Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 5 (Winter 2001): Human Rights in Times of Conflict: Humanitarian Intervention: Articles: Inconsistency and the Tragedy of Africa's Neglect

Jan 6, 2001

The concept of humanitarian intervention is based on the alleviation of human rights violations. Recent actions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, however, suggest that the practice of humanitarian intervention has less to do with stopping abuses than with furthering the interests of the intervening powers and their advocates. As a member of both the United Nations observer mission in Sierra Leone and the interim administration in Kosovo, I was able to witness the contrasting approaches to humanitarian intervention in those two arenas of conflict.

Nigeria, the West African powerhouse, spent considerable human and financial resources to help neutralize a murderous rebellion in Sierra Leone that has caused untold violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Nigerian model of humanitarian intervention was marked by a robust use of force to compel the rebels to accept the legitimacy of the elected government. As a regional power with its own human rights problems and a lethargic economy, however, Nigeria needed the assistance of the international community. Since the United States, Britain, and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council had no interests worth pursuing in a poor African country, the international community paid little attention to the plight of the people of Sierra Leone. The largely ill-equipped—if determined—Nigerians and a few hundred Ghanaians, Guineans, and Malians were left to their own meager resources to stanch a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions.

The eventual establishment of a UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone following the Lomé Agreement of July 1999 has not changed matters much. Sierra Leoneans have yet to reap the fruits of that intervention; certainly it lacked the robustness of the purported humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. There, from March through June 1999, scarcely two million residents benefited from a horrifying bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, which involved million-dollar missiles and other high-tech weaponry. In the aftermath of the bombing, 40,000 NATO troops deployed in Kosovo have provided protection and other assistance. At the peak of the crisis, NGOs and UN agencies showered the Kosovar refugees with cellular telephones, bottled water, cigarettes, and other amenities. Humanitarian workers and other Western experts crowded the television screens to register their incredulity and outrage that this could happen in Europe on the eve of the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, the plight of African refugees, who often fled the same kind of ethnic violence as the Kosovar Albanians, faded from the world’s consciousness as these refugees tried to survive on the crumbs left over from the Kosovo operation. The United Nations had to scramble to find 13,500 troops and the funds to support the operation in Sierra Leone, a country with nearly six million inhabitants. The U.S. Committee for Refugees estimated that international agencies and NGOs spent 11 cents per Sierra Leonean refugee versus $1.50 per Kosovar refugee. Though I did see destroyed villages in Kosovo, I saw nothing like the wide expanses of burned towns (including Freetown, the capital), amputee camps, droves of sex slaves, and child soldiers that continue to flourish in Sierra Leone. Thus, the concentration of resources devoted to Kosovo and the multiplicity of the actors involved seems excessive when contrasted to the Band-Aid applied to Sierra Leone. This point is not lost on those Sierra Leoneans who are aware of the situation in Kosovo. Even Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights, implied at the start of her three-day visit to Sierra Leone in June 1999 that there were disparities in treatment. She acknowledged that there had been more suffering, more loss of life, and more human rights violations in Sierra Leone than in Kosovo.

At the NGO level as well, the attention given to the two populations was shockingly disparate. While working in Sierra Leone as a human rights officer for the UN observer mission, I met a representative of a major international human rights organization, a U.S. citizen who said that formerly she had been a journalist. Her chief task consisted of monitoring the human rights situation and writing reports. My conversations with her revealed that she possessed little credible experience in Africa and virtually no human rights experience. In Kosovo, by contrast, I met seasoned workers who came to alleviate the plight of the suffering Kosovars. I believe this reinforces the appearance that international NGOs send people to Africa who are seeking only to find themselves and to establish a reputation.

Judging by the disparity between operations in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, not to mention the criminal failure of the international community, under U.S. leadership, to act in Rwanda, humanitarian intervention remains tinged with racialism and the assertion of power to further imperialist aims. Sierra Leone represents a shameful example of disregarding the plight of long-suffering black Africans; Kosovo, on the other hand, appears as a shining and dangerous example of a power foreign to a region, NATO, seeking to find a raison d'être in the post–Cold War era. NATO demonstrated its might, lest its imagined adversaries fail to appreciate the “new world order.”

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper criteria for humanitarian intervention. But if genocide in Rwanda and the horrors of Sierra Leone do not qualify for attention from those countries with the capacity to provide the necessary assistance, then the notion of humanitarian intervention has no validity. Those who doubt the truth of my assertions should re-examine just what is so special about the nature of suffering in Kosovo versus that of African countries in even deeper turmoil. What justifies continuing the huge expenditure of resources on the province of a sovereign nation? One need not be an apologist for Serbia's erstwhile leaders to be puzzled by the difference in treatment—nor need one be naïve about the vagaries of international politics.

The international human rights movement must overcome its biases and argue for even a semblance of consistency. By their current practice of treating different regions of the world unequally, international NGOs and Western governments are effectively subverting the principles of human rights and humanitarianism, which have gained a measure of respectability in the aftermath of the European wars of the last century. That respectability is being called into question by the current approaches to humanitarian intervention, which serve mainly the interests of major powers. Unfortunately, humanitarian intervention has very little to do, in practice, with respect for human rights.

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