When should a humanitarian intervention occur?

3 Jun

As an individual that is very passionate about human rights, I have been in deep reflection about when it is appropriate for the international community to use military force to stop atrocities around the globe. My opinions have been influenced by the words and/or actions of many individuals, including Presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton as well as former professor Samantha Power. In addition, my own personal reflections on the Iraq war and international responses to genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Cambodia have also shaped my own ideology. Overall, after much thought, I believe that intervention should remain a viable option, especially in regards to the atrocities in Syria.

First, I can understand and sympathize with arguments against intervention as well as the usage of military force. I have much respect for President Washington and President Eisenhower’s foreign policy ideologies. In his farewell address, Washington expressed wariness about involvement in international affairs:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop…Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation

President Washington thus warned the nation about both the dangers of involvement in foreign affairs as well as the benefits of remaining neutral during international disputes. President Eisenhower was much more involved in foreign affairs, but like Washington, was reluctant to use military force abroad as well. I remember reading a book about his presidency and it stated that although his advisers pressured him to use force against the Soviet Union, China, and other nations, he refused to do so. Instead, he mainly used diplomacy and a nuclear deterrent to keep the United States at peace during the 1950s. Thus, Eisenhower’s actions and Washington’s warning show the benefits of being cautious about intervening in international conflicts and the risks of intervening. Such ideology does appeal to me, especially after learning about the horrific consequences of the Iraq War and Vietnam War.

However, I also find arguments for intervening in support of human rights to be quite strong as well. As an American, I am inspired by the values of liberty that my country was founded on. I realize that the application of such values has been quite imperfect (such as in American support for autocratic regimes), but I do believe that the United States should fully support the implementation of these values abroad.  President Kennedy himself stated his support for this during his inaugration:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

In addition, during his speech in Berlin, Germany, Kennedy also stated:

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.

Unfortunately, Kennedy’s words, like those of Eisenhower’s and Washington’s, have not been heeded throughout history. As Professor Samantha Power noted in her book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the international community failed to intervene during the Cambodian genocide as well as the Rwandan genocide. The combined death toll from both genocides is in the millions. Therefore, millions of people were slaughtered and oppressed while the international community remained atrociously silent.  Sadly, atrocities are occurring once again in the nation of Syria, where over 15,000 people have been murdered. Reading about these atrocities- and the lack of a successful diplomatic response to them- has only increased my support for intervention.

The success of previous interventions have also influenced my opinions. During the 1990s, the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic launched genocidal campaigns in both Bosnia and Kosovo. Altogether, thousands of people were murdered and horrific crimes, such as the the massacre at Srebrenica, occurred. Nevertheless, NATO’s intervention in both conflicts was decisive in ending the killings. Moreover, NATO’s intervention in Libya also prevented Colonel Gaddafi from committing a massacre in Benghazi, Libya. Consequently, I am confident that intervention can be successfully utilized to end atrocities.

Nevertheless, there are still very strong arguments against intervention. As mentioned above, Washington and Eisenhower have both warned about the dangers of intervention itself. Moreover, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam have shown the dangers and risks of military intervention.  Thus, intervention is not always the best- nor prudent- policy. Intervention can also be unfeasible. From Equatorial Guinea to China, governments around the world have committed atrocious abuses. Intervening to stop all, or even most, of these abuses would be expensive as well as result in much bloodshed. It is thus too costly to intervene each time human rights violations occur.

After much reflection, I have come to the conclusion that intervention is still a useful policy tool to stop human rights abuses. As shown in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, intervention can be used to both stop genocides and prevent massacres. However, I believe several preconditions must be met before intervention is to be utilized. I also believe that these preconditions have been met and/or could be met for international intervention in Syria:

1. Diplomatic options are fruitless and only buying regimes more time to commit atrocities- Due to the significant risks of military intervention, the international community must first utilize diplomatic tools, such as sanctions, to pressure regimes to stop committing atrocities. However, diplomacy cannot be infinite. If diplomatic efforts have failed and/or are simply giving regimes more time to continue their atrocities, as is the case in Syria, then the international community must at least consider the usage of military force. Otherwise, atrocities will continue and the perpetrators will remain undeterred by diplomatic pressure.

2. Intervention must be feasible and beneficial- If intervention is to be utilized, the benefits of such an intervention should outweigh the costs of intervening. In some cases, intervention is not a feasible option. For example, it would have been unfeasible for the West to intervene to stop atrocities by Russian troops in Chechnya. Such an intervention would start a bloody and deeply destabilizing war between the United States and Russia. Nevertheless, there are situations in which intervention is feasible. For instance, NATO’s intervention in Bosnia was decisive, ended atrocities, and had limited casualties. I believe that intervention in Syria is feasible in the case of Syria because the latter’s air defenses are surmountable, defections can increase as a result of intervention, and inaction will cause more instability and sectarian violence. Plus, intervention in Syria could give the opposition the weapons and organization to defeat the tyrannical regime.

3. There must be international support for an intervention- Otherwise, it will be seen as an illegitimate military action. Ideally, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should pass a resolution that authorizes intervention, as it did with Libya. Unfortunately, due to differences among its members, seeking authorization for intervention may be impossible, as it is with Syria. Such deadlock allows for regimes to continue committing war crimes against their citizens. In such situations, nations must seek to get regional support for military intervention. The intervention in Kosovo, for example, was supported by NATO members, which are in Europe and North America. Intervention in Syria, at the minimum, should be supported by regional powers, such as the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, and Turkey. With U.S. and European pressure, such support could be obtained.

4. There must be local support for intervention- The people within the nation in which atrocities are occurring in must request for an intervention before it can occur. Without this request, an intervention could alienate the citizens of the country. Specifically, they could feel that the intervention is a foreign invasion. The request should be made by both the citizens of the country and, if possible, an opposition government. In Syria, this precondition has been met. The Syrian opposition government has called for foreign intervention as have Syrian citizens.

Altogether, intervention is a risky but viable option that can help end atrocities and promote freedom. Several preconditions must be met in order for an intervention to occur. Specifically, diplomatic options must be fruitless and/or buying time for regime to slaughter people, intervention must be feasible, and it must have international as well as local support. These preconditions allow for diplomatic options to be used first as well as reduce the risk that an unfeasible and reckless intervention occurs. In addition, they also build legitimacy for intervention. Such preconditions have been met for Syria, which is why I believe it is time for the international community to intervene there.

Read this article to get a more in-depth and specific analysis of why I believe intervention is needed in Syria.

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