Revisiting Humanitarian Intervention: Post-September 11

Nov 19, 2001

Report on a 11/27/01, Carnegie Council workshop.

Who is claiming the human rights mantle and for what purpose?

Many factors go into decisions of powerful international actors like the U.S. or N.A.T.O. to intervene militarily in any given situation (or, in the case of the Security Council, to give a green light to such intervention). In Afghanistan, U.S.-led intervention initially was justified in terms of self-defense rather than human rights or humanitarian concerns. In fact, in the early days and weeks of U.S. bombing, there were major concerns that war against the Taliban/al Qaeda would produce a humanitarian disaster in the region as winter approached – such concerns were dismissed as secondary to the objective of rooting out al Qaeda before it could wreak more havoc.

Human rights motives were similarly secondary: the Taliban’s rights record had been abysmal for years without prompting international military intervention. It was only when the Taliban were defeated in Kabul and elsewhere that U.S. leaders, buoyed by media images of Afghans (including many women) celebrating in the streets, emphasized the benefits of the war for Afghan citizens and society.

One participant[*] in the working group emphasized, however, that the U.S. “self defense” justification itself was framed in rights language. The U.S. leadership from the outset emphasized that the September 11 attacks warranted a decisive military response not only because of the scale of the carnage, but because the attackers purposefully had targeted innocent civilians, a violation of one of the core provisions of the international “laws of war” (the Geneva Conventions and other treaties; also commonly known as “international humanitarian law”). Conceivably, U.S. President Bush could have said that “an act of aggression has been committed against the United States and we are going to respond to the aggressors by crushing them.” He didn’t say that. Instead, he has claimed throughout that the U.S. is engaged in a war in defense of American values, and against those who purposefully kill innocents in pursuit of their political or religious objectives. Essentially, this participant said, the Bush administration was drawing on humanitarian law/human rights arguments, whether consciously or not.

The language of anti-terrorism is thus not necessarily inconsistent with airing of rights concerns. As the introduction to the January 2002 Human Rights Watch report on human rights developments worldwide phrased it:

The September 11 attacks were antithetical to the values of human rights. Indeed, it is the body of international human rights and humanitarian law--the limits placed on permissible conduct--that explains why these attacks were not legitimate acts of war or politics. If the human rights cause stands for anything, it stands for the principle that civilians should never be deliberately slaughtered, regardless of the cause.... Unless the global anti-terror coalition firmly rejects this amorality [the ends-justify-the-means ideology of al Qaeda], unless the rules of international human rights and humanitarian law clearly govern all anti-terror actions, the battle against particular terrorists is likely to end up reaffirming the warped instrumentalism of terrorism.

Along these lines, one could imagine U.S. leaders using rights and humanitarian law as guideposts for the entire anti-terrorism campaign, as a way of distinguishing the “civilized” response (means as well as ends should be scrutinized) from the terrorists’ conviction that anything goes in the fight against their enemies. But this has not happened. Instead, U.S. leaders have repeatedly stressed that new attacks may come at any time, that this is an emergency, and, accordingly, rights may have to be suspended at home and abroad in the interests of efficiently and effectively tracking down wrongdoers.

Rights standards allow for temporary rollbacks of rights protections in emergencies, and the U.S. response was not necessarily inconsistent with rights principles. The U.S., however, did not formally announce that it was curtailing civil liberties or provide detailed justifications for the scope of the rollbacks, as called for by international treaties. U.S. leaders simply assumed they would be seen to be acting in good faith, given the new dangers to U.S. security revealed by the 9/11 attacks. U.S. leaders, while restricting access to information about the war in Afghanistan for national security reasons, have also assumed that others would accept that the U.S. was fully adhering to the laws of war in its Afghanistan campaign. A number of participants felt that the U.S. has not done nearly enough to convince others that this is true. The result is the sense from the outside that this is an other case of U.S. exceptionalism, that U.S. leaders feel international standards are for others and don’t apply to the US, even though U.S. leaders and representatives for decades have been speaking out loudly on rights issues in other countries.

One participant emphasized that this perception of U.S. rights hypocrisy makes life difficult for rights advocates, particularly for overseas rights groups. After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. crackdown, many rights groups in developing countries reported renewed pressure and intimidation from local authorities, who have seized the opportunity provided by the changes in the U.S. approach to rights, such as the prolonged detention of Middle Eastern suspects in U.S. jails on seemingly flimsy evidence and open discussion among U.S. policymakers of whether torture might be appropriate for some suspects. Authorities in developing countries have used these developments to charge that local rights groups that criticize draconian laws and practices used to stifle dissent or suppress minorities are out of touch with current international thinking.

