Why did humanitarian intervention increase during the 1990s?
Human intervention is based upon the liberal principle that as members of a global community, all states should strive to protect human life. If sovereign states cannot do this, either because they are deliberately perpetrating mass murder or are unable to cope with the enormity of a natural catastrophe, the international community should intervene to restore order and save lives.Therefore, humanitarian intervention is instigated by the altruistic principle of‘saving strangers’ rather than geostrategic considerations of self-interest.
The end of the Cold War
The end of the Cold War was greeted with such optimism that it generated huge international support for liberal principles of global governance and international justice. ‘People power’ played an important role in the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, placing people at the centre of political debate in a way not seen during the Cold War. In the early 1990s, the future therefore appeared to be one of greater global cooperation, as states increasingly embraced common values. This led President George H. W. Bush to speak of a ‘New World Order’ based on a global community working together to resolve the problems it jointly faced.
The First Gulf War (1991)
This new, more positive world order was illustrated in 1991 when states cooperated to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This seemed to suggest that the global community was prepared to live up to UN ideals and punish what George H. W. Bush termed the ‘naked aggression’ of Saddam Hussein. However, Bush was not prepared to intervene within Iraq itself, despite some of his advisers suggesting that, having liberated Kuwait, the USA should go on to topple Saddam. However, when Saddam went on to brutally suppress Kurdish uprisings in northern Iraq, this was too much for the UNSC. Its speedy passage of UN Resolution 688, condemning Saddam Hussein’s retribution against Kurdish rebels, provided France, the UK and the USA with the authority to establish ‘no-fly zones’ within Iraqi borders. This signalled that the state would no longer be all-powerful if it sought to persecute its own people. Significantly, the intervention was code-named ‘Operation Provide Comfort’, indicating the way in which morality, rather than strategic self-interest, was used to justify action.
Operation Provide Comfort was not a one-off. In December 1992, in one of his last acts as president, George H. W. Bush committed 28,000 US troops to Somalia, a state that had disintegrated into anarchy and in which over a million were threatened with starvation. When General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Bush what the USA’s mission was in aid of, he stated it was ‘to end the starvation’. Then, in his broadcast to the nation, he declared that the USA would ‘answer the call’ and ‘get the food through’. Such humanitarianism was easier to achieve in the 1990s since, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA was the sole global superpower. If the USA was prepared to act according to moral principles in the development of a New World Order, it appeared that a more liberal world order could be established.
The lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda
The civil war that erupted upon the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation severely tested the principle of humanitarian intervention. President Bill Clinton was wary of involving the USA in such a complicated and bloody conflict. The EU was similarly paralysed by indecision and unwilling to take sides. The UN sent peacekeepers into the warzone but, as the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali put it, they were being expected to keep the peace ‘when there was no peace to keep’.
As a result of this lack of resolve, the killings multiplied. In the biggest mass murder in Europe since the end of the Second World War, Bosnian Serbs murdered 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys when they overran the UN safe haven of Srebrenica. This coincided with developments in satellite broadcasting, which made the killings ‘instantaneous news’, further highlighting the moral consequences of the reticence to intervene. The Rwandan genocide took place from April to June 1994. As many as 800,000 Rwandans may have been killed in the bloodbath, representing 20% of the population. The tiny UN force in Rwanda did not have either the manpower or the mandate to take decisive action. When, at last, the UNSC did agree to send reinforcements, the killing was mostly over. As the scale of this tragedy became known, so the failure of the international community to intervene was widely condemned. Clearly, if humanitarian intervention were to work in the future, it would require full military involvement, acceptance that there would be risks and casualties, and an absolute commitment to success.
NATO’s intervention in Bosnia (1995)
By 1995, the extent of suffering in Bosnia at last persuaded NATO to intervene in the civil war. Bosnian Serb artillery attacks on Sarajevo, including a particularly bloody attack on a busy civilian marketplace, together with the Srebrenica Massacre, proved to be the final straw. Since its establishment in 1949, NATO’s purpose had been to deter Soviet aggression. However, with the Cold War over and a humanitarian disaster occurring on the EU border, NATO leaders agreed to deploy troops and air power to its ‘near abroad’. It launched Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs, who were soon pushed back by the overwhelming military power that NATO could deploy. In December 1995, all sides agreed to the Dayton Peace Accords. To ensure compliance, NATO deployed 60,000 troops in Bosnia, with a robust mandate to disarm rival military factions, rebuild Bosnia and try to restore trust between the rival ethnic and religious groups in the region.
