Humanitarianism's Long History - Continuity and Change - Part 2

This is the second and final part of our discussion on the history of humanitarian intervention. The previous post looked at long-term ideas as they relate to perceptions of suffering. As we move through the past, notions of who is suffering and from what have changed drastically. This can often dictate why and in what capacity states or organizations intervene in certain situations and not in others.

Following the First World War, the League of Nations was created and welcomed by many jurists, intellectuals, and statesmen who believed that peace among states in Europe could be guaranteed. Regardless of the League's failures, namely the failure to protect both Abyssinia and Manchuria from Italian and Japanese aggression, the ideas that undergirded the League, many of which can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, were the most enduring elements of modern humanitarianism. Some of these ideas included the need for an international court system, a health organization, as well as a committee for refugees. Many of them fed directly into the United Nations when it was established after the most destructive and costly war in modern history.

Given the expansion of telecommunications, the interconnectedness of global economies, and the immense demographic ebb and flow of soldiers, civilians, prisoners of war, and internally displaced persons following the Second World War, the ideas of suffering, which were now firmly associated with physical security and prosperity, had become even more widespread. The great powers of Europe now understood suffering was part of the anthropogenic environment, not a celestial one, and relieving it could be accomplished by political means even if that implied war. Perhaps more importantly, experiences of demobilized troops and civilians had affected the societies to which they returned immediately after the war.

This included the politicians and statesmen who had endured the instability of the 1930s and witnessed the uncertainty of the 1940s. The Cold War ushered in a new series of intergovernmental problems, but the memory of the Second World War continued to preoccupy the international community.

The Korean War (1950-1953) represented the first litmus test for UN-sanctioned intervention on behalf of what the Americans understood as a suffering population at the hands of Communist China and, by extension, the Soviet Union. UN Security Council Resolution 82 unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea, although the Soviet Union had boycotted UN discussions during this time. Justification to intervene was more rather than less ideological and greatly depended on American will and resources.

In 1956, the United Nations and the international community reacted to hostilities between the newly established State of Israel and the Arab world, with the involvement of various other belligerents interested in the region’s utility. Without doing justice to the complexity of this period, after much fighting in the region, the UN called an emergency session of the Security Council and General Assembly. Consequently, with the help of the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, the UN mobilized the Emergency Force (UNEF) through Resolution 1001 and ordered a ceasefire and effectively prevented the intensification of violence.

Both of these events are significant in the history of armed intervention, as well as part of the UN’s history as an intergovernmental organization. They both demonstrate a willingness to not only uphold the principles of the UN Charter, but also to dispose the resources and materiel necessary to stop conflict between states and against civilians. The international statesmen involved in discussions about security during this period, such as Lester B. Pearson, were of a generation that had experienced the instability of the 1930s and the destructiveness of the 1940s. This was a generation that believed in the utility of global governance and international security grounded in an appreciation for human rights and dignity.  Only through global cooperation could they avoid the mistakes of appeasement that led to the outbreak of the Second World War.  This was a generation that had clearly understood the power that states wielded and the importance of international stability.

But if we approach more recent examples in which civilian populations have been ravaged by war, the ideas that form the basis of the UN and intervention on behalf of a suffering group appear to lose vitality among the international community. This is especially true for wars and atrocities in the post-Soviet era, namely those in Somalia and Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, respectively. In part because of a generational shift, the experiences and priorities of a newer coterie of decision makers were vastly different from those of the Pearsonian era. In other words, without the threat of a major ideological competitor challenging the hegemony of the United States, certain states began to dissociate from the guiding principles of sovereignty and security that had firmly characterized the politics of previous decades. In a way, the cost-benefit analysis had changed.

However, the same cannot be said for hostilities and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia beginning around the same time. The ideas that pushed groups and state to intervene in the past, once associated with theology and later political ideology, lost momentum. Both the “Somalia Affair” in the Canadian context, the American debacle in the same country which resulted in dozens of casualties, and the utter failure to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, tarnished peacekeeping and led some politicians to question the efficacy of the UN as an organization, but not necessarily its principles.

One of the most monumental shifts in ideas relating to humanitarian intervention and armed intervention came in 1994 in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. After Slovenia’s declaration of independence in 1991, Slobodan Milosevic intensified a program to bolster Serb nationalism throughout the various republics that constituted Yugoslavia. The UN correctly believed that Milosovic sought a greater Serbia, which was by no means innovative, and would use the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) to meet these ends. In a series of wars from 1991 to 1999, whose effects have still not fully materialized, thousands of civilians were killed and many more displaced. Beginning in February 1992, the UN authorized the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to intervene in Croatia, which aimed to monitor a pre-existing ceasefire. UNPROFOR’s mandate would later expand to include Bosnia where fighting between Serbs, Bosniaks, and Bosnians escalated. UNPROFOR was required to protect the civilian population from the JNA, but ultimately failed to do so. The now well-known situation facing Dutch peacekeepers in the town of Srebrenica designated as a safe area in 1995, in which UN troops stood idly while Bosnian Serb forces murdered thousands of Bosniak men and young boys, represents the nadir of the UN mission in the region.

