Controversies Around Humanitarian Interventions and the Authority to Intervene

Delivered by Joelle Tanguy, U.S. Executive Director, MSF, at a panel presentation during the Travers Conference Ethics and Post-Cold

Delivered by Joelle Tanguy, U.S. Executive Director, MSF, at a panel presentation during the Travers Conference Ethics and Post-Cold
War Humanitarian Intervention
of the University of California, Berkeley

Dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here today to discuss "humanitarian interventions," and as was specifically assigned to this panel, "the ethical issues at stake in the investiture of the authority to intervene in actors and institutions."

As a humanitarian practitioner, I have to acknowledge and emphasize right away that humanitarian aid is fraught with tremendous political and ethical controversies, and that steering a course of impartiality is a daily challenge. To make sure that aid is not fueling conflict, to make sure that it is not turned against the very people we seek to help requires extensive political and ethical considerations that are not part of the standard medical school curriculum!

What is however clear is what is humanitarian aid is not: that it does not resolve conflicts, that it does not stop the genocide, and these considerations lead us directly into the issue at hand today: interventions to restore safety and security of populations and to impose the respect of basic principles of humanity.

My focus today will be on the emerging and reemerging notion of "humanitarian intervention", and how the "right to intervene," the "authority to intervene," can be a deceiving and ambiguous slogan1. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) delighted and moved all, all of us involved now and all those that had contributed to the organization's existence. But at the same time, it caused us a certain amount of embarrassment that is in direct relevance to the subject of this conference, as many analysts associated the independent civil humanitarianism recognized by the Nobel Committee and the recently touted concepts of "humanitarian military interventions" and the states' "authority to intervene."

At MSF, we have trouble recognizing ourselves as the standard bearers of this "right to intervene" which a number of interviews and articles seem to indicate as having been finally acknowledged and sanctioned by the award. Without denying our pleasure at seeing the work and persistence of thousands of volunteers applauded, and without renouncing our commitment at all, we cannot let such a serious misunderstanding become entrenched.

And that's what I want to clarify today, using the forum of this conference. The Nobel Committee chose to recognize that "national boundaries and political circumstances or sympathies must have no influence on who is to receive humanitarian help." This reflects the rights and responsibilities embodied in international humanitarian law of impartial aid agencies to provide humanitarian assistance. Such activities should be kept somehow separate and independent from the kind of intervention carried out by political and military bodies.

States have used noble motives for centuries to justify armed intervention into the domestic affairs of other states. Such justifications include the defense of human rights, of minorities, of their own nationals. It began with the notion of the "just war," suited the ideas of the European countries intervening to protect Christians in Islamic countries in the 19th century, and continued in the 1970s when India intervened in Pakistan to protect the Bengali people from extortion by the army.

A common point to these interventions is the use of force to impose respect for the principles of humanity. The common way to do this now is peacekeeping operations. But in most peacekeeping operations, agreements establishing the force's presence are signed with the "host state," under the aegis of the UN. The population's access to relief and its protection are rarely enforced, since the access and protection are negotiated with the very authorities controlling the population. In practice, UN peacekeepers generally are not authorized to use force to enforce their mandate—even when it is to provide aid or to protect threatened populations—but only in cases of self-defense. These difficulties in achieving the necessary access and protection weaken the case for using humanitarian objectives as a justification for intervention. Nevertheless, today, "humanitarian intervention" is one of the mechanisms that the UN Security Council uses to explain and legitimize armed intervention, yet it is only one aspect of peacekeeping operations, alongside military, political, and diplomatic considerations.

Other forces of more coercive intervention are emerging—as we've seen recently in Kosovo. Whether they are just or right doesn't matter. Political, military, and diplomatic initiatives should not be labeled humanitarian because we'll otherwise see humanitarian action become a flag of convenience for various agendas which have nothing to do with a very clearly defined, very codified definition of the role of impartial NGO's outlined in the Geneva Conventions.

Of course, we are not necessarily more inclined today than ever to revere the very sovereignty we challenged in the name of private, impartial, independent humanitarian action when it interfered with the need for immediate, unhindered humanitarian assistance. But we are not joining in to worship the slogan of "humanitarian intervention," or "Droit d'Ingérence," despite the path that some of our founders have taken. The slogan in question was adopted by states to intervene in sovereign states in order to protect populations threatened in their own country. It owes its political success to its ambiguity, and if we were to resolve the ambiguity, I believe we would give it even more strength.

The expression itself, "right to intervene," "authority to intervene," mixes two approaches which, though not mutually exclusive, weaken each other when they are combined. The first is independent humanitarian action; the second is political and military intervention undertaken in situations involving mass crime or terror. Both approaches are necessary, but in order to serve their purposes, we believe that they must be carried out independently. Politicizing aid and assistance, for example, would make them the object of negotiations, of bargains, of diversions. In other words, it can reduce the scope of action within which relief is provided. When it is politicized, humanitarian action may be perceived as interference, and this is precisely what made us hostages in the Northern Caucasus, targets in Burundi, and undesirables in Belgrade. Similarly, presenting soldiers in international contingents as volunteers is to disarm them, to tie them hand and foot, and to risk their lives needlessly as in Bosnia. It may even, in a monstrous misinterpretation, mean killing in the name of humanitarianism.