Nation-building in Bosnia
The commitment NATO made to rebuilding Bosnia after the civil war demonstrated that, if it was to work, humanitarian intervention would have to involve nation-building. It was not enough to stop the fighting — peacekeeping forces would need to step in to create the conditions necessary for lasting peace. In 2002–6, former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown served as International High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He had many practical successes during his time as High Representative, but some criticised the intervention as neocolonialism. However, if it was imperialism, it was a very benign form, designed to establish the conditions necessary for the rebuilding of Bosnia.
Tony Blair and the principle of the international community
In 1997, Labour leader Tony Blair became UK prime minister. The most devoutly Christian prime minister since Gladstone, Blair shared his predecessor’s conviction that politics and morality are inseparable. Foreign policy must, as his first foreign secretary Robin Cook put it, be ‘ethical’. During his Lord Mayor’s banquet speech in 1997, Blair announced that ‘human rights may sometimes seem an abstraction in the comfort of the West, but when they are ignored, human misery and political instability all too easily follow’. For Blair these were not empty words and, in the years to come, he would use his international stature to encourage the international community to live up to the idealism of a more liberal global cosmopolitanism. Under Blair’s government, respect for human rights would inform British foreign policy just as much as geostrategic self-interest.
In 1999, conflict in the Balkans once again gained international attention. This time the violence was within Serbia. Kosovar Albanians wanted to separate from Serbia and establish an independent state. In response, the Serbian president, Slobodan Miloševic´, launched a major military offensive in order to crush the separatist movement. To many in the West this seemed to herald yet more ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the region and Tony Blair, remembering how long it had taken to end the war in Bosnia, was among those most eager to push for military intervention. In March, NATO began an aerial bombardment against Serbia. In April, Blair flew to Washington, DC to persuade President Clinton that NATO might need to prepare for a full- scale land invasion. Eventually, the threat of a NATO ground offensive forced Miloševic´ to hand over Kosovo to NATO administration, although it would legally remain a part of Serbia. Subsequently, Kosovo Force (KFOR) took over the responsibilities of re-establishing the infrastructure, disarming rival groups, resettling refugees and preventing acts of revenge.
In some ways, Kosovo represents the high point of humanitarian intervention. During the conflict, Blair was unequivocal on his assertion that NATO had intervened to protect our ‘fellow human beings’ and that it was ‘simply the right thing to do’. In his Chicago speech in April 1999, he reinforced these commitments in what later became known as the ‘Blair Doctrine’, in which he stated that ‘acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter’. At the dawn of the new millennium it really did seem as though a new empire of the good was under creation: if nation-states chose to make war against their own people, they would have to face the consequences.
The Clinton Doctrine (1999)
When President Clinton announced that where American values and interests
met, the USA should be prepared to intervene, liberals were further emboldened
to believe that the new millennium would usher in a more humanitarian
approach to foreign policy. Like Tony Blair, Clinton further accepted that
‘Genocide is in and of itself a national interest where we should act’ and that
the USA had a responsibility to promote human rights and democracy. This
was not only morally right, but a world governed according to these principles
would be safer and more secure for US interests. Possibly, too, his assertions
were fuelled by guilt: in the early years of his presidency, Clinton had ignored
the Rwandan genocide. His foreign policy legacy would therefore be to challenge
Westphalian principles of state sovereignty by emphasising the universality of
The United Nations Responsibility to Protect (2005)
As UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan was keen to refine the extent to which
a state could act in defiance of the moral precepts of the international
community. In the wake of the Kosovo intervention in 1999, Annan argued,
like Blair and Clinton, that states could now no longer claim absolute authority
over their citizens. Instead, a state’s sovereignty was ‘conditional’ upon its
ability to protect its citizens’ human rights. This represented a dramatic assault
on Westphalian principles, since it suggested that state sovereignty involved
responsibilities as well as rights.
The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was
established in 2000, and coined the term ‘responsibility to protect’. According
to this principle, the state has a ‘responsibility’ to protect its citizens from
harm. If it fails in this duty, that ‘responsibility’ passes to the international
community. In a global political commitment, all UN members voted to endorse
the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at the UN World Summit in 2005, in order
to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Where such atrocities occur, the UNSC should be prepared to authorise
The concept of ‘responsible sovereignty’ established a new onus on both
nation-states and the global community to ensure that people could live
without fear of violent persecution within their own countries.