One participant emphasized, however, that when states use human rights language in foreign policy-making, the U.S. included, it is not necessarily just a strategic tool of foreign policy. It also provides criteria to evaluate the fit between a state’s behavior and its stated objectives. As this participant put it, humanitarian law and human rights norms “have become part of the furniture” in international interventions. Human rights organizations, which have repeatedly and consistently insisted on respect for the laws of war, deserve some of the credit for this new emphasis on human rights protection in the field. Afghanistan is no exception. For example, U.S. Special Forces undergo extensive training on the Geneva Conventions and protocols that govern the conduct of war (proportionality, discrimination between military and civilian targets, treatment of prisoners, and so on). The Special Forces, in turn, have instructed Northern Alliance forces on how to comply with international human rights and humanitarian law standards. When the Northern Alliance massacred over 100 Taliban recruits in Mazar-e Sharif, there was significant news coverage of the incident and widespread criticism from many sides, including the United States.

Another participant disagreed, emphasizing that the current war in Afghanistan seems to have closed a space that existed shortly before this war—an emerging paradigm that appeared to be allowing more space for idealistic views to influence foreign policy. According to this participant, insofar as rights language and rights claims have been part of the U.S. rhetoric on Afghanistan, they mark a return to old patterns. During the Cold War, balance of power and national security concerns were paramount for actors on both sides of the divide. In the 1990s, however, that was beginning to change, with more attention paid to objective of seeking remedies that actually improve conditions in the country in which intervention is contemplated. By contrast, this participant said, the war in Afghanistan shares important features of three interventions in the 1970s: India-East Pakistan, Tanzania-Uganda, and Vietnam-Cambodia. In each of these examples, intervention was justified on grounds of self-defense; it was unilateral; the overthrow of the regime was a concrete goal; and the intervention had human rights consequences that could be construed as a net positive. In this sense September 11 may look new and unprecedented—indeed, it does demonstrate the transnational implications of local conflict today—but when considered in the long-term, the political rhetoric being applied to this war is nothing that has not been used before.

Should Rights NGOs Ever Advocate Armed Intervention in Human Rights Crises?

Another issue discussed was whether human rights groups should ever affirmatively call for or oppose armed international intervention, or whether the best policy for rights groups is to maintain neutrality (to say “this is not our issue”). Amnesty International, for example, has a “no position” policy regarding humanitarian intervention, neither criticizing nor supporting any intervention. Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, follows the principle that “the human rights movement should urge military intervention when it is the last feasible option to stop genocide or comparable mass slaughter, so long as intervention is likely to do more good than harm...” (Human Rights Dialogue 2 (5): 21). But even Human Rights Watch rarely is vocal about decisions to intervene.

Is neutrality a satisfactory response in the face of crises? Should human rights NGOs be more vocal in their opinions of states’ actions? In the Winter 2001 issue of Human Rights Dialogue, Robert Myers described what he calls the “fallacy of neutral humanitarianism,” explaining that the determination of NGOs to avoid taking sides often ends up backfiring, as it did in Bosnia. Neutral NGOs eventually came to be known among the population as “governmental NGOs” because their neutrality was more about supporting the peace plan of the UN than about saving lives. Rather than try to remain neutral, which would mean buying into the ethnic cleanser’s argument that the war is about Bosnians vs. Serbs as opposed to one about ethnic cleansers v supporters of a multi-ethnic state, Myers argues, NGOs would have been wiser to aid the defenders of a multi-ethnic Bosnia by providing them with food, weapons, and solidarity.

Among other things, Amnesty’s “no position” stance reflects fears within the organization that the alternative would require considerable resources – both lengthy internal deliberations and time-consuming public justifications of its position—draining time and energy form what Amnesty does best, the work of monitoring and reporting abuses connected to the conflict.

One participant argued that the Amnesty position was troubling for its “deep indifference.” This participant contrasted two different types of international NGOs: research and advocacy oriented groups and more service-oriented humanitarian aid groups. The former, such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, are valuable precisely because they take hard positions and are quite uncompromising on some issues. Impartiality is more appropriate for those NGOs that “actually get involved in the nitty-gritty policy work and actually act a little bit more like governments in the sense that they get involved in the difficult tradeoffs.” NGOs that are not involved in such on-the-ground decision-making have both the capacity and moral obligation to be vocal. This participant concluded by suggesting that if groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, respected for their boldness and forthrightness, are unwilling to speak out, the issue is not likely to be given the attention it deserves.

Taking sides, however, has its difficulties. If an NGO endorses armed intervention, it will become more difficult for the organization credibly to claim to be an impartial judge of any alleged human rights abuses that follow. Many human rights NGOs, particularly groups like HRW and AI, believe that credibility is their most valuable asset. For example, if a rights group were to call for armed intervention in Afghanistan, it likely would be perceived as saying that the interveners are rights champions, which might or might not turn out to be the case. The group might also become less zealous about monitoring how the war is waged, or, conversely, go out of its way to be critical in order to create an appearance of balance. Either way, its credibility would be undermined. Second, once a group takes a position for or against intervention in one case, it will be expected to do so in all cases, and it might not have the time or expertise to do so. And there will likely be many difficult cases in which the rights group wants a strong international response but fears that an armed assault may do more harm than good. Developing criteria for such determinations will be time-consuming, and communicating a position accurately fraught with dangers of misinterpretation.

