It’s not every day that one country asks another one to invade it.
Moscow declined the request, even though the troubling violence between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks has left more than 100 civilians dead and forced an estimated 100,000 refugees into neighboring Uzbekistan.
Still, this inter-ethnic crisis, which was likely sparked by a political battle for control in the capital, raises the question of when foreign militaries should intervene in a sovereign nation if there are mass atrocities or severe neglect of a people.
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the idea of a “responsibility to protect.” This concept of internationally approved humanitarian intervention across borders has gained increasing favor ever since the UN and the West failed to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
But it is a hard concept to act on. When is an atrocity too small to act on? When is a government too neglectful of its people’s needs? Which country has the means or will to send in troops?
Or, more broadly, when do individual rights to life trump the long-held notions of national sovereignty?
These are subjective judgments based on broad principles that require a difficult consensus within the UN Security Council.
In 2008, the United States was quite willing to land its Navy in Burma (Myanmar) to help 2 million victims of A typhoon. The junta in Burma, widely accused of neglect, refused the offer. In the same year, Kenya exploded in ethnic violence but instead of a military solution, the international community sought a strong diplomatic solution.
In 1993, the US military swept into Somalia with UN permission to relieve a famine but got bogged down by political factions. In the 1990s, the UN approved NATO’s action against ethnic cleansing in Bosnia but when atrocities in Kosovo began, NATO acted on its own.
Defining the limits of foreign intervention in sovereign nations requires a vibrant diplomacy between civilized nations that is ready to act in a matter of days, even hours, to an unexpected crisis.
As President Obama said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last December: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
And then he was more specific about the doctrine "responsibility to protect":
“More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
“I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
Both Russia and the US have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. Either country's intervention to quell the violence there would have been quite easy. It is the making of the political decision that is so difficult.