Criteria Needed For Military Intervention

Posted: October 14, 1993

The recent deaths of U.S. servicemen in Somalia, and current debate over whether, when and how deeply to involve U.S. armed forces in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia, pose difficult moral and pragmatic issues. Our standing by and watching hundreds of thousands starve or be victimized by "ethnic cleansing" without taking action seems deeply repugnant. But Americans are understandably reluctant to send their sons and daughters into war, and especially into potential quagmires.

Unquestionably, peaceful solutions are preferable to military force, and even a cursory review of recent situations in which the U.S. intervened militarily, such as Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War or Somalia, would indicate that diplomacy emphasizing conflict resolution, as opposed to headline-making confrontations, might well have secured better and far less costly results. But if such methods cannot work in a particular instance, military intervention needs to be considered as an option, rather than doing nothing at all.

Today, as many as 30 countries are being considered as possible sites for military intervention by the United Nations. The key element in each of these situations is that the local government seems incapable of protecting the human rights of its citizens. In Somalia, such a government barely exists; in Haiti, the power is elsewhere. The failure of governments to protect their citizens against the most basic violations, including massive starvation, murder and rape, argues strongly for armed intervention.

No matter what the provocation, many peace-minded people have been rightfully suspicious of military intervention in any form in the internal affairs of other countries, even if under the auspices of the United Nations. For one thing, the U.N. Charter itself inveighs against such intervention (Article 2(4)). But more profoundly, those opposing military intervention in any form argue that introducing military force simply adds to the sum total of the world's violence.

Nonviolence, the adherents of Gandhi would argue, is always the correct way to end conflicts. Moreover, the motives of the intervening nations participating in international efforts are frequently self-serving, unconcerned or actually harmful to the people they propose to help. Some have argued that such was the case with U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf. Then, too, military interventions are expensive, are not always effectively managed, and frequently give rise to unpredicted violence, such as most recently in Somalia.

These arguments are compelling. Nevertheless, until more effective international alternatives to armed force are in place, military intervention to stop egregious human rights violations seems the only choice. The issue, then, is whether we can devise the right criteria for military intervention, and whether we can make military intervention more effective and humane, by addressing the following questions:

How can we measure the effectiveness of military intervention?

We need some primary measure of success or failure such as the extent to which the basic human rights of the affected peoples, including those in the country and the security of the peace-keepers, will be protected by the proposed intervention.

What is the authority for intervention?

Under the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, it is the obligation of all governments to maintain human rights. If they do not, it has been the underlying thinking of the U.N. member states, as reflected in basic U.N. documents, that the international community has an obligation to protect these rights. This is the thinking which undergirded the establishment of an international tribunal at Nuremberg to try Nazi crimes against humanity, and is today being evoked in current discussions of possible intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

In the most extreme case, should a government indicate it was about to murder all or a significant percentage of its citizens, the international community would have the obligation of protecting them. In this sense, every person is a ward of the international community.

How can the pros and cons be weighed?

Because intervention violates national autonomy, because it unleashes violence and puts decisions in the immediate hands of military personnel,

because it is expensive and not always fully controllable, there should always be a predictable and overwhelming advantage to human rights before intervention is sanctioned. Thus, if a million people can be saved from starvation with the cost, high as it is, of perhaps several hundred peace- keepers in a worst case scenario, military intervention would seem to be justified in principle, if it can be pulled off in practice - that is, if there is the will, organization, troops, hardware and funds to carry it off.

Why should military intervention be multilateral?

Countries seldom operate unilaterally with dispassionate calculation. The U.S. intervention in Panama, for example, was seen by many not as a move to improve the human rights of the Panamanians but to improve the political prospects of the Bush Administration. Moreover, such interventions are likely to be carried off by highly developed states at the expense of less developed ones, which smacks of traditional colonialism, and often of racism. The benefit of multilateral action is that action to the advantage of one state at the expense of another is far less likely.

Is the UN the appropriate body?

It is highly imperfect, but it is the best we have. The U.N. Security Council, which essentially is empowered to deploy U.N. forces, operates with the unanimous consent of the Big Five (U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France). With the end of the Cold War, there is now a sufficient community of interest between these powers so that at least in some sections of the world (Cambodia is perhaps the best current example), policies can be worked out which give major consideration to the well-being of the affected peoples.

How can U.N. military interventions be made more effective?

Various plans have been advanced in the last few years, which propose highly trained, standby U.N. forces ready for immediate engagement. The U.S. and other advanced countries should consider such plans carefully. In any case, it is reasonable to suggest that many advanced countries, including the U.S., begin to invest more heavily in the United Nations. For the U.S., this would include not only finally paying its back dues, but also integrating the United Nations into our strategic planning, and providing it the long-range benefit of our military expertise. At the same time, the U.S. military would need to be open to new methods of training which would enable it to operate in an atmosphere stressing non-violence and conflict resolution, rather then confrontation.

For almost five decades we have invested hundreds of billions of dollars annually in a military machine geared to the Cold War. As part of the "peace dividend," we might well consider shifting several billion dollars a year

from that machine to genuinely multilateral peace-keeping.