The Choices for the International Human Rights Movement

January 6, 2001

For a confirmed pacifist, the debate over humanitarian intervention is easy. War is the ultimate evil, to be opposed in any circumstance. For a human rights activist, however, the issue is more complex. If military force cannot be ruled out categorically, when might it appropriately be used to stop severe human rights abuse? In my view, 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 and the intervenor abides strictly by international humanitarian law. Because military force necessarily entails a risk to life, it should not be deployed lightly. However, some things are worth fighting for, including, at the very least, stopping the slaughter of large numbers of innocent civilians. For example, I believe that many in the human rights movement (including my organization, Human Rights Watch) appropriately advocated military intervention to stop genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.

To elaborate, the human rights movement should recommend military force only for the most severe abuses involving large-scale loss of life—genocide or comparable mass slaughter. (The latter concept includes large-scale killing on political grounds, which is not embraced by the concept of genocide.) Governments might well choose to proceed militarily against lesser abuses, and I would not oppose such efforts if they meet the other criteria outlined below. Because of the risk to life inherent in military intervention, however, I would not actively advocate its use against abuses short of mass slaughter.

The human rights movement should advocate military action only when it really is the last feasible option. If diplomatic or targeted economic pressure has a reasonable chance of preventing slaughter, these nonviolent tools should be used first as a simple matter of prudence. Obviously, though, one’s willingness to try nonmilitary alternatives must diminish if large-scale slaughter is already under way.

The human rights movement should not advocate military intervention unless we are reasonably certain that it will do more good than harm. Going to war against a nuclear power, as some suggested in response to Russian atrocities in Chechnya, would fail this criterion, as would the use of military force in a territory where it would trigger accelerated or broader killing that the intervenor is unable or willing to prevent.

Finally, the human rights movement should not advocate military intervention unless the intervenor will abide strictly by international humanitarian law. It is morally defensible, in my view, to use military action against the forces and their commanders who are carrying out mass slaughter. However, it is immoral to stop slaughter by deliberately or indiscriminately killing civilians.

I recognize that in war some unintentional killing of noncombatants may be unavoidable. Humanitarian law provides the best standard we have for distinguishing unfortunate but unintentional loss of civilian life from the deliberate targeting of civilians or their killing through indiscriminate warfare. Only the latter are human rights violations, which the human rights movement should oppose categorically. The former must be considered in looking at the overall costs and benefits of a proposed intervention, but it is not a reason in itself to reject intervention.

If these criteria are met, I believe the human rights community should advocate humanitarian intervention. It is wrong for us to oppose, or even remain neutral about, a tool that at reasonable cost could save large numbers of innocent civilians from slaughter. In such circumstances, our pacifist qualms should give way to our paramount goal of preventing the most severe human rights abuse.

I have deliberately omitted certain criteria from my standard for advocating humanitarian intervention. I do not believe that it is the role of human rights advocates to seek military intervention to stop fighting between combatants that does not involve the large-scale slaughter of civilians. Fighting between soldiers can be tragic, but it does not inherently violate international humanitarian law, which has traditionally been the guide for the human rights movement in evaluating military conflict.

I would not insist on approval by the Security Council or other multilateral bodies as a prerequisite for military intervention. Such approval is certainly desirable and should be sought if possible, both because it is arguably legally required (though this has been debated) and because it can serve as a check on interventions that serve as mere pretexts for other ends, but I would not require it.

Human rights activists certainly have an interest in upholding international law, since it is one of the sources of legitimacy for our movement. But there are times when international law, particularly in its current, formative stage, may be insufficient to protect core human rights values. For example, why should advocacy of military intervention be limited by the self-interested reservations of China or Russia, whose veto power can block Security Council authorization? Why are victims of atrocities less deserving of our support because, in the view of Beijing or Moscow, their territory’s resemblance to Tibet or Chechnya is too close for political comfort? In such circumstances, our first loyalty should be to the victims, not the current law prescribing the UN mechanism for authorizing the use of force.

Some argue that we should insist on multilateral intervention not because of fealty to particular institutions or interpretations of international law but as a device to avoid military ventures that are said to be launched in the name of human rights but really serve ulterior motives. That is a legitimate concern, but one we can address in other ways, such as by vigilantly scrutinizing and denouncing military interventions launched in the name of human rights that in fact have little if anything to do with stopping severe abuses. This may involve taking a stand on seemingly political issues outside the normal scope of human rights work. If we are to preserve the option of humanitarian intervention when warranted, however, we must oppose the inappropriate use of a human rights rationale.

Yet, in making this assessment, we should not be surprised that many governments act from a mixture of motives. Purely altruistic interventions are probably rare and should not be required. We should insist on military action guided foremost by a human rights rationale, not on an absence of other motivating factors.

Finally, some argue that humanitarian intervention should not be allowed if it is pursued selectively. I agree that selectivity is to be deplored. The value of human life should not vary because victims might be located at a distance from the intervening states or in a part of the world with little strategic significance. It is difficult to accept NATO’s relatively eager intervention in Kosovo in light of the West’s reluctance to intervene, even with the government’s active encouragement, in Sierra Leone. Nonetheless, the human rights movement should not hesitate to help one set of victims simply because our efforts to assist another group have failed. Two wrongs do not make a right.

In sum, I believe that human rights advocates should allow a role for humanitarian intervention. It is not an easy option. It should be deployed with much thought and consideration. But it is an option that at times is necessary. In the circumstances I have outlined, I believe the principles of our movement require human rights activists to advocate its use.