Getting involved in such issues also raises the question of the extent to which rights groups would need to reach beyond human rights arguments to be influential. Should they, for example, try to get into the business of arguing for earlier intervention, researching and trying to make the case that egregious human rights violations are a harbinger of coming regional instability, and thus of concern to the international community? Or should they stick to pure human rights arguments?

Another participant noted that failing to take a position means losing a golden opportunity to raise rights concerns with the public through the media. While those who consciously follow human rights news and receive press releases put out by human rights organizations are aware of the expertise and reliability of these groups, the broader public remains largely unaware of the involvement of human rights defenders during times of crisis. By not taking a stand at the start of a conflict, such groups lose a prime opportunity to put human rights front and center on the public agenda.

Has September 11 adversely affected relations between international and local rights NGOs?

One participant posed the question of why human rights defenders worldwide are uncomfortable with the United States’ response to September 11. The answer, he suggested, relates to the issue of power. Even members of rights groups in developing countries who think the American response is correct and justifiable are uncomfortable because they know that only the United States is capable of this type of response—no other states have the resources necessary to exercise this option. Many NGOs outside the U.S. believe that intervention may end up helping Afghanistan, but how decisions are being made and carried out in the global anti-terror campaign symbolizes to them the inherently undemocratic nature of global decisions: the rest of the world is dependent on benign or enlightened U.S. decision making. There is no international due process, and little voice for those outside the U.S. in key decisions affecting the global community.

One participant emphasized that one of the fundamental problems within the human rights movement as a global movement is that there is no language to talk about power as it relates to situations such as the current one in Afghanistan. The distinction between “local” and “international” NGOs, for instance, might be simply a euphemism for weak NGOs and powerful NGOs, respectively. Inequality of power among human rights groups mirrors inequality of power among states. This has been brought into view the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. When powerful international NGOs fail to criticize U.S. policies sufficiently forcefully (or fail to communicate their criticisms effectively to an international audience), they risk losing support among smaller organizations worldwide. This participant urged that, when forming their policies, European and U.S.-based NGOs listen more to what local NGOs have to say.

What is the proper role of international NGOs in shaping post-conflict institutions?

Past debates over humanitarian intervention were primarily focused on the question of whether or not to intervene, to the neglect of what happens after intervention. With Afghanistan the international community seems to have learned the lesson that thinking about and involvement in the development of post conflict institutions to deal with the legacies of violence and develop a new, stable order are necessary parts of the intervention. The ready recognition of the need to tend to the post-conflict situation in the case of Afghanistan is likely due to an awareness of the tragic consequences of inaction following the retreat of the Soviet Union more than a decade year. In October 2001, British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that the same mistake would not be made again: “Our message to the people of Afghanistan is this—in the past we have let you down but we will not turn our backs on you again. We will work with you to build a better future for you and your children.”

One participant identified six forward-looking priorities that human rights advocates should adopt for post-conflict situations: 1) accountability: prosecutions of perpetrators of the worst human rights crimes; 2) reparation for victims; 3) institutional reform and institutional building; 4) official acknowledgment of victims’ suffering; 5) public recognition of the perpetrators’ culpability in order to diminish their social power; and 6) proactive reconciliation strategies.

Participants emphasized that in post-conflict situations one of the most important roles human rights defenders can play is to prevent the international community from making decisions ill-suited to the country’s needs. In Afghanistan, e.g., it is critical that NGOs help identify interlocutors within the country who represent the people most affected, people who for years have been without power or voice. By the same token, rights groups have an obligation to help identify those with the worst rights records and work to ensure that they be excluded from future governments. The power of human rights defenders in this area is great, but timing is key. In Somalia, for example, human rights organizations took the time to identify and become familiar with traditional leadership. They identified local voices and urged the United States to have contact with them. But these efforts were too little, too late.


In concluding, one participant emphasized that the larger question posed for the rights community by the war in Afghanistan is what it wants to see happen next, what it should be doing to try to influence the paradigm of the anti-terrorism coalition so that it pays more attention to human rights. Instead of assuming that human rights advocates are powerless and must react to a paradigm that has descended upon them, they should recognize the role they can and do play in determining how the paradigm is constructed.

[*] The discussion on November 27, 2001 was held on the understanding that names would not be used in any subsequent reports or publications. [Back to Top]

You may also like

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

JUN 4, 2024 Article

Space-Based Data Risks to Refugee Populations

Space-based data is quite useful for observing environmental conditions, but Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that it also raises privacy concerns for vulnerable populations.

JUN 3, 2024 Podcast

The Intersection of AI, Ethics, & Humanity, with Wendell Wallach

In this wide-ranging discussion, Carnegie Council fellows Samantha Hubner & Wendell Wallach discuss how thinking about the history of machine ethics can inform responsible AI development.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation