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ROBERTA COHEN: There’s a view now that what goes on in a country is everybody’s business. And with greater access since the end of the Cold War, it’s presented the challenge of “What is humanitarianism?” Do we, how much do we provide? Food, medicine and shelter. And also, protection. This, then, becomes more, a challenge, and more intrusive.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, the humanitarian intervention debate.
DAVID RIEFF: As a general principle—of course in exceptional cases I think it’s easy to support military intervention—but as a general principle I’m quite skeptical of it. I really worry about it more than approve of it.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The NATO military operation in Kosovo is referred to as a “humanitarian mission.” But what defines humanitarian intervention? It depends on whom you talk to. Roberta Cohen is the Co-director of the Project on Internal Displacement at the Brookings Institution. And David Rieff is an independent journalist who’s covered humanitarian missions in Bosnia and Rwanda. Both say the definition of humanitarian intervention is changing. We begin our conversation with David Rieff.
RIEFF: I think humanitarianism was an idea that was much clearer 30 years ago than it is today. It, it began simply as an idea about providing a measure of help to people in need. Whether it was in natural disasters or wars or refugee crises. I think over the course of the past 30 years as the crises have to some extent changed in nature, and also as maybe we’ve become more perceptive about humanitarianism, the paradoxes and ambiguities of humanitarian action have become clearer. So that now there’s a kind of broad continuum of issues, from human rights to humanitarianism and from the hopes of making more democratic and just societies to ideas about human solidarity, that are in a kind of jumble. And I think we’re all trying to figure out ways to sort them out and make them intelligible.
MC HUGH: Roberta Cohen?
COHEN: Humanitarianism originally embraced, as David says, a modicum of help, meaning some food, medicine, shelter, to people who were at risk in their countries and where you could have access. But I think that what’s happened are that in the kinds of emergencies we see today, that’s not enough. The horrible phrase, “the well-fed dead,” arose in Bosnia. Because you were feeding people to have them only killed. So they died on a full stomach, so to speak. The notion that people also need some kind of protection: a protection of their personal safety, of their physical security, of their basic human rights, has also entered into the humanitarian mode. And where, there’s been a change internationally, there’s a view now that what goes on in a country is everybody’s business. And with greater access since the end of the Cold War, it’s presented the challenge of “What is humanitarianism?” Do we, how much do we provide? Food, medicine and shelter. And also, protection. This, then, becomes more, a challenge, and more intrusive.
MC HUGH: We’ve definitely then seen a trend toward military intervention?
RIEFF: I think we’ve seen a trend toward talking about military intervention. I’m not sure to what extent our actions really match our moral ambitions. And what I entirely agree is the changed perception about sovereignty. I mean, there is an increasing consensus in the rich world—and it’s important I think to note that this is not a view shared in China, in India, in many other parts of the world—but there is a consensus in the Western world that sovereignty must no longer be allowed to trump all other considerations. That you’re not allowed to kill people inside your national borders with impunity, or lock them up in concentration camps. The question is whether there is really a way to match this change in, if you like, the way we think about the world, to the way we actually act. Because if we were to live up to our principles we would have to live in very changed world. A world in which we would be called upon to act very differently. And that’s part of the dilemma that faces us, I think.
MC HUGH: Roberta Cohen.
COHEN: I believe that the sovereignty, the idea of sovereignty, as not being able to be a shield against human rights violations, is now broader, is now accepted on a broader basis than just in the West. I wouldn’t say it’s—yes, of course, there’s controversy over it. But if you look, for example, the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, who is an African, together with Saleen Saleen, the head of the Organization of African Unity, their statements on sovereignty, on the fact that it cannot be a shield against human rights violations, the OAU’s pronouncements on reaching populations at risk—at least the rhetoric is quite, in many respects, akin to what we’re saying in the West. If you look at the force that is in East Timor now, yes Australia is leading it. But Thailand is sending a thousand troops and it’s foreign minister—and this is quite a switch—has now been making statements about human rights violations and that you cannot just, you cannot have absolute sovereignty anymore. So I think there’s quite a shift. How this translates into actual action on the ground is another matter. I think the notion that sovereignty is the responsibility of a government towards its population is beginning to take root. But of course the implication of that is that if they are not responsible toward their population then what role does the international community have? To whom are they accountable these days?
MC HUGH: Are there advantages to military intervention, David?
RIEFF: Sure. I mean, the question is, there can be advantages to military intervention. And there are certainly moments when one doesn’t, can’t think of anything else. I mean, if you take the genocide in Rwanda—there was a Canadian force commander of the UN force there who claimed that with 5,000 troops he could have stopped it. Who knows if he was right. I was there at the time and I’m not entirely convinced he was right. But even if he might have been right surely 800,000 or a million dead makes it morally clear that somebody should have tried. Whether it was a neighboring state or a state from far away.
The problem is that war is also a habit. And a culture. And whether this reliance on the idea of humanitarian war is bringing us in a more, bringing the war in a more humane direction—as a general principle—of course in exceptional cases I think it’s easy to support military intervention—but as a general principle I’m quite skeptical of it. I really worry about it more than approve of it.
MC HUGH: Roberta Cohen.
COHEN: I worry about it, too. But it has succeeded in Iraq, in northern Iraq it succeeded. Of course it was the end of, the tail end of the Gulf War. But it did provide a safe haven for the Kurds of Iraq. And even though there have been infringements on that safe area, it’s still there. To some extent some people claim it worked in Rwanda when the French went in and there was a certain zone that they protected and took over. And they did save lives. It was controversial because who’s lives were they saving? Were these genocide? But their intervention was effective. Even in Somalia initially it stopped mass starvation. So the mission there went awry, but I think sometimes military force is what’s needed. And in some of these situations, as David says, we don’t know—we just can guess—that it’s very probable that the genocide in Rwanda could have been stopped. It’s also possible that if we’d acted in East Timor earlier it might have been stopped. There might have been some bloodshed, too. But sometimes bullies who are, or thugs, who is what you’re, who you’re fighting against, very often bullies run when they’re confronted by superior military force. But that’s what you need. You need superior military force. You need something that’s really—you can’t have a half-hearted intervention. And we’ve had, seen enough of those.
MC HUGH: You cited some of the success stories. Have their been failures in the past decade?
RIEFF: Well, the UN intervention in Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, where you had a protection force as they were called, that didn’t protect the Srebreneca, the safe area where thousands of people, they were not defended, they were killed. There I, you can argue, I think, that had they had a clearer mandate for protecting populations, had they had the equipment to do the job and the numbers, it would have been a different matter. They could have taken on the Serbs that were doing this. But I, the way it was, it was a very half-hearted intervention that did save some lives at a particular point. And then that failed miserably.
MC HUGH: David Rieff, you’re shaking your head.
RIEFF: Well, I think it’s a lot worse than that. I mean, maybe this is just the function of having lived in Bosnia for most of the war. But I think it cost more lives than it saved, that intervention. I think, for example, the UN presence gave—and the arms embargo that the UN fought hard to maintain against the Bosnian government—cost many thousands of Bosnian lives. I think in fact the UN, as we used to call it in Sarajevo, “self-protection force,” was actually a way of preventing the Bosnians from defending themselves. And I don’t actually believe, if you’re talking in terms of lives, lives were saved.
But I think the larger issue is one that involves an assumption. I believe a quite unjustifiable and unwarranted assumption. That these military interventions, if we have enough will, can succeed. I mean, to me the notion that we could ever have amassed a force that would have been resisted by the Indonesia Army in Timor is fantastic. It’s, the supply lines were unbelievably long, the logistical nightmare, the question of amassing forces—we’ve lived in a kind of silly season of war. In which the Western powers have been allowed to fight wars kind of as they will. In the Gulf we spent six months setting up in Saudi Arabia before attacking, and we were never attacked. There wasn’t a single Iraqi attempt to disrupt this massing. In Bos—in Kosovo and in Bosnia, the Serbs didn’t resist. They just shut their radars off and took it. That’s not war. That’s an anomaly. And if you’re really talking about intervening in most places in the world—that’s why I don’t, again, don’t think this idea of humanitarian intervention has much of a future—I think you’re only gonna do it in those very few places where there’s a) political will; b) overwhelming logistical superiority and safety; and c) where there is a tiny little country that basically is so militarily weak and geographically small that, that the thing is viable and virtually cost-free. It doesn’t have to be as cost free as Kosovo was, but it has to be relatively cost free. That I don’t think is going to obtain in most of the future crises.
COHEN: I would disagree on Indonesia. Because the Indonesian Army was very indirect in their role initially. They were supporting militias in Timor that were terrorizing. But it was almost like a testing ground. It began before the referendum took place and there was no response from the international community. And then of course we all know what happened after the referendum went a way they didn’t like it. But I, it’s not just military. A credible threat that we are not going to tolerate this. I don’t think the Indonesians would have put their whole army to fight on this. They had already accepted that there would be a referendum. There were a lot of other pressures on them. I really do believe that we could have headed this thing off at an early stage. And I think it’s that early stage that we don’t get in on because there is, everything is so ad hoc internationally.
PORTER: Coming up, more on the humanitarian intervention debate with Roberta Cohen and David Rieff.
COHEN: Genocide should be one case where we try to do our damnedest to see if we can get in there and stop it. And if we can do it then we ought to be able to do it and manage something—with a volunteer army—volunteer troops, who are paid to go in.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: Do we need consent in order to intervene? Starting with David?
RIEFF: Well, I think in practical terms you do need consent most of the time. I think that’s the problem. Because the, because it’s all very well to say that a threat may work. But as my friend, Herb Oken??, who was Vance’s deputy during the negotiations over Bosnia, likes to say, “Diplomacy without the threat of force is like baseball without a bat.” And the threat of force means the threat of force. It can’t just be that you deploy an army you’re not willing to use. And if you’re willing to use it you can’t just do the rosy scenario. You can’t just do the best case. You’ve had to figure that if attacked you will go to war. And that war—one of the things, is not predictable.
And we are casualty-averse. Not just the Americans, but everybody. I mean, if you think, for example, that in World War II, 3,000 dead in a battle was a minor engagement, it wasn’t even a major battle—three thousand dead, and what, the usual rule thumb, three times as many wounded—that was a minor engagement. God, in the First World War, 50,000 dead was a skirmish. Now, the question is, can you have a hundred dead. And I think once you start moving from places like Kosovo and Sierra Leone, to places like Indonesia—maybe Timor is a special case, Roberta maybe is right about the specific instance of East Timor—but what about Ambon? What about Irianjaya? What about Oche, likely to blow any minute? What about Burundi? How many casualties are we willing to take? And just as important, if we’re intervening in the name of humanitarianism and human rights, how many casualties are we willing to inflict? War is war. And soldiers are on battlefields in these interventions and I think the, I think we haven’t even begun to see the kind of disastrous results, both in terms of lives and morality.
MC HUGH: Roberta Cohen, how do you feel on consent?
COHEN: Consent is effective, obviously, if you’re delivering food and medicine and shelter to people on different sides of a conflict. It’s the way the International Committee of the Red Cross has operated for years. You have consent from both parties and you deliver your human—material assistance. But this has nothing to do with some of the scenarios we’re seeing today. If genocide is taking place in Rwanda, whose consent are you going to ask for? And who is going to give consent for you to come in? If it is that a government is inspiring its own population to commit genocide against the other part of the population, you, there’s no question there’s not consent. You have to take sides. And you have to go in, if you’re gonna do it. And you have to do it with military force. Because that’s what you need to do. And in some cases it’s doable. I mean, as we both say, nobody really knows with Rwanda, was it doable. Major General Delea?? Thought it was. I think there probably are cases where you can stop mass killings and you can stop a certain group. There are probably other civil war situations where there are two sides and that you can’t get into the middle of that and enter, even though there are a lot of civilian casualties, because it’s a different situation. But I think genocide should be one case where we try to do our damnedest to see if we can get in there and stop it. And if we can do it then we ought to be able to do it and manage something—with a volunteer army—volunteer troops, who are paid to go in. And so then you’re not just saying, how many casualties. That’s what they’re paid to do and that’s what they go in and do.
MC HUGH: Well, you raise another issue. And that is, when do you intervene in conflict? David?
RIEFF: Well, I don’t disagree with anything that was just said. I think you intervene out of a combination of interest—national interest, by which I’m not talking about moral interest at all—I mean interests that are selfish, self-interest; moral concern; and feasibility. The problem is that there are other issues at stake. I mean, genocide is a criterion, and it’s the ultimate crime. And yet, there’s been a genocide in South Sudan, a sort of rolling, ongoing genocide, for 30-odd years, on and off in two chunks of war, if you like—and I don’t think anybody seriously thinks we can send an army into South Sudan. It’s just not feasible in anyway. Including the problem that Roberta mentioned earlier about not necessarily knowing whose side to take. So, I mean this is an activity that is always going to be a morally mixed one. I think at its best you’re stuck with that reality.
