The New Standard for Humanitarian Intervention

How Libya may set a new global precedent for when international military action is -- and isn't -- warranted

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In his speech last Monday, President Obama made the case that the U.S. and its allies had to take military action in Libya to prevent "a humanitarian catastrophe." This raises a political and moral question: With plenty of dictators and bloody rebellions on the global stage, which humanitarian crises justify international action?

The nature of Libya's crisis may help clarify that problem. It fits a pattern that began to emerge in the 1990s with Bosnia and Kosovo, two other states where a firm allied response curtailed bloodshed.

Together, the commonalities of these three cases suggest a new standard to guide future actions: Military intervention by an international coalition is justified to remedy ongoing, state-sponsored mass murder when the military plans carry low risks.

We may be witnessing an historic shift in international norms. After World War II, genocide appeared to be the widely accepted standard for humanitarian intervention. The 1948 UN Convention against genocide defined it as a set of acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." This helped hold criminals to account after the fact, but it proved insufficient to halt ongoing atrocities. No one came to rescue those who were being killed in Cambodia in the 1970s (2 million), Rwanda in the 1990s (800,000) and Darfur in the 2000s (200,000).

Intervention for humanitarian goals cannot justify large-scale risks to our own people.

The new, emerging standard presumes that even genocide may not spur nations to action if the risks of intervention are too high, as they are perceived to be in, for example, Darfur, where viable plans have called for thousands of ground troops. Yet crises short of genocide, such as the Libyan conflict, justify a military response when it can save thousands of lives with reasonable prospects of virtually no or only very low casualties to international allies.

Libya clearly met the threshold of state-sponsored mass murder. Starting February 17, about 75 percent of Libya broke away from Qaddafi's rule, prompting a government campaign of suppression using tanks, air power, and heavy shelling of urban areas. The estimated death toll by governments and knowledgeable observers ran into the thousands, with hundreds of thousands fleeing Qaddafi's wrath.

Bosnia and Kosovo saw similar levels of violence. By March 1993, when the United Nations authorized military action to protect Bosnian Muslims, thousands were almost surely dead and hundreds of thousands were refugees. By April 1999, when NATO authorized military action to protect Kosovar civilians, again thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands were fleeing. International, morality-driven action almost certainly saved thousands of lives in each case.

Yet these experiences, and the negative example of the Iraq war, also teach a degree of realism. Intervention for humanitarian goals cannot justify large-scale risks to our own people. Serious consideration of international moral action requires practical, case-by-case assessments of the feasibility of military intervention with very low risks.

Libya presents as low a risk as any military mission the U.S. has pursued in the past 20 years. Qaddafi's threat to civilians rests on his ability to attack with concentrations of heavy weapons and to cut off supplies into ports -- both of which we can substantially blunt with very low risk to ourselves. The main reason for confidence is, simply, geography. To reach the population centers on along the Mediterranean coast, Qaddafi's heavy forces must expose themselves along easily identifiable routes in open desert terrain, within range of international air power stationed on naval ships at sea or on land bases in Europe and elsewhere.

Presented by

Robert Pape is Professor and Director of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago and author of three books, most recently Cutting the Fuse: The Global Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.

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