Posted by: sean | December 14, 2008

On humanitarian intervention

A friend of mine sent me this review from the Times of two books on humanitarian intervention. The first book on review is Conor Foley’s The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War (Verso), and the second is Gareth Evans’s book, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Brookings).

It’s a thorny issue that I’ve thought a lot about, but I almost always end up coming down on Evans’s side. The simplest, and perhaps most simplistic, reason for that is looking at the Balkans today, 15 years after NATO intervention and comparing it with Central Africa today, 15 years (and around 5 million deaths) after a lack of intervention to stop the genocide in Rwanda. By the by, only about a fifth of those deaths are from the actual genocide, the rest are from conflicts that have arisen as a consequence of it.

Of course it’s hard to compare the two regions (even harder to compare their counterfactual histories), and the Congo wasn’t so hot before 1994, but overall, I think there is some value in looking at the two regions side by side. Of course with such doctrines inevitably comes their abuse, but at the end of the day, while the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) might give people like Bush or Putin some extra rhetorical ammunition, history should show us that if someone in Washington or Moscow is determined to invade Iraq and/or Afghanistan, then international law is going to do little to persuade or dissuade them anyway. So Putin mentioned the right to protect when he invaded Georgia, but does anyone really believe that he would have acted any differently had the 2005 UN World Summit never mentioned the responsibility to protect? I sure don’t.

Bush’s war in Iraq happened without the Responsibility to Protect, but Rwanda might have gone down differently. Although one could say that interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia also happened without the sanction of R2P, it’s worth remembering that the West is much more likely to intervent to stop mass atrocities in Europe than they are in, say, Africa.


  1. Your comparison between Africa and the Balkans is based on a false premise: that the reason the death toll in the Balkans is far less than in central Africa is because of the military actions aka interventions there. That isn’t so. The reality is that in the Balkans, as in say Iraq, military action by western powers made things far worse than the previous situation. If such action would really have helped in Rwanda then it would appear that you’re comparing chalk and cheese.

  2. why not read the books themselves and then decide. I would be interested in your comments.

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