The Politics of Rescue
Debating humanitarian intervention
February 1, 2003
Feb 1, 2003
8 Min read time
Debating humanitarian intervention.
A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis
Simon & Schuster, $26 (cloth)
The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention
Edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner
Basic Books, $26 (cloth)
Burundi is a small state in Africa that may face great risk of genocide. It borders Rwanda, where at least half a million people were slaughtered in 1994, and its population consists of the same Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. Nearly ten years ago Tutsi soldiers assassinated the country’s first Hutu president; since then both government troops, who are largely Tutsi, and rebel forces, who are largely Hutu, have killed tens of thousands of civilians, raped thousands of women and girls, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
No less a hero than Nelson Mandela has undertaken to negotiate a peace deal, but the Arusha Accord of August 2000 has so far changed little. Under the terms of the accord the government is supposed to uphold human rights, end impunity, protect civilians and the displaced, and improve the justice system. It has failed to make significant progress in any of these areas. The transitional government is composed of seventeen political parties, and the Tutsi president, Pierre Buyoya, is scheduled to cede power to his Hutu vice president, Domitien Ndayizeye, after eighteen months. If Ndayizeye does take over in May the political situation will grow even more delicate. If he doesn’t, the political situation will grow more delicate still.
The war in Burundi has international significance. The rebels have launched attacks from bases in Tanzania, which hosts hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled the war, the largest refugee population in Africa. Both government and rebel troops have operated bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they have also killed, robbed, and raped civilians. The Burundian military, like the Rwandan military, has supported rebel groups who are fighting the DRC government.
For ten years people have feared that genocide was imminent, yet despite the massive suffering of civilians during the war, killing on that scale has not transpired. Maybe it never will.
By virtue of having read this far, you are now among the few thousand best-informed Americans on the subject of Burundi. What do you think? Should the United States “intervene” in Burundi? If so, how, and when?
According to David Rieff, author of A Bed For the Night, an American public armed with a little bit of oversimplified knowledge is a dangerous thing. On the other hand, several of the essays in The New Killing Fields, edited by Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner, argue that raising public awareness about impending genocides is critical to stopping them. And one of the book’s essays, by Michael Walzer, is quite wrong in positing that “We are instant spectators of every atrocity. . . . Perhaps horrific crimes are still committed in dark places, but not many.”
These two new books examine the tricky practical and moral questions that arise when one state, or an alliance of several, takes up arms in order to compel another state to behave better. The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, signaled a new era when he proclaimed in 2000 that incidence of gross human rights abuse could override the sacred barrier of national sovereignty and justify armed intervention by outside powers. Despite Mr. Annan’s imprimatur such interventions are inevitably and quite properly accompanied by intense political soul-searching.
The New Killing Fields is a “lessons learned” sort of book that examines humanitarian interventions, or the lack thereof, in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and East Timor. If the fourteen analytical essays share common inspiration, it might be encapsulated in the phrase from Nicolaus Mills’s preface that “humanitarian intervention can work, can save lives, can overcome the political obstacles it inevitably faces.”
The book clearly aims for maximum topicality and contains some very worthwhile and provocative essays, especially those by Walzer and Michael Ignatieff. (It also includes one or two truly silly pieces, as such volumes inevitably do.) YetThe New Killing Fields is redolent of the decade gone by, an era in which good liberals wanted to go to war.
In the 1990s the anti-interventionists were mostly conservative, but we live now in the terrorist era and the Republicans are champing at the bit. The blood and tears of the war in Afghanistan have hardly dried and already Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is pushing the United States into Iraq. The Democrats either follow meekly behind or sound suddenly prudential—“This war sounds awfully dangerous! Maybe we shouldn’t!”
These are tectonic shifts in American foreign policy and we’ve yet to absorb the implications. Reading The New Killing Fields, one is tempted to try to apply some of the liberals’ prescriptions to the conservatives’ impending war. Walzer and Ignatieff both conclude, using different arguments, that the good motives of a humanitarian intervention do not lose their legitimacy when mixed with realpolitik motives of national interest (a point that Rieff, in his book, also makes). Walzer even argues, “The victims of massacre or ‘ethnic cleansing’ are very lucky if a neighboring state, or a coalition of states, has more than one reason to rescue them. It would be foolish to declare the multiplicity morally disabling.”
But what should we make of the Bush administration’s marshaling of human rights arguments to buttress its case for war against Saddam Hussein?
