Distasteful military intervention
Ameliorating humanitarian distress is beyond the scope of the armed forces
Since the end of the Cold War, countries have come under the scanner for military interventions to protect citizens, other than their own, suffering from humanitarian disasters. These transboundary military operations arise from human rights violation, persecution, repression and other reasons, mostly man-made and politically motivated. Consider these examples. United Task Force operation in Somalia in 1992 created a protected environment for conducting a humanitarian operation in the southern part of the country. The UN Transitional Authority Mission in Cambodia in 1992 was a peacekeeping operation of 45 countries to end the civil war and implement the Paris Peace Accord of 1991. NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 resulted in the withdrawal of Yugoslav armed forces from Kosovo and the establishment of UN peacekeeping mission. Coalition military intervention in Libya in 2011 resulted in the imposition of a ban on all flights in the country's airspace and tightened sanctions on the military regime. Military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014 that is still continuing is a multinational humanitarian effort against ISIL for their human rights abuses that resulted in millions of civilians in Iraq and Syria fleeing their homes and sparking a serious refugee crisis. These are all instances of military actions whose primary goal was not territorial or strategic but humanitarian. Most of these interventions had occurred in states of negligible geostrategic or economic importance. No obvious national interest was at stake for the intervening countries bearing the heavy burden of military intervention. In these military missions, power, authority, and influence were not important. The question is why did the countries intervene to save others and why do they continue to do so?
Humanitarian intervention has been going on for centuries. However, the norms for intervention have changed. Changes in normative standards have brought in changes in the scope of intervention. Martha Finnemore, Professor, International Affairs, George Washington University, USA, had said that in the 19th century, only Christians appeared to be deserving targets for humanitarian intervention on the grounds that they were being threatened by the Ottoman Turks. To take an example, Lebanon was a part of undivided Syria under the Ottoman rule. The Maronites (members of a Christian sect of Syrian origin living chiefly in Lebanon) there were the target for massacre, repression, and persecution by the Druze (members of a religious sect of Islamic origin living in Syria). In 1650, Louis XIV instructed his government to give French protection to the Maronites due to his concern for the Christians. Since then, France remained Lebanon's compassionate mother. In 1860, a massacre of thousand Maronites provoked France to intervene with military forces. "The object of the mission is to assist stopping, by prompt and energetic measures, the effusion of blood, and to put an end to the outrages committed against Christians, which cannot remain unpunished." The troops left when order was restored and an agreement was reached for Christian representation in the government. The European powers did not pursue any political or strategic ambition in Syria. Saving Christians was the only justification for the intervention.
While maintaining the unity and dignity of the Christian world became the sole norm and motivation for military intervention, the movement to end slave trade and emancipate slaves in Western Europe and the Americas became very strong at about the same time. The movement was called "Abolitionism". The slave system aroused protest in the 19th century when rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticised it for violating the rights of man and other evangelical religious groups condemned it as un-Christian. Britain succeeded in declaring the slave trade as piracy and started military intervention to seize ships under non-British flags that were suspected to be carrying contraband slaves. Britain limited their military action to abolishing the trade in slaves, not slavery itself. The abolition of slavery as a domestic institution of property largely came through legislation in European states but without military intervention. The slavery that was legalised for two centuries was eventually found to be "repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality." Abolition of slavery is among the most significant humanitarian interventions in the history of mankind. The process started with military intervention but ended with legislation as international opinion condemned and decried slavery.
By the mid-20th century, normative understanding of humanity had undergone a complete change. Humanity did not remain discriminatory and Christian-centric. Humanity became universal and immutable. Humanity was accepted as inherent in every human being. With this, humanitarian intervention assumed great significance. The decolonisation movement that started at about the same time along with the newly acquired human rights principle had brought about political self-determination, which, in turn, opened the door for sovereign statehood. The United Nations played a significant role in the decolonisation process. The self-determination norm proclaimed in the UN Charter, the trusteeship system it formulated and the one-state-one-vote voting structure that gave the majority voice to the newly independent states, created an international, legal and organisational framework that made the UN the sole authority of military intervention in case of human rights violation.
There are exhaustive UN principles and guidelines in the humanitarian-military interface, and they have been generated by the humanitarian community from a humanitarian perspective. The objectives of humanitarian actions are to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity during and in the aftermath of a man-made crisis and natural disasters, as well as to prevent the occurrence of such situations. Humanitarian action is free of political influence. In contrast, most contemporary UN peace operations including cease-fire monitoring are required to manage post-conflict peace building transitions that occur in several phases ending with the implementation of peace agreements.
Cedric de Coning of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs has listed the UN policies for an appropriate humanitarian-military relationship based on "The principles and good practice of humanitarian donorship" endorsed in Stockholm in June 2003. One, the military cannot be a humanitarian actor because military action does not recognise principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Therefore, the military should not claim to undertake or report its activities as humanitarian action. Two, the request for support for humanitarian action must come from a humanitarian actor and such support must be provided under civilian direction. In immediate life-threatening circumstances, the military will act first and coordinate with a civilian actor as soon as possible thereafter. Three, military support must be the last resort only when there is no civilian alternative and military capability is uniquely able to provide this service. Four, military support must be limited in time and space and the military must hand back the task to an appropriate civilian authority as soon as such an authority is capable of taking on the task again; and, five, the type of support and method of delivery should be designed to limit the association of military personnel where such an association may endanger the beneficiaries and humanitarian workers.
Humanitarian intervention in the post-Cold War context was invoked for the first time by the UN in 1991 to defend Kurds fleeing their homes in northern Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War. "Operation Provide Comfort" as it was called and launched by the USA and other coalition partners of the Gulf War had resulted in the establishment of a Kurdish de-facto autonomous region in northern Iraq. It was initially conceived as a military mission. As, however, Russia and China did not support a no-fly zone over Iraq, the operation was conceived as a humanitarian mission to bypass the UN Security Council. Experts are of the opinion that many actual military missions might have been launched under the disguise of humanitarian missions. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia gives the right to sovereign nations to act freely within their own borders. This is upheld in the UN Charter of 1945, where, in article 2(7) it is stated that "nothing should authorise intervention in the matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state". The United Nations started with 51 members in Oct 1945. Today it has 193 members with south Sudan gaining entry in July 2011. In about 75 years of UN existence, sovereign states have gone up almost four times. Yet, the UN has continuously been involved with issues related to humanitarian intervention within the borders of nations. They are basically domestic conflicts. Military missions cannot be humanitarian and military profession knows no compassion. Recourse to the military should be the last resort. The UN has to take a call whether sovereignty or humanitarian causes should prevail.
(The writer is a former Central Civil Servant who retired from the Ministry of Defence. The views expressed are strictly personal)