Clearly, the "right to intervene" and "humanitarian intervention" are misleading approximations. The Nobel community is not responsible for this slogan. In essence, the Committee stated that they gave us the award to support independent and impartial action that is rapid and effective, as well as to support our ability to mobilize public opinion in the face of violence and abuses of power. On our side, we understand that the jury's motives are reflecting support for a specific kind of action, one which can, if need be, circumvent the obstacles opposing it or rise up freely against attempts to appropriate it, one which joins word to deed.

The "right to intervene," and its humanitarian label, took ground forcefully in the last decade. But it was right away a bit of a shaky concept. Have we already forgotten the proclamation of "Year One of Humanitarian Intervention," when Iraq intervened in Kurdistan, in the spring of 1991, and again the following year, at the time of the calamitous operation "Restore Hope" in Somalia? Have we forgotten that it was possible for genocide—the sole crime of state forbidden as such by international law—to be committed in Rwanda, before everyone's eyes, without dampening the vigor of humanitarian speeches whatsoever?

The concept develops the fallacious impression that forceful and well-planned humanitarian action can stop a war, can resolve a conflict. In other words are we supposed to understand that today fortified by their Nobel Peace Prize, the doctors of MSF could put an end to massacres? Let's ask Boris Yeltsin and the Chechens what they think...

The slogan "humanitarian intervention" does not only have the disadvantage of being wrong, which would be reason enough to reject it: by seeming to put states and NGO's on the same level, it casts on the latter the legitimate suspicion that falls on the former when it comes to intervention. Humanitarian workers, volunteers, are no more eager than journalists, say, to be confused with soldiers, which inevitably happens when both groups march forth under the same banner.

And I think one of the speakers this morning stated the need for much better coordination. But we also have to be careful and understand that marching in under the same banner, joining in as a single beam, means that at the first serious challenge on the political or military agenda everything stops—political initiatives, military efforts and humanitarian action, all would grind to a halt at the same time.

We also disown the slogan because we know that there is a repertoire of statements and descriptions that make it easy to window-dress causes to create false pictures. This can be seen in the use of terms such as "humanitarian crises," the immediate effect of which is to transform crimes against humanity and political responsibilities into simple news items, amenable to a logistical deployment. Another example is the new age propaganda that consists of turning war into a humanitarian deed, since in the end, "humanitarian war" is only one word away from "humanitarian intervention."

Another preoccupation is that today we still do not have an international mechanism to elicit the necessary international reactions and interventions in the face of horror. But this certainly will not be achieved by sanctioning the law of the strongest or by adding obfuscation to confusion. Our secular west tends to fence itself as divine providence, capable of killing and protecting, and one after the other simultaneously and as it pleases, and according to its self-interest.

What is wrong with our current mechanism? I take issue in the current veto system at the Security Council. With the lack of standard definition of "threats to peace" and the fact that decisions remain contingent upon political choices fluctuating under different external constraints. With the fact that the U.N. is not bound by its declarations. With the fact that the U.N. and members states have remained idle in the face of genocide despite commitments inscribed in humanitarian law.

With the total absence of oversight mechanisms: when the United Nations delegates to national contingents the use of force in its name, there's no strategic oversight and there's no disciplinary oversight. We have witnessed firsthand grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law by contingents that remain protected by immunity. Think about Sierra Leone, Somalia etc. We also take issue with coordination mechanisms, as I said, that seek to enroll humanitarian actors as the public relation arm of other agendas, however just and appropriate those agendas may be.

Such confusion is not acceptable in our mind. We need to provide mechanisms for intervention that reaffirm the principles of humanity without necessarily being labeled as doing what they are not doing. We need to probably restructure the U.N. profoundly. The power to block held by the masters of this organization is probably what must be attacked. The post-war order has been turned upside down, yet the structure of the U.N. has not, it stayed the same. The makeup of the Security Council, the discretionary use of veto, and the lack of military force of its own are some of the constraints that paralyze it. I'm not necessarily advocating a particular tack on this, but would like us to recognize that these are the shackles that must be cast off in order to lay the foundation for a true "right to intervene," which would not be an instrument subject to the arbitrariness of great powers, of regional authorities, but a force for peace capable of punishing dictators of resisting massacres and supporting democratic leaders.

As a last word, I will plead one last time to have us pay attention to the semantics and not affix the window-dressing "humanitarian" label to everything we want to advocate, however just, however fair, however moral this action would be, however based on principles and shared values they would be.

  1. These considerations were developed in a recent article by Rony Brauman and Philippe Biberson, published in Le Monde in November 1999, "Le Droit D'ingerence, Slogan Trompeur et Ambigu." Another reference of interest is Francoise Bouchet-Saulnier's Dictionnaire Pratique du Droit Humanitaire, translated by Laura Brav and planned for English language publication in year 2001.