Stopping an Occasional Genocide is Better than None

by Kenneth Roth

David Petrasek argues that humanitarian intervention—the use of military force to stop mass slaughter—risks becoming a “Frankenstein” because some governments that intervene do so inconsistently or out of self-interest. I see the matter differently. I assume that all governments act inconsistently and for reasons of self-interest. Yet because I am appalled at the idea of doing nothing when we have the Quote Garethcapacity to stop mass slaughter, I prefer a tainted humanitarian intervention to the supposed purity of passivity and indifference.

But before even going there, it’s worth pointing out that things are not nearly as bad as Petrasek suggests in his essay. Part of the problem is that he jumps repeatedly from situations of mass slaughter, which cry out for humanitarian intervention, to serious but lesser abuses, which do not. The breadth of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, or R2P, facilitates this sleight of hand. It addresses a range of crimes in addition to mass slaughter, including ethnic cleansing and war crimes, but it doesn’t require military force in all such cases. Rather, it contemplates a range of interventions, including diplomacy and sanctions. Because military intervention, by definition, entails killing people, most R2P proponents would advocate military force to halt only large-scale slaughter.

By that standard, most of the cases in which Petrasek faults the world for not intervening militarily are inappropriate for such intervention. The mass displacement from the Houthi rebellion in Yemen or the violent repression of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims are awful human rights abuses that should be vigorously opposed, but they don’t justify the killing that is inherent in military intervention.

Moreover, a high level of killing is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for humanitarian intervention. It is also important to determine that other reasonable options short of military force have been tried or would be futile, that military intervention is reasonably likely to do more good than harm, and that the intervention will be conducted in a way that respects international humanitarian law.

The success of the diplomatic option in ousting Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh and substantially stopping the bloodshed is part of why military intervention was not seriously contemplated there. Similarly, the consensual deployment of peacekeepers, as in eastern Congo, is preferable to a military invasion.

The prospect of doing more harm than good is what has kept many from advocating military intervention in Syria (let alone reinvading Iraq, which Petrasek seems to criticize the international community for not doing). It’s also what has stopped intervention against certain formidable militaries from ever becoming a serious option (e.g., in Chechnya).

The condition that any humanitarian intervention must respect international humanitarian law is intended to ensure that the target is the security forces engaged in mass slaughter rather than civilians. That Russia and Saudi Arabia have a tradition of flouting such standards is why principled proponents of humanitarian intervention do not seek their participation.

By ignoring these conditions for humanitarian intervention, Petrasek exaggerates the world’s inconsistency in undertaking it. He then implicitly adds a criterion that should not exist and is probably elusive—that humanitarian intervention should be untainted by self-interest. In fact, governments that engage in humanitarian interventions almost inevitably act in part for non-humanitarian reasons, whether in pursuit of economic interests, strategic goals, or simply political support at home. To insist on purity of motive is effectively to reject the possibility of humanitarian intervention altogether.

None of this is to deny that the world would be better off if governments pursued humanitarian intervention more consistently, without regard to other interests, exclusively out of the highest of motives. I wish, for example, that something more had been done to stop Sri Lanka’s indiscriminate shelling that killed up to 40,000 civilians in the waning weeks of the war with the Tamil Tigers. But I wouldn’t advocate waiting for utopia, or even proof that we are slowly progressing toward it, as a condition for humanitarian intervention.

Instead, I look at the issue from the perspective of the person sitting with his family as they are about to be killed. Should we say sorry, we won’t help you, because the governments that might do so have ulterior motives? Or sorry, we’ll let you be slaughtered because there are victims in other parts of the world whom we can’t convince governments to protect? Stopping an occasional genocide is a big enough accomplishment that we shouldn’t refrain simply because we can’t stop them all.

What about the possibility that governments misuse the concept of humanitarian intervention to justify military ventures that have nothing to do with saving people from mass slaughter? That’s certainly a concern, but the solution is not to preclude humanitarian intervention when genuinely needed. Instead, we should discourage such misuse by denouncing it, such as when George W. Bush tried to justify the Iraq invasion after the fact on humanitarian grounds

So let’s accept that the real political world is messy and will always fall short of the ideals of humanitarian intervention. Of course we should encourage governments to act more consistently and from higher motives when saving people from mass slaughter. But when, inevitably, they don’t, let’s still save the lives that we can rather than insist on a perfection that may feel intellectually gratifying but in fact is heartlessly cruel. The Frankenstein that I fear is one that justifies indifference to mass murder rather than one that, however imperfectly, sometimes steps in to stop it.

Kenneth Roth: Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, one of the world's leading international human rights organizations. Roth has also served as a federal prosecutor in New York and for the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington. A graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University, Roth has conducted numerous human rights investigations and missions around the world. He has written extensively on a wide range of human rights abuses, devoting special attention to issues of international justice, counterterrorism, the foreign policies of the major powers, and the work of the United Nations. You may follow him on Twitter: @KenRoth

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