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.