One of the principle arguments in favour of the war on Iraq, or at least in defence of it as a total disaster, is that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a brutal dictatorship which persecuted people on the grounds of their ethnicity or merely for the fact that they didn’t support it. This argument holds that, this being the case, removing Saddam (why do we always call him by his first name? Should this be extended to all heads of state – Barack, François, Salman, Liz?) was fundamentally right, regardless of everything else that went wrong in Iraq afterwards.
And at first glance, the idea of punishing dictators and human rights abusers seems like a fair enough principle – until you realise that, according to Freedom House, 70 per cent of the world’s population live in a country which is “not free” or only “partly free”. The world is home to at least fifty dictators and absolute monarchs, depending on your definition. Human rights and international law are literally violated every day. So we need to ask ourselves: who decides which oppressors need to be overthrown by external military intervention? When and how should this be achieved? Who is responsible for enforcing international law in real terms?
The most important argument in favour of any humanitarian military action should be that it will prevent suffering and loss of life in both the short and long terms.
This is one of the most difficult questions in politics, not least because it has such an enormous moral dimension. It arguably transcends party divides, forcing us to focus first on the question of right and wrong, then on issues of practicality. We can squawk about Labour and the Conservatives until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t bring us any closer to a conclusion. The most important argument in favour of any humanitarian military action should be that it will prevent suffering and loss of life in both the short and long terms. However, this is almost never the only factor, or even indeed the main factor, motivating military engagement.
Whatever form such engagement takes, the reasons behind it will always be political, which is why the countries with the money and power to undertake these actions never have a consistent policy towards oppression and the fight against it. The North Korean regime is still in place principally because, from a geopolitical point of view, there’s good reason to leave it be, regardless of its cruelty and negligence. In Syria, we and our allies are working to defeat ISIS and not al-Assad’s government in no small part because Putin’s Russia supports the latter. That’s not to say there aren’t strong humanitarian arguments for fighting ISIS, but it’s just not as simple as that. The global political system as it stands often doesn’t allow for doing something for purely humanitarian reasons.
Does that mean that military intervention can never have any positive intentions or outcomes? It’s actually quite hard to make this argument in light of atrocities which it’s thought might have been prevented by outside intervention, such as the Rwandan genocide. Aside from the horrific killing which took place, what makes this genocide so disgusting is that UN peace keeping forces were present, but they didn’t stop it. The world knew what was going on, and yet nothing was done. For some people, this is proof that the “keep out of other countries’ internal problems” approach to foreign policy is morally wrong.
Surely when people are dying, theoretical questions about the right of nation states to police one another are secondary? Yet it’s often the case that, when atrocities are being carried out, external actors find it very difficult to access and analyse the facts in a way which takes into account the complexity of the problems to be dealt with. Moreover, intervention led by western powers such as the UK, the US or France is often interpreted as high-handed neo-colonialism. The war on Iraq has frequently been interpreted in this way, due both to Bush and Blair’s “liberation” rhetoric and to the way coalition military forces governed Iraq as occupiers after Saddam had been deposed.
Perhaps, then, military interventions in humanitarian crises should be led by a country’s closest neighbours? Rather than swooping in as the “white saviour”, the west could support regional allies in their efforts to bring peace and protect human rights. Unfortunately, there’s no way of guaranteeing that countries will have any interest in preventing human rights violations across their borders if they don’t pose any immediate threat, if there is an ongoing enmity or allegiance between the two governments, or if one military is far larger than the other. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention against the Houthi insurgency in Yemen has shown no special understanding of, or concern for, Yemeni people’s needs or rights. Of course, there are no doubt many other instances when interventions led by non-western regional powers could be effective.
Many people would argue that any intervention that involves military action cannot be humanitarian, and that if nations wish to do anything to help victims of oppression in other countries, political and economic routes should be sought. Indeed, in many cases, political pressure through international bodies such as the UN or bilateral diplomacy can be appropriate, though it is hard work and can take a long time. Although I don’t agree with the argument that violence is never OK (because sometimes you have to defend yourself, and because sometimes people find themselves in such awful situations that our day to day rules don’t quite fit any more), political lobbying is valuable in many ways. For one thing, talks and cooperation can be set up in a way which brings local activists into the conversation, allowing them to become agents of change rather than victims of war.
economic sanctions have very little real use in today’s world.
Furthermore, the better we engage with issues in a non-military context, the more likely we are to approach them with an appreciation for their complexity if military action becomes necessary. Of course, dictators with little regard for human rights are often unlikely to succumb to political pressure, but that doesn’t negate the importance of political dialogue between other involved parties. On the other hand, my belief is that economic sanctions have very little real use in today’s world. Firstly, economic sanctions levelled against countries and governments tend to have the most severe impact on poor and vulnerable members of the local population. Secondly, as was shown by the Panama Papers, powerful individuals and organisations are frequently able to avoid sanctions. Governments are usually reluctant to ban arms sales to oppressive state actors, and the international arms industry is very adept at selling its products to whoever can pay for them.
Overall, military intervention on humanitarian grounds is far from an easy decision, and it will certainly never be uncontroversial. However, I’m not comfortable saying that it’s never OK, because we just can’t generalise about humanitarian crises and how they should be tackled. We should approach these conversations critically, and base our arguments on the facts of the individual case in hand, because at the end of the day we’re talking about human rights violations and the future of countries and the people who live there. The Chilcot report details evidence of a military intervention pitched on spurious grounds, and which was poorly planned in almost every conceivable way. We should of course learn from it (otherwise it may as well not have been written), but in a mature, responsible way, and not merely as an opportunity to take swipes at unpopular former heads of government.