Humanitarian Intervention

Stephen R. Shalom


The issue of humanitarian intervention arises again, propelled by the crises in Kosovo and East Timor and by the memories of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Some analysts have used these cases to support new principles of international relations. But to assure that the correct lessons are learned, we have to examine these cases carefully.

All three cases involved a serious humanitarian catastrophe, though on significantly different scales.

In Rwanda, some 800,000 people were slaughtered simply on the basis of their Tutsi ethnicity. (Hutus who didn’t support the genocide were also targeted.)

In East Timor, 200,000 people — more than a quarter of the population — died in the late 1970s as a result of a merciless Indonesian counter-insurgency campaign. In 1999, in the aftermath of the August 30 referendum in which four out of five East Timorese braved Indonesian threats to vote for independence, military-backed militias unleashed an orgy of destruction, driving three quarters of the population from their homes — some into the hills and some out of East Timor entirely — with an as-yet unknown number killed. (Few bodies have been found thus far, but given refugee accounts, including testimony of bodies dumped at sea or removed to West Timor, and the huge numbers of people still missing, claims that there was no large-scale massacre are premature — at least until a careful census is undertaken.) And many East Timorese continue to be raped, abused, or murdered in camps in West Timor controlled by the Indonesian military.

In Kosovo between late March and June 1999, a massive ethnic cleansing displaced some 90 percent of the province’s ethnic Albanians — again, some internally and some over the borders — likewise with an unknown number of deaths. (Here too many remain missing, fewer than half the known grave sites have been exhumed, and there is credible evidence of bodies being removed or burned. The U.S.-NATO guess of 10,000 dead is unconfirmed, but not likely to be so far off.)

If massive human suffering was common to all three cases, there were also crucial differences. The most dramatic difference is that in two cases — Rwanda and East Timor — many lives could have been saved by simple measures on the part of the international community, while in the third case, Kosovo, the many lives lost were precipitated by reckless actions taken by the United States and its NATO allies.

In Rwanda, when the genocide began a UN-peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was present in Kigali, the nation’s capital. The UNAMIR commander cabled to New York that if his 2,500-soldier force were doubled in size and its mandate expanded he could stop the killings. But under U.S. pressure, UNAMIR was reduced rather than augmented. When the UN Secretary General subsequently got the Security Council to reconsider and authorize a larger force, U.S. officials stalled its deployment. Finally, as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was on the verge of defeating the genocidal regime, the Security Council approved a French intervention, too late to save more than a handful of lives, but which helped the killers escape to neighboring Zaire, from where they destabilized the entire region. Not surprisingly, the Rwandan government which was orchestrating the genocide voted in favor of the French intervention.

In East Timor, as soon as interim Indonesian president B. J. Habibie announced in January 1999 that he would permit a referendum on independence, the Indonesian military — the TNI — proceeded to organize militias to conduct a reign of terror against the population. The way to stop the terror was clear: all Washington had to do was tell the TNI to cease their actions. The United States has long had tremendous influence in Indonesia, influence that could have been used to prevent atrocities but that instead was used to support them. U.S. influence became even greater after the Asian economic crisis of 1997, when Jakarta became totally dependent upon the good will of the world’s rich nations. In 1999, despite clear evidence of atrocities by TNI-controlled militias, Washington declined to use its leverage.

Following the referendum, the militias — still firmly under TNI control — proceeded to lay waste the country, while the United States government refused to apply any serious pressure on Indonesia. It wasn’t until September 9, facing strong public outcry, that Washington suspended the Pentagon’s formal military ties with the TNI. Almost instantly, Jakarta announced that it would allow in a peacekeeping force. But as Amnesty International noted, "If US leverage was ultimately the critical factor in persuading Indonesia to stop the killing and permit peacekeepers, why weren’t these steps taken sooner? Everyday between the vote and President Clinton’s [September] 9th statements meant more corpses, more burned buildings, more refugees."

