In the wake of international military intervention in East Timor, the cry was raised as it was in Kosovo: "If there, why not Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, or for that matter, Algeria, Chechnya, and Dagestan?" Why get involved in one country, while leaving others, often in far worse condition, to the ravages of civil war and human-rights violations? There are three competing arguments among those who ask that question by way of criticizing the current "unprincipled" approach to when and where we act to end human-rights abuses. First, the question is asked by hawks who believe reliance on outside forces to resolve local conflicts is futile. Only a military victory by one party can ultimately resolve civic strife; someone must win and someone must lose, otherwise the war will simply be fought another day. Second, it is asked by those pacifists who oppose all military response. Pointing to the selective nature of such actions attests to the prejudicial, self-interested, or malevolent motives at play in choosing to act, for example, in Kosovo but not in Rwanda. Hence do not intervene at all. For different reasons then, both hawks and doves oppose military interventions. The third group, genuine interventionists including human-rights advocates, believe that all violent civil struggles and human-rights violations are created equal. Therefore, international action ought to be taken almost everywhere to stop slaughter and ruin, whether it is born of ethnic and religious rivalries or internal political divisions. The principle of intervention should be universal and uncompromising.

No one of these strategies is likely to be soon implemented—and recent history shows why. For understandable reasons, including the continuing power of the nation-state, an erratic and "unprincipled" course will mark international responses to civil war and human-rights violations for some time to come.

To intervene or not, when to act and how to act, are complex questions in a world in gradual transition from the inviolability to the permeability of the nation-state, a change fostered by instant communications and a slowly growing international consensus that human rights should trump national sovereignty. These were the themes of Secretary General Kofi Annan in opening the current session of the United Nations in September. He offers a sober analysis to those who would like to see established universal principles of humanitarian intervention. As an active interventionist himself, perhaps he sees the obstacles more clearly than most.

His address highlights three reasons for the uneven response of the international community:

• Doubts about claims of national sovereignty and the attendant growth in human rights occur unevenly around the world. Even in the West, where such ideas have firm support, national interest is never far from the calculation of decision makers. So, for example, current Russian bombing of civilians in Chechnya is unlikely to bring an international outcry, much less intervention. Why? The lack of TV pictures, the precarious state of Russia itself, its veto on the Security Council, and the reluctance of the other major powers, especially the United States, to thwart Russian actions will leave the Chechens to fend for themselves. On the other hand, the UN was able finally to act in East Timor because the Indonesian government bowed to international pressure for intervention, especially from the United States, and Australia was willing to send troops. Thus, the unpredictable play of national interests, the uneven implementation of human-rights claims, the TV audience, and the valence of state sovereignty will shape the response of the UN, and of regional alliances such as NATO.

• The limited powers of the UN, especially the threat of a Security Council veto, necessarily constrain a rapid response. Thus, NATO intervened unilaterally in Kosovo. Annan asks: "Is there not a danger of such interventions...setting dangerous precedents for future interventions without a clear criterion to decide who might invoke these precedents, and in what circumstances?" Yet by making an analogy to Rwanda, he acknowledges the conundrum Kosovo posed to the UN: "If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of states had been prepared to act..., but did not receive prompt council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?" Certainly not. The principle of international unity is important to the secretary-general, but not important enough to stand in the way of a group of states ready to act on their own.

• That military intervention is the rule rather than the exception in international reactions to human-rights violations represents, in Annan’s view, a "failure of prevention." He would redefine intervention to "include actions along a wide continuum from the most pacific to the most coercive," and proposes to move the UN from "a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention." If the secretary-general here seems to slip into a rhetoric of utopianism dependent on the development of an effective international governing body, he nonetheless follows the logic of those who support intervention, even if in limited form.

And that is where he, and we, and the world are stuck—somewhere between the recognition that human-rights violations cannot be ignored and a shortage of effective international mechanisms to remedy the civil strife that brings them about. The great challenge to the UN, and to those who have supported humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and East Timor, is to encourage the difficult move from coercion to conciliation. That is not so photogenic and dramatic as bombs and bullets, but if that is not what interventionists finally support, should we be intervening at all?

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Published in the 1999-10-22 issue: View Contents
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