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20 years ago: Howard Clark on humanitarian intervention

Howard Clark, reviews a Bradford University report by Nick Lewer and Oliver Ramsbotham on ‘humanitarian intervention’, written during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

ImageWhat gives people – citizens or intergovernmental bodies – the right to intervene in a situation, and what considerations should govern this intervention?

... The first half [of the Lewer-Rambotham report] deals with non-coercive humanitarian intervention. While forms of civilian intervention aren’t likely to have the enormous consequences of military intervention, they too need to be assessed according to clear criteria. Marko Hren, commenting on ‘war tourism’ in former-Yugoslavia, talks of peace visitors ‘thinking locally and acting globally’. I’ve been regaled by friends in Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia with stories of well-meaning visitors bringing their own problems into the war zone – reminiscent for me of the white man seeking his soul in Africa. Many of the missionaries assume they have something to offer, and because of the post-Communist openness to Western “magic”, they are given more of a hearing than they would get among their own communities.

Just how appropriate is the pacifist impulse towards nonviolent interposition? And how well-equipped are many peace activists – often people whose record in nonviolent action could be depicted harshly as having failed to change their own society’s military commitment – to take action in a society where they are strangers? These are not rhetorical questions....

In Ramsbotham’s formulation [addressing military intervention], legitimacy and authority for intervention is derived from the ‘international community’, a term he uses to refer not only to the UN or regional organisations – the ‘international system’ – but to ‘international society’, indeed to our very ‘shared humanity’.

This, I’m afraid, is too loose a formulation for judging coercive or military intervention.

We have seen the manipulation of the United Nations; we know its lack of democracy; we know too the ulterior motives which dictate government policy, making some human rights violations acceptable and others ostensibly a casus belli.

From February 1994 issue of Peace News. Buried Treasure is compiled by Albert Beale.