How and When to Intervene for Humanity
Refugees' exodus gives the United States a reprieve to calculate what is too fast, too slow, too much, too little
Half a million refugees have returned home to Rwanda and handed President Clinton a reprieve. The chaotic international response to the crisis in Central Africa showed that we are still a long way from a coherent international strategy for humanitarian intervention. There was certainly little evidence of it in Mr. Clinton's decision (now on hold) to send 1,000 combat troops to help secure humanitarian corridors for the refugees. True, this was a departure from the conventional wisdom that the US should intervene only with "massive force" - a precondition that has greatly reduced US flexibility. Yet Clinton appears to have been swayed mainly by public pressure as well as the harsh images of suffering in Zaire. This is not the basis for a coherent strategy.Skip to next paragraph
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Nor was Clinton's determination to avoid a repeat of the debacle in Somalia, where 18 US troops were killed while trying to capture the warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. Clinton insisted the US contingent in Zaire would remain no longer than four months and would not attempt to disarm Hutu militia in the camps. But this would not necessarily have guaranteed success. Artificial deadlines for withdrawal do not produce solutions, as Clinton admitted when he announced - during the same speech - that US troops would stay on in Bosnia beyond Dec. 20. And would US troops have stood by if the Hutu militia had made a fight of it and insisted on their share of food aid? Presumably not.
The lack of clear thinking is alarming, because this will not be the last time desperate refugees are trapped between enemies in a remote part of the world, abandoned by any semblance of government. This script was played out in western Cambodia (1981), eastern Sudan (1985), northern Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1992), Somalia (1993), and Rwanda (1994). With Zaire close to disintegration, and so-called "complex emergencies" simmering in a score of other countries, the next crisis could be just around the corner.
We need a rationale for humanitarian intervention not dependent on TV images and the mood of the moment. It has to start with human rights, the prohibition against genocide, and the Geneva Conventions, which lay out clear requirements for protecting civilians caught in conflict. These universal standards were massively abused before or during every recent crisis.
If governments were to enforce these laws, as they are obligated to do, there would be less unpredictability about their humanitarian response. They might also nip crises in the bud and turn "early warning" from a slogan into something real.
International law has been less helpful in providing clear guidelines for the second great humanitarian dilemma, which is when to authorize the use of force. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter lays out criteria, but these have been broadly interpreted by a UN Security Council that has lost its bearings in this disordered post-cold-war era. The UN operation in Somalia collapsed because US troops entered the clan war against Aideed and then used excessive force. The UN mission to Bosnia failed for precisely the opposite reason when the Security Council shunned the use of force to stop ethnic cleansing and instead tried to prevent aggression with food aid. This merely emboldened the Bosnian Serbs and led to countless more deaths.