Dealing with the world as it is: reimagining collective international responsibility.

Date22 December 2013
Published date22 December 2013
AuthorGassama, Ibrahim J.
Record Number355675249
AuthorGassama, Ibrahim J.

2. The Problems of Indeterminacy and Incoherence

This type of argument claims that there have been too many cases of similarly situated tragedies that inspire unequal international focus, condemnation, or demands for intervention. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention has been advocated and applied in an inconsistent manner while the problem has not been resolved by recasting the doctrine under the guise of responsibility to protect. (149) For example, in the 1990s, the doctrine was applied in Somalia and Haiti but not in the case of Rwanda, where genocide proceeded despite sufficient warnings. (150) In more recent times, the international community has been caught woefully unprepared to respond to a series of devastating conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa that have resulted in massive social destruction and loss of life. (151) Even more recently, the Arab Spring exposed the problem of inconsistency, as an adhoc international coalition responded haphazardly with lethal force in Libya while allowing other similarly situated and lethal conflicts to proceed in Syria and Bahrain. (152) Tragedies involving sustained and massive loss of life in Burma and North Korea have undermined the rationales for humanitarian intervention. (153)

Whatever processes that exist for seeking and gaining humanitarian intervention seem driven more by press attention, propaganda, ideology, and dynamic calculations of national interests than by any objective evaluation of the enormity of humanitarian deprivation or the urgency of threats to human life. Underlying the doctrine's inconsistent application are questions of the indeterminacy and incoherence of legal doctrines and procedures in general, and of humanitarian intervention in particular. These questions have not been resolved by the renaming of forcible intervention.

The Responsibility to Protect Project responded to these concerns by outlining six criteria for military intervention: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. (154) The Project's identification of these criteria came with the diplomatic equivalent of a note of exuberance: "It is perhaps not as difficult as it appears at first sight to identify criteria for military intervention for humanitarian protection purposes about which people should be able to agree." (155) Their confidence ignores strong disagreements over whether there should ever be military interventions for humanitarian reasons and disagreements over the meaning, relative importance, and constitutive elements of each of these criteria. Their conclusions fail to appreciate the problems of indeterminacy and incoherence.

The problems of indeterminacy and incoherence are firmly connected and feed off one another. No matter how specific the criteria for intervention are stated, the indeterminacy of these concepts in the abstract cannot be avoided. The aura of legality cannot mask the reality of international and domestic politics. The existing divisions within a particular society, including dynamic perceptions of interests not just by state parties but of a whole range of actors, inevitably will factor into any concrete application of these criteria. If only terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, and failed state would make the journey from definition to application, with the ease with which bureaucrats intone them. (156)

Incoherence speaks first to the inherent difficulties of justifying the use of armed force--war, to put it directly--for supposedly humanitarian reasons. Here, several of the stated criteria are implicated, but the proportionality question looms large. Put bluntly, how much destruction and how many people may intervening forces kill in the name of saving other people? (157) This concern exists even if the use of force is thoroughly legitimate under "right authority," and is regarded as "exceptional and extraordinary," (158) in response to ongoing international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and large scale ethnic cleansing. (159) Surely the lessons of humanitarianism are weakened when human life is deliberately taken even if in the service of saving others. Besides, on a practical level, once the facts of violence and destruction are exposed, objective assessments of motives and legitimacy become more difficult and unstable in the minds of witnesses. Violence and death are thus more apt to be seen in their stark quantitative relativity.

Incoherence is also found in the privileging of when and how people die or suffer. The predicates of humanitarian intervention relegate an enormous quantity and variety of human suffering to the jurisdiction of human rights, and thus accept them as normal and tolerable on an everyday basis, as not necessarily the result of emergencies or deliberate governmental failures. We must question why we occasionally decide to

employ great drama, including military force, to save some sets of people, when we tolerate ongoing human suffering, misery, and deaths on an even greater scale. Is the spectacle of particular situations, as presented to us by media or skillful lobbying, sufficient to normatively separate the fates of some from those of others? Is the very definition of humanitarian emergency and imminence designed to mask the complicity of global arrangements, which condition us to accept widespread and bottomless misery, if accomplished with dignified silence?

The critique of incoherence (and indeterminacy) attacks the optimistic view that the international community, however defined, could abstractly define and consistently employ concepts such as humanitarianism or intervention in particular situations. These terms and their definitions contain important and controversial assumptions about the way the world is and ought to be. Employing the language of legality and expending substantial resources in codifying criteria for action will not obviate inevitable conflicts over resources, privileges, and power.

3. The Problem of Efficacy/Resource Allocation

Even if one accepts the motivation of those behind humanitarian interventions and discounts the problems of inconsistency, indeterminancy, and incoherence, there are still questions about whether interventions are an effective means to aid those in crises. Humanitarian interventions often require massive deployments of human and material resources to support the intervening forces as well as to pacify the sites of intervention. (160) Many opponents of interventions question whether this form of assistance represents the best allocation of scarce resources in the world community. (161)

In the first place, despite the enormous sums required to wage such interventions, they are generally not designed to deal with the root causes of conflicts. (162) Their immediate goal is a temporary halt to conflicts that are seen as endangering people and good order. Interventions are at best very costly short-term efforts designed to buy time to come up with longer term solutions. There is also the concern that armed interventions could result in hardened positions, escalated conflicts, and a deepening of the divisions that led to the crises in the first place. (163) Furthermore, one may question why the willingness to invest great resources in military intervention is not matched by a willingness to deploy sufficient resources to deal with foundational problems underlying the crises over the long term and well before emergencies arise. (164)


    The question of action to protect civilians inside states has long been fraught with controversy. Yet it is being recognised more and more widely that the question is better framed not as one of a right to intervene, but of our responsibility to protect--a responsibility borne, first and foremost, by states. The panel members ... have agreed that the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs cannot be used to protect those who commit genocide, large-scale ethnic cleansing, or other comparable atrocities. (165) The Responsibility to Protect Project tries to deal with legal and policy concerns by locating humanitarian intervention within a more comprehensive understanding of collective responsibility. However, the effort falls quite short. The commission's usage of the term "responsibility" in this context suggests much more than it actually delivers. The responsibility to protect reformulation sought to develop international political consensus by providing more content to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention as well as broader procedural involvement on the part of the international community. It embraced three specific components of responsibility to protect: the responsibility to prevent, responsibility to react, and responsibility to build. (166) The elaboration of these three components is valuable to the discourse of intervention and collective responsibility. It reminds the international community of the factual arc of crisis and the complexity of intervention politics. Clearly, as the subsequent U.N. debates showed, the effort needs much more before it can be accepted by communities, including progressives, that remain deeply skeptical of the motives and goals of those who come bearing aid behind the barrel of a gun. (167)

    As it is, the old and discredited assertion of an indeterminate and incoherent right of the more powerful to intervene among the less powerful for supposedly humanitarian reasons is now couched in the new language of responsibility. If substance is to prevail over form, and if we are to take seriously the necessity of coming to the aid of other humans in tremendous distress, the policy demands substantial refinements.

    The responsibility to protect is, admittedly, a more benign-sounding recasting of humanitarian intervention, but substantively, it needs something beyond an ambiguous language of responsibility to even justify...

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