This ultimately led to a devolution in humanitarian and armed intervention involving the international community. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), themselves products of post-Second World War anxieties, were authorized to create a force to displace the UN in the former Yugoslavia. Unlike UNPROFOR, however, Implementation Force (IFOR) operated under a one-year mandate to ensure physical security and included some 60,000 troops from various countries. After its mandate was completed in 1996, IFOR was replaced by a similar NATO-led group called Stabilization Force (SFOR). Although authorized by the UN, the NATO missions in the former Yugoslavia marked a significant change in how intergovernmental organizations conducted humanitarian intervention.

Why the international community intervened in the Balkans and not in Africa is a separate problem altogether, but the residual issues of the war flowing directly into Austria, Italy, and Hungary were undoubtedly contributing factors to the energy with which European leaders pursued the belligerents. From the perspectives of politicians in Washington, London, and elsewhere, the authority given to NATO to operate in the region was quite effective. NATO’s mission in Bosnia and Croatia underscored that humanitarian intervention had more to do with the will of the international community, rather than an ability to aid civilians.

Although done cursorily, this brief description of the long-term developments in intervention and humanitarianism helps us understand where we are today. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 indicated the general impotence of the international community to prevent a unilateral “intervention.” It demonstrated that powerful states and actors can intervene on behalf of a population they believe to be suffering, however dubious those claims may be and despite virulent condemnation of other states and organizations. This does not mean, however, that the UN and other organizations are irrelevant, but it does mark an important chapter in a history of humanitarian intervention, one which has yet to be concluded.

All of this, then, raises more questions than we have answers. Why did the UN and NATO support armed intervention in Libya and not elsewhere during the so-called “Arab Awakening” in 2011? Why do the UN Security Council and NATO permit Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine’s territory as well as its aggressive expansion into East Jerusalem?  Perhaps most pressing, how can we explain international reaction to the egregious human rights abuses committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria?

In his most recent book, Tariq Ramadan writes "analysis in the heat of action is never easy, especially as events unfold and their causes-and the future itself-remain clouded with uncertainty.” While this was no doubt true for the incipient stages of the Arab Awakening, the civil war in Syria has continued unabated for over two years without any sign of coming to an end. The death toll is staggering, as many journalists have already noted, reaching some 90,000 civilians killed in the fighting. The situation in Syria is beyond its incipient stages and we've seen what inaction will do, but why have the EU, UN, and other states stood idle when coalition forces so quickly and forcefully implemented a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011? Are the people of Syria not suffering according to the international community?

In the American context, the post-Iraq era has proven to be one of increased reticence on the international stage. Perhaps Syria has come to represent a satellite state in which American foreign policy interests are pitted against those of Iran and Russia. Intervention in Syria, at least as far as American foreign policy is concerned, would have great consequences for relations between Washington, Teheran and Moscow.

Several weeks ago, Robbin Harris from Standpoint Magazine criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron's determination to arm the Syrian opposition by comparing the situation there to what unfolded in Bosnia during the 1990s. "Historical parallels are treacherous," he reminds us. I couldn't agree more. The degree of ethnic and cultural heterogeneity in Syria is much greater than in the former Yugoslav republic. Western media continue to subsume all Syrian political groups into one "rebel" opposition, despite significant class and confessional differences. Adding to the complexity is the debate over whether Jabhat al-Nusra, a group fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army, is "officially" a terrorist organization and therefore not in line with American democratic interests.

As the international community stands idle and thousands of Syrians are displaced, crossing borders into Lebanon and Turkey, the civil war in Syria is clearly a problem for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). In May, Bashar al-Assad made clear that peace talks for the country were futile and that he was determined to run in the re-election scheduled for next year. Given the obvious determination of both sides, what can the international community do? As we have shown, intervention in almost every historical example has everything to do with the will to stop violence based on an understanding of suffering. Although, as Harris pointed out, Syria isn't Bosnia, the NATO force sent to Bosnia and Croatia in 1995 managed to neutralize the fighting and eventually ensured physical security for the many civilians threatened by war.

After looking at the long-term developments in humanitarian thought, from as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, how far have we really progressed? While since the late eighteenth century suffering has been understood in tangible and physical terms, a look at the long history of humanitarian intervention shows a very negative side of global governance. Governments and actors which possess power to limit violence continue to be selective when determining who deserves to be relieved of suffering. Despite the marked transformation in the institutionalization of humanitarianism, the impetuses to intervene and ideas justifying intervention have changed very little over time. The civil war in Syria is a startling example of this.

In short, while the ideas of humanitarian intervention have remained static, the institutionalization of these concepts has failed to advance their cause. In this sense, despite the good nature of international governance, the application of humanitarian impulses in practice remains uneven. Political realities continue to trump human suffering and policy is rarely about the alleviation of suffering.