Cambodia and the Perils of Humanitarian Intervention

Cambodia and the Perils of Humanitarian Intervention

Since September 11, no question has been more urgent for America and the West than how to combat terrorism. The danger of this dramatic and necessary change is, however, that it threatens to obscure the problem of humanitarian intervention—the need for it and its limits. This is no small matter, for even in these dangerous times, it remains crucial for America and the West to establish that in international affairs they care about more than just their own self interest.

The 1999 war in Kosovo was defined by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the world’s first humanitarian war. The war was followed by international intervention in East Timor—first by Australia and then by the United Nations—to end Indonesia’s brutal twenty-four-year occupation of the island. At the end of the old millennium, the world seemed to be changing the way it thought about humanitarian intervention. On September 20, 1999, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke to this subject in his address to the last UN General Assembly session of the twentieth century. He pointed out that the notion of state sovereignty, central to the concept of the United Nations, is being redefined by the forces of globalization and international cooperation. Individual rights, Annan went on to argue, were now seen as more important than in the past, and the international community was searching (at least rhetorically) for new ways to intervene effectively and to limit the impunity of dictators.

The reports that Annan commissioned at the end of the nineties on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1995 massacre of civilians at Srebrenica revealed in painful detail how very hard it is, for both organizational and political reasons, for the international community to respond with necessary speed to unfolding humanitarian disasters. The bottom line in both crises was that major governments did not want to do more. They did not keep their promises to protect people. Annan was correct in his assertion that when the international community promises to protect citizens, “It must be willing to back its promises with the necessary means. Otherwise it is surely better not to raise hopes in the first place.” Others went even further in pointing up the perils of humanitarian intervention. Edward Luttwak argued that humanitarian intervention can be counterproductive and that the international imposition of cease-fires often ignores the underlying problems that led to war in the first place. In an essay in the July/August 1999 Foreign Affairs entitled “Give War A Chance,” published at the time of the Kosovo War, Luttwak argued that sometimes only the evil of war can resolve a political conflict and bring about peace.

What is certainly true is that the history of interventions in the last decade shows how immensely difficult it is for the world to impose the solutions it seeks on recalcitrant regimes. Slobodan Milosevic ruled Serbia throughout the 1990s until NATO’s interv...

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