Difficult Choices: The Morality and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, Sunday 2nd October, 2011

The Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial choice is an organisation, as it states on the plaque on the front of this building, dedicated to those who have dedicated their lives to the noble cause of world peace. Peace, has been defined since the Roman historian Tacitus onwards as representing not just a state of the absence of hostility and violence, although that is a prerequisite, but also harmony in relationships, equality in those relations and justice between the participants [1]. Tacitus wryly quoted the British chieftain Calgacus on what Roman's descibed as peace: "To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace." [2] So much for Pax Romana.

It is also imperative to those who desire peace to have a thorough understanding of the cause of war and the arguments used by its advocates. It is extremely unwise to only derive one's knowledge from sources whom one already agrees with through any loyalties other than an absolute dedication to truth itself. Certainly people are entitled to their own opinion, and the scope and adaptability of an opinion is strengthened by considering a range of sources. But one is not entitled to their own facts, these objective, external truths whose veracity is independent of our subjective desires. There is no need to delve too deeply at how attempts throughout history to impose facts from opinion have led to the most horrendous crimes against humanity. Instead, it is far better to derives opinions from the facts.

Earlier this year, I gave an address here on "Radical Peace: The Spiritual Basis of Non-Violent Direct Action". This was introduced by some of the arguments to used to support war which are repeated as examples for this address, as they cross factual, moral and aesthetic pragmatic dimensions. Firstly, here is the famous remark by the Prussian military general Carl Von Clausewitz who described war as the "continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means". From a revolutionary perspective, Mao Zedong that "the seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution". On an aesthetic level Ernst Jünger claimed that war, the mixing of blood in steel into machinery for killing, was an a mystical experience that elevated the individual [3].

As in that address, it argued, contra the advocates of war, that it is not politics by other means, but the very negation of politics. It is not the highest form revolution, but the ultimate tool of reaction. It does not elevate provide a mystical elevation of the individual, but rather lowers one to the most prosaic and brutish. But at the same time we are not necessarily absolute pacifists, like the Mennonites, or the Quakers, or the Jainists, although there have been a number of Unitarian-Universalists who have adopted that approach. Instead, we have usually look towards the consequences, the grim and necessary calculation of working out the "net violence" of action and inaction.

The historical experts, if you will, of the notion of a justified war has been the Roman Catholic Church, initially through both Augustine and Aquinas [4]. After all it was problematic for Christendom as a whole if the various nominally Christian lords engaged in continuous conflicts with each other. Of course, this did not apply to the Crusades; Augustine quite explicitly stated in The City of God that it was a Christian just war. Indeed, the Papacy argued that participants in the Crusades who receive a special exoneration and remission of sin, a guaranteed place in salvation. Not for the first time we would witness the application of theological justification for some of the worst examples of violence and abuse in the secular world; "Onward Christian Soldiers!" indeed.

Despite these inauspicious example, the doctrine of Just War has survived through the ages and has become a legal foundation for the moderation of behaviour before, during, and after wars. The modern examples of the four Geneva and the two Hague Conventions (along with elaborations such as the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention) have had enormous effect on the rights and protections of non-combatants and prisoners in the former case and the use of weapons [5]. It is true, of course, that the implementation of these Conventions was not always adhered to, even by countries who were signatories. Enforcement was something that was carried out within the legal codes of the individual countries themselves; but nor should the power of the idea for these rules of conduct be under-estimated.

With the formation of the United Nations after the second World War a new phase began which implemented a policy best described as "peace through international stability". The UN Security Council, through the United Nations Charter, has the power to implement international sanctions as well peacekeeping operations and military action [6]. The Council consists of five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) each of whom have veto power and ten elected members with two-year terms. Even this pragmatic approach has come into difficulties, not the least being the Korean War. At the time of that vote the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations over a dispute of the status of the seat being held by the Republic of China. In Vietnam, it was argued that because this was a civil conflict, not an international war, the United Nations had no role. Finally, we can look at the example of the military invasion of Afghanistan which again, received no authorisation from the United Nations Security Council. The United States in this instance argued the invasion was an act of self-defence provided for under Article 51 of the UN Charter, and therefore was not a war of aggression [7].

So it is evident how even the pragmatic approach of international instability has not always been successful in preventing war. More-so, the early approaches of the United Nations did not take into sufficient account conflicts within States. The State, as it were, was the ultimate outward-facing actor. Whatever internal conflicts occurred were something of its own concern. Increasingly however concerns have been raised about the conduct of States against their own citizens. In a modern form this was first raised by the medical professionals who would go on to form Médecins Sans Frontières. Their formation, during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, was the result of their public criticism of civilians being starved and killed by the Nigerian army when other aid agencies were silent [8].

