The Argument about Humanitarian Intervention

The Argument about Humanitarian Intervention

There is nothing new about human disasters caused by human beings. We have always been, if not our own, certainly each other’s worst enemies. From the Assyrians in ancient Israel and the Romans in Carthage to the Belgians in the Congo and the Turks in Armenia, history is a bloody and barbaric tale. Still, in this regard, the twentieth century was an age of innovation, first-and most important-in the way disasters were planned and organized and then, more recently, in the way they were publicized. I want to begin with the second of these innovations-the product of an extraordinary speedup in both travel and communication. It may be possible to kill people on a very large scale more efficiently than ever before, but it is much harder to kill them in secret. In the contemporary world there is very little that happens far away, out of sight, or behind the scenes; the camera crews arrive faster than rigor mortis. We are instant spectators of every atrocity; we sit in our living rooms and see the murdered children, the desperate refugees. Perhaps horrific crimes are still committed in dark places, but not many; contemporary horrors are well-lit. And so a question is posed that has never been posed before-at least never with such immediacy, never so inescapably: What is our responsibility? What should we do?

In the old days, “humanitarian intervention” was a lawyer’s doctrine, a way of justifying a very limited set of exceptions to the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is a good doctrine, because exceptions are always necessary, principles are never absolute. But we need to rethink it today, as the exceptions become less and less exceptional. The “acts that shock the conscience of humankind”-and, according to the nineteenth-century law books, justify humanitarian intervention-are probably no more frequent these days than they were in the past, but they are more shocking, because we are more intimately engaged by them and with them. Cases multiply in the world and in the media: Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo in only the past decade. The last of these has dominated recent political debates, but it isn’t the most illuminating case. I want to step back a bit, reach for a wider range of examples, and try to answer four questions about humanitarian intervention: First, what are its occasions? Second, who are its preferred agents? Third, how should the agents act to meet the occasions? And fourth, when is it time to end the intervention?


The occasions have to be extreme if they are to justify, perhaps even require, the use of force across an international boundary. Every violation of human rights isn’t a justification. The common brutalities of authoritarian politics, the daily oppressiveness of traditional social practices-these are not occasions for intervention; they have to be dealt with locally, by ...