“[Kosovo] is probably the first war that has not been waged in the name of ‘national interests,’ but rather in the name of principles and values. If one can say of any war that it is ethical, or that it is being waged for ethical reasons, then it is true of this war.”1

- Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic


During the 1990s, the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ rose to dominate much of the Western security discourse, and was used to legitimize the West’s decade-long series of interventions in the republics that once constituted Yugoslavia. The war in the Balkans typified the conflicts of the post-Cold War era, in that it occurred along ethnic divisions that had previously been suppressed by now-defunct socialist and colonialist political structures. The Balkan violence, which rose to genocidal proportions in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, captured the minds of Western civil society and politicians like no other post-Cold War conflict did, occurring as it did so close to the heart of Europe. However, the Western Powers’ response was disappointing at best, and often an abject failure. 250,000 people are estimated to have died in Bosnia and Croatia, with 2.5 million left homeless.2 In Kosovo, NATO’s air campaign did nothing to prevent, and in fact spurred, the displacement of 1.4 million Kosovar Albanians and the violent deaths of 10,000 people in the province.3 In both Bosnia and Kosovo, intervention was significantly limited and, in Bosnia’s case, disastrously delayed by the American government’s near-fanatical unwillingness, for domestic political reasons, to risk ‘friendly’ casualties. Once this paralysis was partially overcome, the Western powers acted in order to maintain or increase their international prestige, and not just to uphold moral principles as was claimed. At other times, the moral rhetoric was acknowledged in private as an outright scam, employed to conceal other strategic goals, the realignment of NATO being the most significant. Self-interest is inarguably an inherent part of the international system as it exists today, from which significant consequences result. This paper will argue that the political and military intervention undertaken by Western states in the Balkans during the 1990s, ostensibly to safeguard stability and human security in the region, consistently failed to meet these goals due to their incompatibility with other domestic and foreign policy goals of the states of Western Europe and the United States at the time.

The use of force for purportedly humanitarian purposes is not an exclusive product of the post-Cold War era. Indeed, many at the time chose to justify Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 on humanitarian grounds.4 In the 1990s, humanitarian intervention came to hold in the United States a definition known as the Clinton Doctrine, which Michael Mandelbaum describes as having two parts:

the use of force on behalf of universal values instead of the narrower national interests for which sovereign states have traditionally fought; and, in defense of these values, military intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states rather than mere opposition to cross-border aggression.5
Certainly the ideals of humanitarian intervention, in preventing a state engaged in widespread human rights abuses from hiding behind traditional conceptions of sovereignty, are hard to argue with. As Michael Walzer observes, “when a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the idea of self-determination might apply.”6 However, the legal basis for these engagements, and especially for NATO’s war against Serbia in 1999, is tenuous at best. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter compels all members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”7 It is commonly accepted that the UN Security Council can choose to override this article in order to maintain international peace and security; however, no such authorization was granted to NATO in the case of the Kosovo crisis.8 Also of concern is the legitimacy of the humanitarian basis used to justify intervention. There is good reason to be skeptical of Western political rhetoric describing intervention as a “moral imperative,”9 for from a realist standpoint, a moral imperative alone would not generally constitute rational self-interest. As Walzer asserts, “states don’t send their soldiers into other states only to save lives. The lives of foreigners don’t weigh that heavily in the scales of domestic decision-making.”10 Clearly then, in order to understand the recent interventions undertaken in the Balkans, and their humanitarian failures, it is useful to recognize that intervention is not undertaken in a vacuum, that other strategic concerns generally provoke ‘humanitarian’ intervention in a conflict that might otherwise be left to play out on its own, and that they can also come to shape the decisions made during the course of the intervention.

To characterize the Balkan interventions as failures admittedly contradicts the official visions presented by NATO member states. Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State during the Kosovo crisis, asserted afterwards that the Kosovo intervention was “simply the most important thing we have done in the world.”11 However, as previously noted, neither the Kosovo air campaign nor Western-led efforts in Bosnia were successful in preventing large-scale civilian casualties and massive internal and external displacements of people. The Dayton agreement that finally ended the violence in Bosnia did little more than “sanction the outcome”12 of the ethnic cleansing, partitioning the territory between the self-styled Republika Srpska and a brittle Muslim-Croat federation. In the case of Kosovo, intervention temporarily increased Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s domestic popularity13 and resulted in the occupation and administration of the province by NATO forces with no foreseeable exit strategy in the near-future. Once removed from the cloudy rhetoric spouted by Western politicians conveniently positioned astride the moral high ground, the facts tell a significantly different story regarding the outcomes of the West’s flirtation with humanitarian intervention.

Criticism has been directed at the Western powers’, and specifically the United States’, unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia when the crisis first arose in 1992-1993 and when much of the human suffering could potentially have been averted.14 U.S. President Bill Clinton had campaigned for office in part on a promise to take firm action to halt genocide,15 yet his administration dithered for two years until finally drawn into intervening by its NATO obligations.16 Warren Zimmermann, former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, estimates that the delay cost the lives of at least 100,000 people in Bosnia.17 Some measure of blame in this regard must be assigned to the states of Western Europe, who were resistant to any U.S. suggestion of employing air strikes in 1993.18 However, much of the blame centers on American paralysis in the face of the possibility that its own forces might take casualties, a factor in American foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam War and the primary impetus behind the premature withdrawal of American forces from Somalia in 1992.19 As John Chipman, the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes, “in this world … military force is threatened without any corresponding willingness to accept the casualties that inevitably come with a serious military effort.”20

In the United States, this unwillingness to risk casualties has been particularly acute, driven by a widespread belief among the American political elite that the public would not support even moderate casualties among U.S. troops engaged in military operations not perceived as urgently vital to the country’s national interests. In fact, independent polling has shown that a majority of the American public would support humanitarian interventions that resulted in U.S. losses numbering in the hundreds. 21 In Bosnia, the perceived inability of the public to accept U.S. combat casualties deterred NATO from employing air strikes except in a few limited cases, and made the deployment of ground troops unthinkable until after the Dayton Agreement was reached. In Kosovo, a similar situation played out. No ground troops were deployed until after the Serbian army withdrew from the territory, and the effectiveness of air strikes was severely limited by the political necessity of ‘zero-risk.’ NATO air crews were required to fly above 15,000 feet to avoid Serbian defenses, minimizing their ability to hit any target with precision. As a result, in over 30,000 sorties, NATO planes destroyed a mere 13 Serbian tanks22 during a war ostensibly undertaken to defend Kosovar Albanians from rampaging Serbian troops. The vast majority of Kosovars fleeing the conflict did so after the commencement of the air war, fleeing both the Serbian ground offensive and NATO’s aerial bombardment, and the 10,000 killed violently during the campaign dwarfed the toll of previous Serb police crackdowns in the province.23 Robert Fisk of the Independent speculates, “Had we been prepared to intervene on land at the beginning – at the cost, no doubt, of NATO soldiers’ lives – countless murdered Albanians would still be alive.”24 The belief that combat losses would erode political support at home caused Western leaders time and time again to avoid taking the decisive action necessary to quickly end the Balkan conflicts.

The politics of international prestige also played a role in the Balkans debacle. Morgenthau describes prestige as “the policy of demonstrating the power a nation has or thinks it has, or wants other nations to believe it has.”25 When the Clinton Administration proposed air strikes against Serbian forces in Bosnia in May 1993, European governments weren’t merely opposed to the offer because it might jeopardize the lives of European soldiers serving in a peacekeeping capacity at the time, but also in order to demonstrate Europe’s capacity for independent political action.26 Likewise, the American pursuit of the Dayton Agreement, and torpedoing of previous ‘made in Europe’ solutions such as the Vance-Owen Plan27, sought to assert America’s continued influence in European affairs. Justifying air strikes against Bosnian Serbs undertaken just prior to the Dayton conference, then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher “presented the strikes as a means of preserving American military credibility.”28 Finally, as will be explored in detail below, the Kosovo air campaign was a prestige endeavour on a massive scale, mounted to illustrate the continued power and relevance of NATO in the post-Cold War era, and especially in response to criticism that it had been to slow to act in Bosnia.

In 1995, with the Soviet Union gone and no other credible threat apparent to the nations of Western Europe and North America, NATO’s future was open to serious doubt. Observers such as Christoph Bertram viewed the organization as one “in terminal decline,” and questioned whether it “might not see the end of this century.”29 The continued existence of NATO, a vital tool through which the United States exerts power and influence in Europe, depended on the identification of a new mission. To fill this hole, NATO directed itself towards ‘out of area’ operations, that is, operations undertaken outside the territories of its nineteen member nations. Kosovo represented an opportunity to mount a definitive out of area operation, one that would set precedents important both to international law and to NATO’s future operations.30 NATO launched the Kosovo air campaign after the Serbian government rejected the terms outlined in the Rambouillet accords31, an agreement which was presented by NATO as an ultimatum and which contained various provisions that Serbia could never have accepted. Rambouillet would have granted NATO an unrestricted and indefinite right to move, station and operate troops throughout the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia32, and would have required that a final settlement regarding the independence of Kosovo be decided by an international conference within three years.33 Both provisions, among others, were dropped from the June settlement that ended NATO’s bombardment, casting doubt on Albright’s assertion that “before resorting to force, NATO went the extra mile to find a peaceful resolution.”34 In fact, NATO had designed the agreement to fail. A senior U.S. State Department official reportedly told journalists at the Rambouillet talks that the U.S. had “intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply,” and observed, “They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.”35 Had NATO not already decided to bomb Serbia prior to the Rambouillet conference, an agreement might have been reached and the massacres and displacements that resulted from the air bombardment likewise avoided. Instead, the United States went to war in order to demonstrate the continued relevance of NATO, the primary organization through which it projects power in Europe, and thus to refute calls urging its dissolution. The decision, taken primarily by the United States, to pursue a military intervention rather than negotiate a peaceful solution that minimized the loss of life on all sides represents a profound failure to uphold the humanitarian principles that Western leaders purported to be governed by.

Alternately driven and hamstrung by great power interests and domestic political concerns, the interventions in the Balkans consistently failed to meet the humanitarian objectives iterated by NATO leaders. Humanitarianism in the context of the Balkan wars proved to be incompatible with the desire among Western nations, and specifically the United States, to demonstrate power while simultaneously avoiding the risk of military losses. The result was a decade of missed opportunities, ineffectual operations and, most importantly, the effective sanctioning of mass murder and displacement. While Western leaders, and especially those of smaller NATO members such as Canada and the Czech Republic, may have believed themselves to be acting exclusively out of concern for the well-being of Balkan civilians, strategic agendas drove NATO’s military engagements, and governed its previous inaction. If a lesson can be drawn from the rubble of the Balkans, it is that decision-making authority during humanitarian crises is a power that must remain solely in the hands of the United Nations. NATO’s engagements in the Balkans have demonstrated that regional alliances cannot be trusted to act on humanitarian objectives independent of the power objectives of their member states. Allowing regional alliances to construct a legal foundation for unsanctioned acts of ‘humanitarian’ intervention against other sovereign states can only encourage an increasingly militarized and unstable world. As A.J. Coates argues, “It is precisely the ‘altruistic’ pursuit of warfare that generates militarism and that leads to the systematic undermining of every limit placed upon war.”36 While the current U.S.-led ‘War on Terrorism’ has had the effect of shifting the focus away from humanitarianism, this shift is unlikely to be permanent. Humanitarianism will undoubtedly come to be used again to justify calls for military intervention, whether by NATO or another regional alliance. Clearly, responsible world leaders will have to resist the desire to accept the precedent of Kosovo, and its marginalization of the United Nations, and instead embrace multilateralism as the only global route to long-term peace, stability and security.