COHEN: I still think that the international community—and I now David hates that phrase—but I still think that we’ve got to figure out what should trigger international humanitarian intervention. And whether there can be any agreement on at least some general principles for that intervention. Then when it’s decided who does it and how you do it, you get into questions of who’s interest it coincides with, who has the capacity, etc. But initially, to just have certain cases that either are so offensive to the conscience of mankind and womankind, that they’re unacceptable. They’re intolerable. And how do we make some sort of justification and rhetoric that sticks. I mean, even, you will find countries that you would least expect, I think even in rhetoric, to say, that in the case of genocide we ought to, there ought to be some kind of international readiness to act. Perhaps that was the Rwanda experience. But there were other cases that could qualify. But we haven’t reached a point of trying to figure out and define that for—and I think it’s absolutely essential from the international community to do that now.
MC HUGH: What about, when do we get out of these conflicts? Certainly that has to be an issue as well?
COHEN: It’s going to depend on the case. In some cases you may have to stay a long time. Which raises the fear for many that we’re going to have trusteeships. I think that that’s, that may have to be. I’m not afraid of, sort of trusteeships, if they are working well. And if they’re not working well then I do think one begins to think, “Okay, we’ve been here, we’ve tried, we’ve done so much. It’s not working.” And you begin a slow process of exit. But I’m not so fearful of this kind of involvement in other places.
MC HUGH: David Rieff?
RIEFF: Yeah, I agree with that completely. I actually wrote an essay in a policy magazine calling in effect, say, arguing that if you are serious about intervening you absolutely have to think again about revisiting the trusteeship or the mandatory system. That I’m actually only for humanitarian intervention, if it’s followed by trusteeship, if you like paradoxically. I think that’s the only way to me it makes moral sense. Otherwise it seems to me you’re just interrupting something. To intervene actually doesn’t accomplish that much. It’s really staying, occupying the place militarily. For me, humanitarian intervention without some form of trusteeship actually makes very little sense. And I’m almost always—again, Rwanda being the obvious exception—opposed to it. I’m not opposed if you’re serious about intervening. I think there are moral arguments against any humanitarian intervention. But I think once you accept the principle of humanitarian intervention, actually you probably—you’re exit strategy, to the extent you have one at all—probably should be staying a long time and waiting for the generation that actually is still doing the hating to die out.
MC HUGH: I have one final question. And that is, can you define the American attitude toward humanitarian intervention? Starting with David.
RIEFF: Well, I think—listen, I think people are very good-hearted. I think they see in the media—people are ignorant and good-hearted in this country. It’s a time of immense self-absorption. I mean, pity poor Madeline Albright, an international Secretary of State who gets to be Secretary of State in the period of maximum American introspection and self-involvement. I mean, I wouldn’t be her for all the money in the world. You have the country doing well, at least for the moment; self-involved; not thinking much about foreign affairs; with a kind of isolationist rump playing a disproportionate role in Congress; a president not interested in foreign policy. So people see these images and they’re moved, but there’s no context to turn this emotion into politics.
MC HUGH: Roberta Cohen.
COHEN: Yeah, I agree that there, the American public has a great propensity to want to help. And again, it’s food, medicine, shelter for people they see on the screen that are starving, that are at risk in some way. But this country also has a no casualty policy for its military. So there’s a point at which this helps—there’s a line. And we’re ready to go in—and even with military—to go in and give some food, as we did in Somalia. But as soon as any soldier of ours gets killed we, we’re gonna pull back and that’s not acceptable. I don’t know whether there have been polls around the country or whether it’s just assumed, or whether this is the Pentagon or whether this is the American public: I couldn’t speak authoritatively. But there obviously is a very strong sentiment that we become involved up to a point. Where I have a beef with this is that if we consider a place to be in our national interest to go do something about, like Kosovo—we apparently decided that we were going in both for humanitarian reasons, but also because this was in our backyard of NATO and it was in our national interest—I think in such cases that your volunteer army has to be prepared to take some casualties. So I think there’s a great ambivalence in the country. A great generosity, but up to a point. And then I think what we will need is some sort of re-look at what our national interests are. And if we decide that there are only limited cases that we want to become involved in and that are worth casualties—because our national security is not at stake—then we should do something to try to encourage either regional or international machinery that can deal with those cases. We can’t have the whole world be dominated by what we perceive as our national security. Because too many other people need some sort of support. And it cannot all be defined by one country.
MC HUGH: That is Roberta Cohen, the Co-Director on the Project for Internal Displacement at the Brookings Institution. We also heard from independent journalist David Rieff . For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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