Thus, in Rwanda and East Timor many lives could have been saved by international action — by augmenting the peacekeeping force in Kigali and by pressing Jakarta to call off its militia rampage. In Kosovo, on the other hand, international action — specifically NATO bombardment — rather than saving lives, greatly increased the death toll. In the year prior to the NATO bombing, some 2,000 people had died, with several hundred thousand made refugees. Once the bombing began, however, the level of violence — killings, rapes, forced expulsions — sharply escalated. In the words of the U.S. State Department, "In late March 1999" — when the bombing began — "Serbian forces dramatically increased the scope and pace of their efforts, moving away from selective targeting of towns and regions suspected of KLA sympathies toward a sustained and systematic effort to ethnically cleanse the entire province of Kosovo." (Any humanitarian accounting needs to include as well the direct deaths of Serbian civilians from the bombing and the indirect deaths yet to come from the intentional targeting of the civilian infrastructure.)

Are the results of U.S. actions and non-actions in these three cases known to us only in hindsight? Not at all.

When the UNAMIR commander asked for more troops and an expanded mandate in Rwanda, no U.S. official objected that doing so might lead to more killings (which would have been a ludicrous claim, given that no Tutsi was being spared extermination). It was not out of concern for Rwandan lives that Washington blocked UN action, but out of a calculation that there was no U.S. interest involved and thus Rwandan lives didn’t matter. Likewise, no U.S. official believed that U.S. pressure on Jakarta to halt its terror would lead to greater harm to the people of East Timor. U.S. reticence had rather different sources. As the New York Times reported on Sept. 9, 1999, the "United States is resisting direct threats of economic or military sanctions against Indonesia in hopes of preserving its relationship with the vast archipelago nation." In the case of Kosovo, on the other hand, numerous officials did warn that NATO bombing could lead to greater suffering for the Kosovar Albanians. But such warnings did not deter Clinton, nor even encourage him to prepare for the anticipated refugee flow. Nor did he ever deviate from the tactic of bombing from 15,000 feet, a tactic known to have no impact on ethnic cleansing down below.

Another important difference between the three cases relates to the underlying political situation. In Rwanda and East Timor there were agreements, accepted by all sides and by the international community, pointing to a political solution, and then violated by one side.

In Rwanda, in 1993 the government and the RPF had accepted a cease-fire, a UN peacekeeping force, and a timetable for power-sharing. Power-sharing offered prospects of a reasonably just resolution to the long-standing and bloody relationship between the majority Hutu community and the minority Tutsis. (Minority rule would obviously have been unjust, but so too would absolute majority rule, which would leave the Tutsi minority vulnerable to oppression.) Over the next few months, the Rwandan dictator, Juvénal Habyarimana, procrastinated on implementing the power-sharing, while extremists in his government organized and armed anti-Tutsi militias. Finally, at the beginning of April 1994 it seemed as if Habyarimana might be prepared to move forward on the power-sharing, when a plane he was flying in was shot down, almost certainly by members of his own government, whereupon the extremists started slaughtering Hutu moderates and all Tutsis. Only at this point did the RPF, which had been adhering to the cease-fire, resume military action. Had the UN not been blocked by the United States from empowering UNAMIR, countless lives would have been saved and, in addition, justice for all Rwandans would have been brought much closer.

In East Timor, the international community had never accepted Indonesia’s occupation. (Despite the backing so many countries gave to Indonesia, at least formally only Australia had recognized Jakarta’s rule over the territory.) Given that there was no issue of an oppressed ethnic minority within East Timor, a just solution always involved allowing the East Timorese people to determine their own future in a free and fair referendum. An agreement allowing for such a referendum was signed between Indonesia, Portugal (the former colonial power), and the UN on May 5, 1999. Additionally, to assure that the free will of the people could be expressed, Falintil, the Timorese guerrillas, agreed to relocate to various cantonments around the country. The TNI promptly violated the agreement by using its militias to terrorize the population. As the militias ran wild, the guerrillas, showing remarkable restraint, remained in their cantonments. Pressure on Jakarta to abide by the May 5th agreement would not only have saved lives, but furthered the cause of social justice.

