Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action
Reviewer: Sarka Matejkova (Institute of International Relations, Prague)
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The September 2005 World Summit may be interpreted as an important turning point in the normative development of international human rights protection. First, there was the creation of the Human Rights Council, reflecting the need to establish a more credible and efficient body to replace the UN´s Commission on Human Rights. Furthermore, the subsequent document, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was presented, covering a right to humanitarian intervention as an extreme, but real, policy option. Finally, it shifted the traditional understanding of sovereignty to responsibility and debated the rights of interveners to the rights of affected populations. On the other hand, the main progress was achieved in a rhetorical sense because the operational possibilities of the R2P concept still depends on the political will of the most powerful states – those that hold permanent seats in the UN Security Council. Moreover, watching the continuing crises in Sudan, Congo or Afghanistan, one clearly sees the gap between political reality and pious rhetoric.
Weiss devotes his book: Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action, to this problem, and systematically explores the possibilities and limitations of humanitarian intervention (HI), by connecting the origins and development of the idea itself with many practical examples of both intervention and non-activity within serious humanitarian crises. The author ranks among the pro-intervention wing of scholars, highlighting suffering victims of conflicts before principles of sovereignty and impenetrability of state borders. Weiss also worked as the research director in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that spawned the R2P principles. Besides, the chair of the ICISS and currently president of the International Crisis Group, Gereth Evans, authored the foreword to this book. Although Weiss advocates the concept of R2P, he acknowledges its potential difficulties, and so introduces his book with a question: “Are we at the dawn of a new normative era but in the dust of the bullish days of humanitarian intervention?”(p. 2).
Further, Weiss briefly explains the logic and structure of the book, which is divided into five chapters, where a few concluding remarks are included at the end of the finale. The structure of this book is very well thought-out; with a complex overview of concepts related to HI, followed by empirical cases, spanning three decades, that that reflect the changing nature of international society. One chapter is dedicated to the concept of R2P viewed by Weiss as the contemporary norm that grew from the Security Council’s lethargy in Rwanda and Kosovo. In the final part, operational challenges to HI, based on five main practical constrains to the concept, are presented – which helps to maintain the optimistic attitude of the book and reduce dismisses of ‘naivety.’
The first chapter entitled, Conceptual Building Blocks, serves usefully to understand HI as one, among various possibilities, of international military action. Firstly, a definition of HI is provided for, which for Weiss is viewed as military intervention based on two crucial criteria: it has to be provided without meaningful consent of local government and with humanitarian justifications (p. 6), which means that he focuses primarily on unsolicited types of interventions. The defined concept of HI is then put in contrast to traditional peacekeeping covered by Chapter VI of the UN Charter, and based on consent, neutrality and the use of force only in self-defense. In short, peacekeeping aims to ‘interposition the forces between armed parties of the conflict’ (p.7).
Further, Weiss argues that HI ranges across three other options: war fighting – to defeat a clearly defined adversary, peace enforcement – to use force against conflicting parties or spoilers to achieve peace and coercive protection of civilians – to interposition forces between potential or real attackers and civilians. This conceptualization is especially beneficial because it serves as a basis for the selection of empirical cases and, when compared to other publications, this goes further than pronouncing the meaning of HI as controversial. Moreover, Weiss discusses the constraining principle of sovereignty, which does not have to be viewed strictly as non-intervention, but also as responsibility. Such accountability is directed, on one hand, towards a state’s own citizens (internal sovereignty) and towards a community of states protecting human rights (external sovereignty), on the other. This broader interpretation is put into context of increasing importance of human security and appealing to Kofi Annan, who tried to publicly spread this concept.
Following the theoretical considerations, empirical examples of HI´s are presented, however, due to spatial constraints; they illustrate certain historical eras rather than explain the complicated features of particular conflicts. As a result, the development is divided into three distinct time-periods. The first, termed the colonial era, starts with first cases of coercive interference due to humanitarian reasons in the nineteen-century (Greece 1827, Syria 1860, Crete 1866, the Balkans 1875-8), but the doctrine had no real significance until 1945. With the UN Charter regime also came a wide discussion on the use of force but the Cold War period was dominated by a bipolar contest and so consensus was restricted due to the use of veto power. In result most interventions that occurred during the Cold War were weak cases for humanitarian justifications, and rather based on national interests of the intervening states (Congo 1960, Dominican Republic 1965, Central African Republic 1979, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989). Finally, the post-Cold War period began with the growth of international humanitarian cooperation, and a significant decrease of the use of veto power in the Security Council.
Consequently, there are more illustrative examples fulfilling the criteria of HI that were divided into three types: with Chapter VII authorization, with Chapter VII delegation and without the approval of the Security Council. Weiss argues that the interventions in the 1990s were more legitimate, based on just cause and multilateralism. Nonetheless some were still very problematic (Somalia, Balkans). Moreover, Weiss stresses repeated failures to rescue civilians, which decreases the credibility of the R2P concept as well as the UN in more general terms.
The historical overview then moves to the present state of affairs by capturing some important trends in current conflicts, and consequently also in the area of humanitarian activities. In this section Weiss offers a clear demonstration how the nature of international society has changed and now has to face new challenges like the increasing role of ‘economic spoilers’ who profit from wars. He also uses quantitative data of civilian victims in the past and compares them to current numbers with the surprising conclusion that civilian casualties currently represent some 90 percent of conflict related deaths. Moreover, aid workers are in great danger, as they often become strategic targets.
The pessimistic view from battlefields is followed by a certain degree of hope, which Weiss sees in the concept of R2P: representing a “new thinking” (p. 88). Weiss discusses the origins coming from Francis M. Deng and Roberta Cohen, who interpreted sovereignty as responsibility. Another important proponent of this view was Kofi Annan who helped spread the idea of R2P in various speeches. Yet the most progress was brought by the ISISS that transformed an abstract idea into the R2P report, growing later in the 2005 outcome document of the World Summit. Further, the three main aims of the concept – to prevent, react and rebuild are presented. According to Weiss, this document gave operational meaning to HI and modified the ‘just war’ principles to current humanitarian needs. However even Weiss, as an advocate, acknowledges the necessity of political will to make the R2P work.
The concluding chapter, pertinently entitled: So what? Moving from rhetoric to reality summarizes the main challenges of HI for the future, being “not normative, but rather operational” (p.119). Weiss mentions, as the main constraint, the persistent negative image of HI in developing countries, which tend to perceive it as imperial efforts guised by humanitarian motives. A second problem was raised by the events of 9/11 and the following war on terrorism that dangerously stretched the R2P concept to be used for preventive wars. A third obstacle, closely related, is the dominant position of the US, which led to unilateral interventions revealing the necessity of US-UN cooperation in crisis management. The final two problems are also interconnected and actually, in short, express the problems of new wars and new humanitarianisms discussed in the previous chapter.
The whole effort to combine the theoretical ground with the reality of international politics leads to a final and fundamental question: to intervene or not to intervene? Weiss leaves space for thinking, and does not answer according to his personal perspective. On the other hand he uses the magical words what if and suggests that 800000 murdered Rwandans would have preferred a military intervention to peaceful ignorance.
Compared to other publications on the dilemma of humanitarian intervention, this volume is a very good starting point to ‘put the ideas in action’ and think about the whole complexity of the problem ranging from theoretical conceptualization and legal considerations to practical features and political obstacles. The greatest advantages of this book are its complexity, clarity and comprehensiveness, which will attract not only students and scholars from the field, but anyone interested in current inter- and intra-state conflicts and the potentials available for their resolution.