1 Address to the Canadian Senate and House of Commons (29 April 1999), reprinted as Vaclav Havel, “Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State,” New York Review of Books, 10 June 1999.

2 Jack Donnelly, International Human Rights (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), 139.

3 Michael Mandelbaum, “A Perfect Failure: NATO’s War Against Yugoslavia,” Foreign Affairs 78, 5 (September-October 1999), 3.

4 J.A. Spender, "Munich - Before and After," Contemporary Review, 154 (November 1938), 514. Spender relates the report of a correspondent who indicated that the Germans in the Sudetenland were living in fear of being killed by the Czechs.

5 Mandelbaum, 5.

6 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 101.

7 Charter of the United Nations. Online Available at http://www.un.org/Overview/Charter/contents.html. Accessed 3 March 2002.

8 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes the international community’s inability to reach consensus prior to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as a “tragedy,” though he admits that the unilateral intervention may have been warranted. See Kofi Annan, “Two concepts of sovereignty,” The Economist, 18 September 1999, 82.

9 US President Bill Clinton, as quoted in Francis X. Clines, “NATO Opens Barrage against Serbs as Clinton Denounces Brutal Repression,” New York Times, 25 March 1999.

10 Walzer, 101.

11 Quoted in Mandelbaum, 8.

12 Andreas Behnke, “The Enemy Inside: The Western Involvement with Bosnia and the Problem of Security Identities,” Alternatives 23, 3 (July-September 1998), 386; Warren Bass, “The Triage of Dayton,” Foreign Affairs 77, 5 (September-October 1998), 106.

13 Mandelbaum, 4.

14 See for instance David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

15 Bass, 96.

16 The Clinton administration had previously agreed to a NATO commitment, Op-plan 40104, to provide 20,000 U.S. troops as part of a 60,000-person evacuation force should the situation on the ground become too chaotic for the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia to function. As the situation worsened, the administration found itself caught between overseeing a humiliating withdrawal and intervening. Thus, NATO air strikes, the Dayton Agreement, and the deployment of NATO’s Implementation Force (IFOR) all resulted from what Bass describes as an “aimless” decision. Had the Clinton administration not committed itself to the evacuation force, it is doubtful that NATO would have intervened in Bosnia at all. Bass, 99-101.

17 Ibid, 97.

18 Ibid, 99.

19 On 3 October 1993, 18 American soldiers were killed during a botched raid intended to capture two senior commanders implicated in the continuing Somali civil war. See the node Battle of Mogadishu; also Walter S. Clarke and Jeffrey L. Herbst (eds.), Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1997).

20 Quoted in “Think-tank criticizes NATO’s ‘air only’ strategy,” The Irish Times, 5 May 1999. Online Available at http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/1999/0505/wor5.htm. Accessed 3 March 2002.

21 Based on polling data summarized by Steven Kull and Clay Ramsay, “The Myth of the Reactive Public: American public attitudes on military casualties in the post-Cold War period,” in Public Opinion and the Use of Force, Philip Everts and Pierangelo Isernia (eds.) (New York: Routledge, 2001), 205-224.

22 Paul Robinson, “Ready to kill but not to die: NATO strategy in Kosovo,” International Journal 54, 4 (Autumn 1999), 678. See also Carl Cavanagh Hodge, “Casual War: NATO’s Intervention in Kosovo,” Ethics & International Affairs 14 (2000), 39-54.

23 Based on figures reported by the International Crisis Group in Kosovo Spring Report, 20 March 1998, 23.

24 Robert Fisk, “Was it rescue or revenge?” Independent (London), 21 June 1999, 5.

25 Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 5th Edition Revised (Toronto: Random House, 1978), 82.

26 Bass, 99.

27 Wayne Bert, The Reluctant Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 195; James Petras and Steve Vieux, “Bosnia and the Revival of US Hegemony,” New Left Review 218 (July-August 1996), 16-23.

28 Bert, 122.

29 Christoph Bertram, “NATO on Track for the 21st Century?” Security Dialogue 26, 1 (March 1995), 65-71. For a more thorough investigation of the quantity of material that was written on this question, see http://www.csis.org/ee/NatoMilitary.htm. Accessed 4 March 2002.

30 While the Bosnian intervention in 1995-1996 is considered the first such ‘out of area’ operation, it was, as has been previously shown, more of a damage control mission entered into almost by accident. The Kosovo operations, on the other hand, were the result of an intentional decision by American and British leaders to intervene militarily.

31 The proposed text of the accords is available at http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/dossiers/kosovo/rambouillet.html. Online Accessed 4 March 2002.

32 Ibid, Appendix B, Article 8.

33 Ibid, Chapter 8, Article 1 (3).

34 As quoted in Mandelbaum, 4.

35 According to multiple sources quoted in “What reporters knew about Kosovo talks – but didn’t tell: Was Rambouillet another Tonkin Gulf?” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) Media Advisory, 2 June 1999. Online Available at http://www.fair.org/press-releases/kosovo-talks.html. Accessed 4 March 2002.

36 A.J. Coates, The Ethics of War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 42.

The concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been an oft debated one not merely among academics but also at various diplomatic levels. There is considerable dispute over what constitutes humanitarian intervention and how it ought to be applied. In reality, much of this confusion stems from the fact that while there is an emerging consensus regarding the universal nature and inviolability of human rights, there is no concrete mechanism to ensure that the powers thus vested will not be misused. It can be argued that the post Cold War period has, for various reasons, given rise to conditions where a clash between human rights and national sovereignty will arise. Both theoretically and practically there is tremendous debate about which of these should prevail. It shall be argued that while theoretically human rights out to take precedence (which would then be an implicit sanction for humanitarian intervention), in reality, sovereignty cannot be cast aside so easily. Finally, it will become clear, that when humanitarian intervention has indeed taken place, the motives have not always been philanthropic and this can lead to mistrust and confusion.

The definition of a humanitarian act according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one that seeks to ‘prevent and alleviate human suffering’. This definition is supposed to be non political and impartial in that it assumes that all human beings are induced worthy of concern irrespective of sex, race and nationality. However, critics of this position argue that what constitutes human suffering may differ from one epoch to another. On the whole, there is little confusion though over what constitutes humanitarian crises, humanitarian aid and relief.

It is the other word in the contentious phrase ‘intervention’ that is the cause of much debate. It implies interference and violation- in this case a violation of sovereignty. This sovereignty is guaranteed by Article 2.7 of the United Nations (UN) Charter which protects national sovereignty even from intervention by the UN. The Article forbids the UN to intervene ‘in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of a state’. Intervention could be of various sorts- military, non military, forcible or non forcible and humanitarian or combination of any of these. The key underlying factor is that no matter what the cause of the intervention or the form it takes, it violates the principle of sovereignty. There are some cases where a state calls for intervention- perhaps to monitor a ceasefire or to keep peace, but on the whole, states at the receiving end of interventionist policies remain bitter about the violation of their sovereignty. This essay shall concern itself with only one kind of intervention- that is humanitarian intervention. This happens when intervention takes place because of gross human rights abuse, torture, genocide, ethnic cleansing or when humanitarian aid and relief is being obstructed and does not reach the civilian victims of an internal dispute, such that it threatens to take on epidemic proportions.

It must also be kept in mind, that the controversy really surrounds forcible rather than non forcible humanitarian intervention, which usually involves the use of military force. Thus the key question then becomes a clash between human rights and national sovereignty wherein lies the crux of this debate. Sovereignty has always been after all, a sensitive issue. The UN is predominantly an association of small countries that guard their sovereignty rather zealously. Moreover, small states which have a say in the General Assembly rather than the Council tend to be extremely wary of interventions. In the light of many ‘interventions’ in the past, the term has become virtually synonymous with ‘invasions’.

At the outset, it is imperative that we examine why humanitarian intervention is now at the top of the agenda in any discussion on human rights. The post Cold War world has seen a rise in the number of UN Security Council resolutions concerned with a humanitarian agenda. At first, it was believed that this was so because it was easier to obtain a consensus on humanitarian issues than on complex political ones. But it has soon become clear that humanitarian actions bring with them their own political baggage, and humanitarian intervention has become the focus of much debate in the Council.

It has been argued by those who believe that the Cold War was a period of stability and balance that the demise of the bipolar world has contributed to rising human rights abuses. It is argued that there is now no bloc to hold in check recalcitrant smaller nations. Moreover, if a superpower now chooses to punish such a state, it is unlikely to explode into major conflict or nuclear war. Most importantly, notions of sovereignty have changed quite considerably.

Stability and the upholding of human rights is now seen as a key feature of the new international order. It is now accepted that civil wars are rarely benign. They cause immense loss of lives and property and the chief victims are ordinary civilians who find themselves caught in the crossfire. In the light of statistics such as these, most countries now agree that is not prudent to let civil wars fester or burn themselves out. There is a broad consensus that one should not wait till a conflict escalates or spills over into neighbouring countries.

Finally, international civil society has committed itself to a global ‘human rights culture’ that outlaws genocide, torture, human rights abuses, but which often come into conflict with principles of non intervention and sovereignty. In such a case, the key issue then becomes where the international community should intervene or let a murderous state annihilate its own citizens.

A key feature of the changed attitude to humanitarian issues and human rights has been the role of the media. The ‘CNN factor’ as it sometimes called can exert immense public pressure on leaders to act. As pictures of starvation, disease, suffering and genocide are telecast in all their vivid gory details into living rooms, the clamour for Western governments to ‘do something’ increases. But this can have the opposite effect as well. As the pictures from Mogadishu of body bags and mutilated American soldiers were telecast back home, there was a change of mood, and there was pressure on Clinton to now withdraw his soldiers from Somalia.

It can be argued thus that there is, and should be a general consensus on the importance of human rights. These are basic to one’s existence and the denial of these human rights ought to be the responsibility of the international community. However, how the international community discharges this responsibility is a matter of debate. Here it can be argued that while there is a consensus regarding the universality of human rights, there is little consensus on when, where and how states (or the international community) should intervene to restore these human rights. It can be argued that case studies show that interventions have traditionally been motivated by national interest rather than a simple desire to alleviate suffering. Hence, once realist calculations of national interest enter the picture, the humanitarian aspect of the mission is both bound to suffer and to become tainted by bias.

First, it can be argued that the concept of sovereignty should not be sacrosanct. This concept is implicitly tied to a country’s responsibility towards its citizens. When a state abuses its citizens and is clearly in violation of human rights, then state frontiers should not be seen as water tight boundaries that can protect criminals and mass murderers. But there are two aspects to how this intervention should be carried out and the motives behind this intervention. We begin by examining the latter first.

It can be conclusively argued that interventions are rarely without motives which are not always philanthropic. In the light of the light of the abdication of moral responsibility on the part of society of states in the face of genocide in Rwanda- most crucially in the capitals of Western states- suggests that we should be cautious about investing too much faith in state leaders as guardians of human rights in world politics, and suspicious when they do invoke human rights to legitimize their actions. In the absence of an international mechanism for deciding when intervention was permissible, states might espouse humanitarian motives as a pretext for covering up the pursuit of national interests.

A good example of this was the French led Operation Turquoise in Rwanda. The French for long had been propping up the Hutu government in power and had even been providing troops when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, operating from Uganda threatened to run over the country in 1990 and 1993. French action stemmed from Mitterand’s anxiety to ensure that French credibility in Central Africa did not fade away. But the response of the leaders to the genocide that took place suggests that the expression of international solidarity in the face of the genocide was limited to moral outrage and the provision of humanitarian aid to its victims.

