Introduction: Human Rights in Times of Conflict: Humanitarian Intervention

Human Rights Dialogue, Series 2, Number 5

In the Winter 2000 issue of Human Rights Dialogue, Dimitrina Petrova wrote: “When an abusive government engages in gross and systematic human rights violations, the international community must intervene, if necessary by military force.” She went on to argue that NATO’s intervention in Kosovo “had a deleterious effect on the credibility of human rights in the Balkans, where human rights discourse was used to morally justify the loss and destruction of thousands of lives.” In the Spring 2000 issue of Dialogue, Aloysius Habimana explained that to most Rwandans, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is “no more than a UN political scheme to save face, doing too little too late for Rwanda.”

These two views illustrate the paradoxical premise of this issue of Dialogue: the concept of humanitarian intervention, defined as any action undertaken by a state or group of states that violates another state’s sovereignty in order to alleviate human rights abuses or humanitarian crises, is necessarily both good and bad. Humanitarian intervention saves lives and costs lives. It upholds international law and sometimes breaks international law. It prevents human rights violations and it perpetrates them. A single case of humanitarian intervention affects different groups of people in different ways: the victims of human rights violations in the country where intervention occurred, the victims of violations in countries where no intervention occurred, the perpetrators of the violations, the citizens of the country whose government perpetrated the violations, vulnerable nearby populations who are not necessarily directly connected to the violations in question, and the activists working in the name of human rights both locally and internationally.

This publication is not opposed to the idea of humanitarian intervention; rather, it provides a critical examination of the practice of intervention. It examines the impact of humanitarian intervention on human rights observance, the public legitimacy of the idea of human rights, and the future acceptance of the actions of the international community taken in the name of human rights. The essays herein offer perspectives of people who have witnessed the effects on the ground of intervention and its aftermath—who embody the lived experience of humanitarian intervention. Many of the articles deal with the recent intervention in Kosovo. Indeed, as representative of the most extreme form of humanitarian intervention—military intervention—Kosovo looms large in the world’s imagination with respect to the promise and perils of humanitarian intervention. An intervention executed with such resolve, justified by human rights concerns, and captured by the international media, Kosovo did more than affect human rights for the Kosovar Albanians, the Serbs, and other minority groups. It also challenged our thinking about the merits of humanitarian intervention to achieve human rights goals.

The most immediate and visible effect of humanitarian intervention is on the actual human rights abuses that it is supposed to stem. Does the intervention stop these abuses? Does it have any impact at all? Does it create new human rights abuses, either unintended by the intervening parties or calculated and deemed worth the sacrifice? Leonora Visoko gives a first-hand account of the plight of Kosovar Albanians during and after NATO’s bombing campaign in 1999. Despite the terrible hardship they faced in its wake, she says, Kosovar Albanians believe NATO made the right decision. Claude Cahn provides a window into what he assesses to be a tragic consequence of the intervention known by few in the international community: the suffering of the Roma, or “Gypsies,” in Kosovo at the hands of the Kosovar Albanians during and after NATO’s intervention. Robert Myers criticizes the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for their posture of neutrality in Bosnia. By wrongly identifying the sides as Serbs versus Croats rather than as nationalists versus those supporting a multiethnic state, most humanitarian organizations actually played into the hands of the nationalist politicians and ethnic cleansers. Instead of overcoming ethnic division, the decision to not take sides—to not feed and arm the defenders of multiethnic society—actually deepened it, Myers argues.

The experience of humanitarian intervention affects local perceptions and acceptance of the idea of human rights and the international human rights movement, insofar as that intervention is justified by governments, humanitarian organizations, and the media in the name of human rights. According to Julie Mertus, the strong human rights culture that Kosovar Albanians had developed in the 1990s was damaged by the timing and nature of NATO’s intervention. Jelena Subotic argues that while the economic devastation and loss of lives wrought by the NATO bombing initially hurt the credibility of human rights activists in Serbia, it eventually led to the development of the new, stronger civil society that overthrew Milosevic in the fall of 2000.

Shifting our focus to Asia, Ajiza Magno explains that the 1999 intervention in East Timor ended ongoing human rights violations and provided much-needed security for the local population, just as NATO’s intervention did for the Kosovar Albanians. The full impact of humanitarian intervention, however, cannot be measured in the short run by military action alone. It must include the effect of the institutions created by the international community to deal with the problems resulting from the intervention as well as the precipitating crisis. In both East Timor and Kosovo the United Nations has set up transitional administrations with unprecedented authority.

In East Timor, according to Magno, this administration does not give adequate voice to the local population. While Magno believes that that the local human rights community in East Timor is strong enough to maintain its credibility, Kristen Boon and Joel Ngugi are worried about the impact the UN Mission—whose adherence to internationally recognized standards of human rights is in some way questionable—will have on the development of human rights norms in Kosovo. In contrast to these examples of international administration in East Timor and Kosovo, James Newton explains that the institution of a Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina has brought the concept of human rights down from the lofty language used to justify the humanitarian intervention to mechanisms that local communities can understand and easily access.

The international human rights community cannot intervene everywhere in the world where human rights violations occur. For legal, political, and economic reasons, to name a few, it must inevitably act selectively. For this reason, humanitarian intervention in one country has repercussions in other regions of the world with ongoing or past human rights violations. Even if there were universal consensus that NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was a human rights success, the questions would still arise: Why not elsewhere? Why not with as much resolve in Sierra Leone? Why not sooner in Rwanda? Why not sooner in East Timor?

To Pierre Antoine Louis, the international community’s neglect of massive human rights violations in Sierra Leone at the same time as its overreaction to comparatively less egregious violations in Kosovo invites charges of imperialism, racism, and hypocrisy. He also charges that after nonintervention in countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone, which lie outside the scope of Western interests, the NATO bombing of Kosovo actually damaged the universal legitimacy of human rights.

Kenneth Roth closes this issue of Dialogue by laying out choices for the international human rights movement when confronting the decision of whether or not to advocate intervention. Acknowledging that humanitarian intervention is sometimes necessary to stop genocide or mass slaughter, Roth suggests criteria that might justify its use. By addressing the objections often raised to such justifications, Roth provides a framework to account for the various, often contentious, viewpoints presented in this issue of Human Rights Dialogue.

Read More: Human Rights, Intervention, Armed Conflict, Humanitarian InterventionHuman Rights,

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