In Kosovo, on the other hand, there was no political agreement. There was a cease-fire in a civil war between ethnic Albanian separatists and the Yugoslav government, but it was a cease-fire violated by both sides. In December 1998, for example, Serbian forces launched an offensive, but, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted, this had been preceded by the KLA occupying and fortifying positions over the main Serbian supply roads contrary to the terms of the cease-fire. In January, there was a horrific massacre of civilians by Serb forces at Racak; but the week before observers had reported: "irresponsible actions by the KLA since yesterday morning are the main reasons for a considerable increase of tension in Kosovo."

There is no doubt that since 1989, when Kosovo’s autonomy was abrogated, the ethnic Albanians were being treated as second-class citizens. Any just solution had to permit self-determination for the ethnic Albanian majority. At the same time, however, simple majority rule would likely place the rights of Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities in Kosovo in jeopardy. So justice required some formula that guaranteed a multi-ethnic Kosovo. This could mean an independent Kosova, with minority rights, or it could mean a Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia but with renewed and substantial autonomy. The NATO countries have all stated their opposition to Kosovo’s independence, so let us ask to what extent their actions enhanced the possibility of a multi-ethnic Kosovo.

Some ethnic Albanians, brutalized by inexcusable and criminal ethnic cleansing, have engaged in ethnic cleansing of their own, not as systematic or as overt as the Serbian operations in the Spring, but comparably effective: most of Kosovo’s non-Albanian population has left. Many of the victims of Albanian violence and intimidation have been elderly people who couldn’t possibly have been involved in war crimes, leading Human Rights Watch among others to conclude that the intent "appears to be the expulsion of Kosovo’s Serb and Roma population rather than a desire for revenge alone."

There was much ethnic Albanian chauvinism before the bombing — human rights abuses by the KLA were documented back in 1998 — but there is no doubt that attitudes are more intolerant now than ever. But this, to a considerable extent, is another result of the bombing, in part because the bombing unleashed the large-scale ethnic cleansing, and in part because the bombing taught the lesson — endorsed throughout NATO — that it was permissible, even humanitarian, to kill Serb civilians and attack their infrastructure in order to aid the Albanians.

The intolerance in Kosovo is pervasive and it is directed even at ethnic Albanians. When Veton Surroi, a leading Kosovo Albanian intellectual, criticized the organized violence against Serbs and warned of the fascism behind it, Kosovapress, the press agency linked closely to the KLA, published a denunciation of him as a traitor to the cause, warning that he was at risk of "eventual and very understandable revenge."

The prospects for a multi-ethnic Kosovo seem bleak. Were there alternatives to NATO bombing that might have improved these prospects? The Serbs put forward a counter-proposal that offered autonomy to Kosovo. Was this a real offer? Would there have been adequate guarantees? Did it go far enough? These are all interesting questions — but unanswerable because the United States refused to pursue them. Washington demanded: accept NATO occupation of Kosovo and NATO access to all of Yugoslavia or be bombed, with results we have seen.

So what new principle of international relations do these cases suggest? Surely not: whenever there’s a crisis, launch cruise missiles and bombers. Nor: when atrocities are being committed, remain indifferent. They suggest instead: in the face of human suffering, do what one can to reduce that suffering. They suggest as well that one has to give very careful thought to the consequences of any intervention, in terms of lives and social justice. When the intervention need consist only of cutting off support for killers, the adverse consequences are likely to be few; when it consists of sustained bombing, the risks are far greater. An intervention like that in Kosovo, which cost lives and worsened the chances of establishing a multi-ethnic community, can hardly be considered humanitarian.


Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in NJ. He is the author of Imperial Alibis (South End, 1993) and is currently working on Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics.


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