While the French actions were often criticised as being too little, too late, NATO actions in Kosovo have been seen as a case of too much too soon. Several reasons were put forth for NATO’s actions. It was argued that Serbian actions in Kosovo had created a supreme humanitarian emergency and breached a whole range of international legal commitments. Milosevic’s use of force against the Kosovar Albanians challenged global norms of common humanity and that NATO had a moral obligation to stop such action. However, a closer examination of events shows us that the motives at stake were complex. While humanitarian motives were present, there were others that coloured the character of the intervention. First, it was argued that NATO inaction would damage its credibility particularly as the previous year’s diplomacy with Milosevic had been underlined by the credible threat of force. The Americans were interested in maintaining the Dayton peace accord and ensuring regional stability. After all, as Clinton put it, Kosovo was in the ‘heart of Europe’ and in “NATO’s backyard”. Western states were also concerned about the massive flow of refugees into the Southern Balkans could threaten the stability of the already weak states of Macedonia and Albania and generate a massive flow of asylum seekers in the West. But in the opening weeks of the Operation Allied Force, the ethnic cleansing and mass murder continued unabated. The Western leaders now subtly changed their objectives. It was no longer about perverting a catastrophe, but about ‘reversing’ one. The question that NATO consistently avoided was answering how its bombing campaign from the air could attain its humanitarian ends. Moreover, the NATO campaign was considered by many to be in breach of international law as it did not have the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. While NATO argued that its actions were justified under Resolution 1199 and later 1244, others have argued that no such customary right of intervention exists and any such right would undermine international order and security.

Another key case is that of the Australian intervention in East Timor in the days leading up to its independence. While in this case, there was no conflict in terms of the legitimacy of the action (it was clearly authorised by Resolution 12640, it is to be noted that the reason why the Indonesian government did not oppose the resolution was the incredible financial pressure brought to bear upon it by the United States. The invasion of Haiti was in part a response to the flood of Haitian migrants seeking refuge in Florida, the importance of that state in the American electoral process, and the influence of the Black Caucus in Congress and for the Clinton vote bank.

Thus we see that state interest plays a key role in intervention. The obvious corollary to this is that when states are dictated by their national interests rather than a pure humanitarian motive, there will be selectivity in terms of interventions. Intervention occurs when a state feels that military action might further its own political interests in the long run. In northern Iraq, the trilateral UK-French-US alliance was strongly influenced by the fact that a number of the refugees were headed towards Turkey, a key NATO member and a close ally. Since Turkey had its own Kurdish problem to deal with, it was unwilling to accept several hundred thousand more Kurds flowing into the region. There is little doubt that Yugoslav defiance of NATO and the refugee crisis were both important reasons for NATO intervention. And, as has been already pointed out, if the motives were entirely humanitarian, then they clearly failed to stop the genocide or ethnic cleansing.

The question of selectivity is also crucially linked to the influence of the media. It has been sarcastically pointed out by some, that the European holiday makers were moved by the plight of the residents of the once beautiful and majestic Sarajevo but did not spare a thought for the Hutus and the Tutsis who were slaughtering each other at the same time. Thus, television coverage, its biases and the angles that it chooses to present, are an influential factor in moulding public opinion and thereby influencing the policy of governments.

In Sudan at the same time hundred thousand civilians were killed and millions were displaced and it generated cross border spill over effects. But the international community avoided coercive engagements and watched from the wings. Even in the case of Rwanda, warnings of an impending genocide conveyed by the men on the ground to the Secretariat was not passed on to the Secretary General and that Security Council. We can thus see these actions in the light of the above factors- lack of public pressure and the lack of interest shown by any of the Great Powers in either of these two conflicts.