Talk about multiplicity of motives: getting rid of weapons of mass destruction, denying al Qaeda a base, bringing a big oil producer back into the fold before the House of Saud quite possibly collapses of its own stinking weight. For this administration to arrogate the human rights rhetoric that some of its members so studiously avoided fifteen years ago—when they were serving under Bush pére and Saddam Hussein was gassing tens of thousands of Kurds—is breathtakingly audacious if not downright cynical.
Rieff’s formative journalistic experience was in Sarajevo, and his book Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West was an impassioned denunciation of how genocide was allowed to unfold in the former Yugoslavia. He watched as the United Nations delivered relief aid to people who were being targeted for extinction—“putting Band-Aids on malignant tumors,” Rieff quotes one aid worker in Kosovo as saying. The provision of aid became an excuse for doing nothing, a kind of busywork that governments undertook so they could avoid decisive political and military action. This, Rieff argues, has led to a confusion of roles, to Secretary of State Colin Powell saying in an October 2001 speech, “The NGOs [non-governmental organizations] . . . are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.”
In A Bed for the Night Rieff reflects further on the disagreeable moral consequences of humanitarian intervention. For if it is true, as Mills says, that humanitarian interventions can happen, that NGOs can needle and shame politicians into responding to gross human rights abuse, it is also true, Rieff argues persuasively, that politicians can in turn use humanitarian organizations for bad ends. And when humanitarians allow themselves to be used, he feels, the whole sorry business of humanitarian intervention—already morally unsatisfying in its littleness and lateness—becomes more degenerate still.
I should probably disclose that Rieff aims some barbs at Human Rights Watch, where I am employed. His remarks about the organization are not unfair, although he twice refers ominously to a memorandum of understanding between Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee. I couldn’t find anyone at Human Rights Watch who remembers such a memo. He’s certainly right that humanitarian aid organizations increasingly use human rights rhetoric and that they have grown more political. It’s also true that politicians dispense humanitarian aid as an excuse for doing nothing. But it’s a long jump from those facts to Rieff’s bizarre conclusions that “by the late 1990s, [NGOs] were verging on cognitive and moral meltdown” and that possibly “modern humanitarianism as it has existed over the past thirty years . . . will cease to exist.”
The sky may be falling, but not for the reasons Rieff suggests. In fact, support for human rights is eroding in liberal democracies where people feel threatened by terrorism and is failing to take hold in many countries where people feel “human rights” is a false concept employed by the United States to help extend its domination over the planet. These trends pose the biggest threat to the human rights movement today, and Rieff misses both of them. He remains America’s most prolific critic of the human rights movement. One just wishes he were better at it.
Clearly, occasions for humanitarian intervention will not disappear. States will continue to fail and genocides will continue to be perpetrated. (As Rieff has incisively remarked, “Never again” seems to mean “Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”) The United States will again be called upon to intervene and the same debates will flare up: Are U.S. national interests at stake? Should the United States back one side in a civil war? Can an intervention really be called humanitarian if it’s carried out by bombers flying at 15,000 feet and the intervening power is desperate not to take any casualties? And that hardy perennial, Does the Pentagon have an exit strategy?
Rieff and the authors of The New Killing Fields are not wrong to focus their attention on the ability of effective humanitarian intervention to save lives, a genuinely new and momentous phenomenon in the relations between states. But it is also rare and will remain so. The Burundi phenomenon is much more common—terrible messes in which humanitarian intervention doesn’t make sense and won’t happen anyway. In the concluding essay of The New Killing Fields, Samantha Power notes that “U.S. policy options should not be framed in terms of doing nothing or sending in the Marines . . . just because the United States might not deploy its troops, it does not mean that a U.S. leadership role is not required or that other forms of intervention should not be tried.”
The kind of tedious diplomatic carpentry that a place like Burundi requires doesn’t usually attract the attention of journalists—skilled international negotiators to entice the National Forces of Liberation, one of the rebel groups, to sign the Arusha peace agreement; a serious commission of international inquiry to reckon with the crimes of many of Burundi’s current generation of leaders, who should be replaced; foreign participation in strengthening the justice system to deal with a backlog of more than eight thousand cases. Doesn’t really sound like a CNN headline, does it? Humanitarian intervention—inspired by moral leadership or public pressure—can save lives, but it shouldn’t have to.
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February 01, 2003
8 Min read time