to-action to continue to add and diffuse information on the devastating effects of mass incarceration. Second, we must mobilize a broad-based movement to dismantle the current racist and futile retributive criminal justice system. Third, we need to follow the leaders and organizations–Angela Davis, INCITE!, generationFIVE–who have been calling for the implementation of an interpersonal or community-based model for years.

The transformative justice model challenges the retributive criminal system, which is primarily responsible for the violent oppression of marginalized communities, and policies that serve to legitimize the existing system of crime control. Transformative justice instead relies upon the leadership and interests of marginalized communities who understand that forms of violence take place within the structural conditions of poverty, racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, etc., and seeks resolutions within the more personal systems of community or civil society. According to Mimi E. Kim, “Communities are…sites for prevention, intervention, and transformation, spaces where interventions can be imagined, initiated, and implemented.” While the transformative justice model may take more time, it may provide opportunities for the victim-survivor, perpetrator, and community at large to find healing after a crime has been committed, healing that a retribution-based system prevents.

Drug decriminalization and prison reform is not enough. We instead must strive to dismantle the entire PIC, the entire retributive criminal justice system, and replace it with a model that has a firm grasp of the real conditions of people’s lives and how we can hold individuals accountable for their wrongdoings without contributing to structural violence. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to create conditions that can prevent future harm, including harm perpetrated by incarceration and policing. It is easy for many to disregard individuals who have been swept up by the PIC and see them only as defined by the worst moments of their lives, but we must see past the singular act of a crime. It is in our best interests, and in the interests of victims and perpetrators, to commit to holistic approaches that foster the rebuilding of individuals and communities. Rather than reacting to the damage after crimes are committed, we need to begin to reconsider the conditions that led to them in the first place.

In light of what my family has been through, I can continue to spread awareness about what this system does to ordinary people with drug addictions–and hope that one day we, as concerned citizens, may be able to deliver other individuals and communities from bearing the excruciating pain that a retributive justice model inflicts.

Photo Credit: Luis Argerich CC-BY 2.0

The Media Ethics of Covering the Nairobi Hotel Attack

The recent attack on a hotel in Nairobi, during which at least 21 people were killed, sparked condolences and solidarity messages from all over the world. The way the attack in Nairobi was presented in international media and in social networks, however, led to an uproar, after The New York Times and other media outlets issued horrifyingly detailed images of the corpses of some of the victims in what appeared to be a hotel bar or restaurant.

The New York Times article, as George Ogola argued for The Conversation, encompasses a whole range of elements to be criticised, particularly the potential utilisation of media outlets as a tool of propaganda by terrorist groups, as recently taken to a new level of professionalism by the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS)-affiliated news agency, Amaq. Other elements of Ogola’s more than justified critique include the problematic differences in coverage of “distant death,” as well as the sensationalization of violence in Western media, particularly when it comes to the reporting of war and terrorism from “African” countries and the urge to glorify the white man as the rescuing hero.

This practice might be linked to a number of factors including, but not limited to, the fundamentally racist picture of “bloodthirsty Africans” savagely genociding each other, the false assumption that African conflicts are irrational and not driven by political and economic factors (as in any other conflict), and the antiquated, if not irrational, belief that the entire African continent is a such a far-off place that it lacks connection to the Western media, to the extent that relatives and friends of the victims are assumed to never see the pictures of their slaughtered family, because they are incapable of accessing the internet to read the New York Times.

The irony is painful; the racist element is obvious. In this situation, where were the guidelines that media outlets (such as the BBC) usually use to ensure the protection of witnesses and their relatives? But the debate surrounding the realms of media and photography ethics is not an entirely new one. Various debates in the field of media ethics, particularly the ethics of war and crime photography, include discussions on the appropriateness of exposing an audience to bloodshed (and the consequences that this may have, including desensitising the audience to human suffering); the protection of the victim’s identity as contrasting with the importance of reporting on atrocities; and the responsibility of the photographer to intervene (for example, the discussions surrounding what the photographer Kevin Carter could have done to help the “Starving Child” after taking the now infamous photograph).

But how should we, the audience, deal with the depicted death in the media? In “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag describes this “we” as those who can never truly understand the experiences depicted in coverage of violence: “We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.” (2003).

With this in mind, a more understated representation of violence might help open a new space for the deliberate re-creation of media ethics in regard to what is depicted in the violent image, and the voyeurism one might develop when very much “regarding the pain of others” through mass media, particularly the internet. For us, as the audience, we do not need the gruesome picture of the shopping mall to understand what happened there. Looking at a picture of tragedy might shock someone for a second, at best, before as Sontag would say, “the book is closed,” and they move on. The images of violence are just too many, and thus are unable touch our empathy anymore. No longer do graphic images of suffering change the world, as did the image of a fleeing, burning child contribute to mobilising mass demonstrations in opposition to one of the most brutal wars in history.

Media outlets should begin realise that the momentum of violent photography is lost, and adapt accordingly. Editors can can make a decision: the freedom of the press includes the freedom to decide how to publish, but it also gives the freedom of what is better not to be published — including the images of the Nairobi Hotel Attack.

Photo Credit: Tony Webster CC BY-SA 4.0