This brings us to the question of the use of military force in humanitarian intervention. It is quite clear that the size of the force is not entirely related to the success of the operations. While the French had a force of not more than 5000 in Rwanda, and were at least able to save some lives, a huge force of 33,000 was completely ineffective in the Balkans in the face of continuous attacks. Thus, when the troops are deployed, there is often a lack of a clear command structure or an adequate mandate. This brings us back to the question of how the international community can, even with the best of intentions, be responsible for the ineffective implementation of their proposals.

To summarise, we see that while in theory genocide, human rights and torture must all be stopped, in practice there is little political will to do so. It is difficult to disagree in principle with the solidarist case that states have a moral obligation to intervene in exceptional cases that offend minimum standards of humanity. Those who believe that as a legal right humanitarian intervention has the potential to be abused, may also agree that it is justified on moral grounds, as often being the only way to end the slaughter. But these principles are challenged by the actual practice of international relations, where self interest predominates and nations are reluctant to intervene if it means a loss of lives for their soldiers or if ground troops have to be involved. Thus, both in terms of the means and the ends of humanitarian intervention there remain key flaws.

In the light of this pessimistic portrayal, one might then ask: what is the solution? The solution is not one-dimensional. On the one hand, human rights are universal and must be upheld. But who will uphold these rights and how are just as important questions. The first is relatively easy to answer- it must be the United Nations that must be the repository of all such actions and the authorisation for them. While there are numerous arguments about the efficacy of the UN and the undue US influence within the body, it still remains the only democratic global forum that can sanction such action. However, it is perhaps more prudent to argue that military intervention, even on humanitarian grounds, should be used as last resort. In this respect, the reflections of Kofi Annan are rather though provoking. He suggests that non military weapons such as sanctions and diplomacy ought to be used first and only when these are completely exhausted must one resort to force. He also makes the point that intervention should not be unilateral as it makes various states uncomfortable and causes suspicion and tension. He argues ‘can we really afford to let each State be the judge of its own right, or duty, to intervene in another State’s internal conflict?’ He argues that such decisions need to be taken collectively and he sees the UN Security Council as the best instrument for doing so. He thus argues “only the Council has the authority to decide that the internal situation in any State is so grave as to justify forceful intervention.”

Two other suggestions could be made in this regard. First, that non forcible humanitarian intervention even without the consent of the government through independent international aid agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres can be remarkably effective. It creates moral pressure on the government in question and can relieve an impending humanitarian disaster. It can thus be argued that where there is a humanitarian crisis emerging, it is perhaps prudent and less confrontational to encourage such agencies to step in and assist in the relief effort rather than to simply back the provision of humanitarian aid with military power that would antagonise the government in question.

The other solution relates to the long term causes of such humanitarian disasters. Human suffering is not always linked to the breakdown of state frontiers and the provision of succour should not be linked to questions of national interest or greed. However, past experience shows us that until the framework of the state is weak, collapsing or engulfed in internecine strife, the international community has been reluctant to intervene. This shows that states are more willing to see humanitarian intervention in terms of crisis management rather than developing global political and economic politices to address the underlying the structural causes of poverty and inequality. Hence, in a broader sense one can see humanitarian intervention as a short term tactic used by Western nations to take away attention from the real problems that are confronting many developing countries. If attention did focus on these problems, a serious re-working of North-South relations would have to take place. It is simply easier to train attention, especially through the media, on human suffering and the immediate provision of aid.

In conclusion, one can perhaps make several pertinent points. First, as has been repeatedly said, there is little doubt that in theory human rights ought to take precedence over national sovereignty, a principle which would then legitimise humanitarian intervention. However, there are various problems with how humanitarian intervention has been carried out in the past, both in terms of the motives behind these actions and the means used for them. The use of military force can be counter productive and the motives of various nations in using force are not always benign. Thus, it can be argued that unless a reasonable mechanism is found whereby the violation of sovereignty is linked solely to the restoration of human rights rather than to Great Power motives, the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention will continue to remain flawed and controversial.

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