Since then there has been increasing pressure on the international community for cases which involve humanitarian intervention. The massive failure of the international community to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Rwanda is one particular case in point where 800,000 people, nearly all civilians - some 20% of the country's population - were killed. The tiny UN Mission there was completely unable to control the situation; five years later, Clinton stated that he believed that if he had sent 5,000 U.S. peacekeepers, more than 500,000 lives could have been saved [9]. On a much smaller scale, but with perhaps greater influence due to its proximity was the Srebrenica massacre of some eight thousand Bosniak civilians in 1995, the United Nations Protection Force with a mere 400 Dutch peacekeepers unable to protect the thousands of refugees from advancing forces of the Army of Republika Srpska. As one of the UN's envoys in Bosnia commented: "You don't reply to fascism with relief supplies." [10]

Thus in the late 1990s the doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect" was born, with particular studies initiated by the Canadian government. It argues that sovereignty is a responsibility, and that governments do not have the right to mistreat their citizens. It also argues that the international community has a responsibility to prevent mass atrocities, through engagement with governments with minimal political infrastructure up to, and including, military intervention [11]. The African Union in particular has advocated this notion, from its founding charter in 2005 [12]. Also in 2005, at the United Nations World Summit, the Responsibility to Protect was included and then reaffirmed by the UN Security Council in April 2006 [13].

Three examples can be cited here; two as applications and one as a contrary example. The UN-sponsored intervention in East Timor certainly fell under the criteria of responsibility to protect, even though the doctrine was not formalised at that time. It was quite evident that the government of Indonesia was not succeeding in preventing violence against the Timorese by pro-integration militia. The United Nations intervened and did so successfully. In contrast, the invasion of Iraq deserves scrutiny. This action was never authorised by the United Nations. The justification used, the search for weapons of mass destruction, was clearly false. Claims continue the primary advocates of this intervention; John Howard, Tony Blair and George Bush, engaged in a war crime [14]. The final example is of the recent UN intervention in Libya; again it is clear that the government there had no interest in engaging in the protection of its civilians. Of course, Libya was a relatively simple and politically acceptable task compared to other countries in the region. One may justly asked when will the civilians of Syria, of Yemen, of Bahrain, and of Gaza receive international assistance as well.

Returning the definition of peace from the beginning of this address we can recognise that the absence of violence, justice and harmony is required. The responsibility to protect is certainly a doctrines that incorporates that criteria. When the Responsibility to Protect is cited to justify humanitarian intervention it fits the criteria of calculation of consequences. But serious warnings must be stated; hawkish vested interests remain, world powers that have their own vested interests and will seek to distort and destroy the letter and the spirit of the law. So whilst one can argue that the common rights of citizens transcends State borders and we can argue that practical international solidarity is a necessity we can also demand accountability.

The reality is that even international interventions under the humanitarian aegis of "responsibility to protect" will be subject to the problems of real politik. Some see it as a "noble project" that finally rates the common rights of the world's civilians higher than the rights of various States. Others see it as "a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism" [14]. The truth can lie in-between these two extremes and indeed, both can be true simultaneously! What can be certain is that internationally supported interventions will become the primary expression of military conflict in the twenty-first century. The overwhelming impetus of global telecommunications, of international trade, of the capacity to travel, of international law, such as the international criminal court, will also result in similar political changes and expectations around the world. The State, that artificial border drawn on lines in sand and sea, enforced by standing armies, will become increasingly anachronistic as we become a global community.


[1] See for example, Albert Einstein in Nathan and Norden (ed), "Einstein on Peace", 1968, p. 371 and B.A. Reardon,Comprehensive Peace Education, Teachers College Press, (New York), 1988, p26 and Martin Luther King Jnr. "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice", in a 1955 response to an accusation that he was "disturbing the peace" by his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, as quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr (1982) by Stephen B. Oates

[2] Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola, FP c98, The Latin for the quote is: "Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant"

[3] Respectively see: Clausewitz, Book 1, Chapter 1, "On War", 1832; Mao Zedong, "Problems of War and Strategy", 1938; Ernst Junger In Stahlgewittern [Storm of Steel], 1920.

[4] See Thomas Aquinas, Question 40 in "The Summa Theologica", c1274 and Augustine of Hippo, The City of God Against The Pagans, c410?

[5] Specifically First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 1864; Second Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, 1906; Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 1929; Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949; the latter with additional protocols Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (1977). Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (1977) and Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (2005); the Hague Conventions (1899, 1907); Biological Weapons Convention (1972); Chemical Weapons Convention (1992)

[6] As established under chapter five of the UN Charter.

[7] Jackson Nyamuya Maogoto, "War on the Enemy: Self-Defence and State-Sponsored Terrorism" in the Melbourne Journal of International Law, 3; 4(2) Melbourne Journal of International Law 406, 2003

[8] Dan Bortolotti, Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors Without Borders, Firefly Books, 2004

[9] From an interview in "The triumph of evil", Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service [USA] 1999

[10] The comment was by Jose Maria Mendiluce, now a Spanish member of parliament, and can be found in Adam Curtis' "Goodies and Baddies" article on the BBC, March 2011

[11] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, "The Responsibility to Protect", Government of Canada, 2001

[12] Constitutive Act of the African Union, 2005

[13] Special Resolution of the UN Security Council, S/RES/1674, April 2006

[14] Adam Curtis., op.cit.