27 January 2004

War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention

However, in extreme situations, Human Rights Watch does not insist on Security Council approval. The council in its current state is simply too imperfect to make it the sole mechanism for legitimizing humanitarian intervention. Its permanent membership is a relic of the post-World War II era, and its veto system allows those members to block the rescue of people facing slaughter for the most parochial of reasons. In light of these faults, one's patience with the council's approval process would understandably diminish if large-scale slaughter were underway. However, because there was no such urgency in early 2003 for Iraq, the failure to win council approval, let alone the endorsement of any other multilateral body, weighs heavily in assessing the intervenors' claim to humanitarianism.

We recognize, of course, that the Security Council was never asked to consider a purely humanitarian intervention in Iraq. The principal case presented to it was built on the Iraqi government's alleged possession of and failure to account for weapons of mass destruction. Even so, approval might have ameliorated at least some of the factors that stood in the way of the invasion being genuinely humanitarian. Most significantly, a council-approved invasion is likely to have yielded more troops to join the predominantly American and British forces, meaning that preparation for the post-war chaos might have been better.

In sum, the invasion of Iraq failed to meet the test for a humanitarian intervention. Most important, the killing in Iraq at the time was not of the exceptional nature that would justify such intervention. In addition, intervention was not the last reasonable option to stop Iraqi atrocities. Intervention was not motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns. It was not conducted in a way that maximized compliance with international humanitarian law. It was not approved by the Security Council. And while at the time it was launched it was reasonable to believe that the Iraqi people would be better off, it was not designed or carried out with the needs of Iraqis foremost in mind.

Go read. I agree with the conclusion, but not with all the report. Especially I do not see why HRW does not concern itself with the the US' previous engagement with Saddam. The report is extremely valuable in setting out how recent, how thin and ultimately how ineffectual the attempt to manufacture a humanitarian argument - an argument specifically disavowed before the war - really is.

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