The New Standard for Humanitarian Intervention

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


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).

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.

Within the first week of international intervention, the threat to Benghazi and the east was vastly reduced at no loss of life to the U.S. or other members of the coalition. Given the large number of Libyans seeking to govern themselves, there is reason to think they can stand on their own and once again secure control over much of Libya. That is likely to require the re-establishment of pre-existing lines of economic shipments to the area -- the crucial next step, and another area where the U.S. and the world can help.

Again, Bosnia and Kosovo offer hopeful precedents. Both humanitarian interventions ended as among the lowest-risk military actions the U.S. and the West have undertaken. The Serbs themselves toppled Milosevic about a year after he lost Kosovo.

Many critics of the intervention are calling for a more cautious approach, a standard that could demand a much higher threshold for humanitarian action in terms of civilian deaths and refugees, or could require a military plan with no risks whatsoever. In practice, such constraints would all but destroy the power of international action to save lives.

These objections underscore the importance of pursuing international moral action as part of a broad coalition involving states from the region. Yes, this means humanitarian action often will occur as an emergency at the last moment and with operations organized in haste. But the burden of building an international coalition with a regional focus provides a crucial check and balance on humanitarian action, precisely to prevent any one case from setting a dangerous precedent.

As the world's sole superpower, and with unique military capabilities, the U.S. will find itself at the center of many future debates over humanitarian action. The emerging standards for intervention would argue for restraint in many cases. For example, so far in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, the government responses to protests have killed civilians on a much smaller scale than in Libya -- no more than 80 in each case. These acts are deplorable, but the impact is orders of magnitude less than in Libya and so merits an intense diplomatic rather than military response.

If we are willing to take international moral action at all, the decisions in the Balkans and Libya offer a reasonable standard. It is also a practical guide that helps identify which "problems from Hell," as Samantha Power titled her book on U.S. dilemmas over humanitarian intervention, we can actually solve.

Photo: Anti-Qaddafi protesters rally in London. Thierry Roge / Reuters