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Seeking standards for humanitarian intervention

Reflections on intricacies of involvement in Syria

By Matt Haemmerle
On February 14, 2012

 

President Bashar al-Assad's regime is responsible for the deaths of over 7,000 people in what has essentially become state-sponsored homicide. Meanwhile, the international community watches President Assad's recalcitrance and the steady spilling of blood from the sideline. 

This reasonably begs the question of whether or not the United States should intervene in Syria. For now, unfortunately, the answer is no.

While acts of genocide are deplorable, humanitarian intervention is a complicated matter that must be examined holistically. The very idea of an armed humanitarian intervention is ostensibly un-humanitarian. Moreover, there exist a number of logical fallacies and ethical traps which can endanger the moral rationale behind any humanitarian intervention.  

First, there is the danger of moral self-inflation, whereby a nation instinctively adopts a stance of moral superiority over other nations and thereby becomes insensitive to its own inherent flaws. 

An example of moral self-inflation would be John Stuart Mills' essay, "A Few Words on Non-Intervention," where he provides a justification for imperialism. The same thinking is encompassed in the ideological justification for colonialism, where it was the "white man's burden" to carry the torch of civilization to barbarians unfit for self-governance.  

Second, there is the danger of moral oversimplification, whereby a conflict with many intricacies is reduced merely to a human rights violation. 

State-sponsored homicide cannot be viewed simply through the lens of oppression and social justice. A conflict always contains many factors and its solution---if there is one--requires a multifaceted approach. Moral impulse is not always a winning strategy—pragmatism is also necessary. It is critical to understand the history and context of a conflict in order to avoid making it worse.

Third, there is the danger of imposing values on others. Values may resonate with one population but be inappropriate or under-developed elsewhere. 

They should never be the basis for humanitarian intervention. If values are to be accepted by a society,  they must be cultivated organically rather than forcibly transplanted. Consider the United States' debacle in Iraq. The theory of preemptive war and regime change in the name of spreading democracy produced sectarian war, mass casualties and structural and cultural devastation. 

No foreign policy failure better illustrates the hazards posed by humanitarian missions whose goals are to project certain values.

Finally, there is the question of ulterior motives. George Washington said that nations do not have friends, only interests. 

It is no secret that many humanitarian interventions have been distorted and utilized as a pretext to pursue otherwise unacceptable geopolitical goals in the name of political balance of power, neoliberal economic restructuring, projection of soft power, or some other goal of national interest. 

It is also true that members of the international community have deliberately failed to respond to humanitarian atrocities because it was either in their national interest to do nothing or because they lacked any interest at all. Examples include Armenia, Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

So before examining the case of Syria, what should the standard be for humanitarian intervention? 

The answer is not to impose a universal categorical imperative that leaves no room for ambiguity, as Immanuel Kant would advocate. Every nation reserves the right to distinguish between different conflicts and judge them on a case by case basis. But there must be a definition which provides certain restrictive conditions whereupon, if met, it necessitates some sort of intervention in the name of moral obligation and the amelioration of human suffering.

The standard for humanitarian intervention should be as follows: If compelling evidence supports that there is government-sponsored mass homicide, a coalition of countries sanctioned by credible international institutions should intervene to stop it as long as there is a viable plan with minimal risk of casualties and negative long-term repercussions.  

Essentially, this means as little military involvement as possible when there is no other alternative. 

The case of Libya is a good example. When part of Libya broke away and Colonel Gaddafi retaliated against heavily populated areas with armed force, the U.S. took the lead to define a narrow focus of preventing humanitarian disaster with little military commitment. NATO's intervention had no goals of regime change and did not infringe on Libyans' right to self-determination.

Syria is a difficult case with different circumstances. Because there are many state actors and rival groups with a stake in Syria's political situation, military intervention would aggravate political tensions. 

Ed Husain writes in the magazine, The Atlantic that "Much like Iraq under Saddam, the ruling Ba'ath party in Syria controls almost every aspect of public life: business, military, media, police, education and even religious institutions...Regime change in Syria would be bloody and protracted."  

Unfortunately for Syria, there are no military options with a reasonable chance of improving the situation, and their failure will likely make things worse.           


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