Friday, March 11, 2011

Against agreeable forgetting

"It is true that, in some crisis situations, the means for an internal solution seem scant, and this partially explains the appeal of ‘humanitarian intervention’. But the claim of a right of such interventions is to insist on an asymmetrical right: it is a claim advanced by strong states against weak states. Given the obvious potential for massive abuse of such a right, even if one supposed that strong states were the appropriate instrument for curtailing humanitarian catastrophes, it is surely necessary to insist on strict limitations and standards by which any such claim might be judged. Stephen Rosskamm Shalom suggests four such conditions: 1) demonstration of credible concern about the humanitarian situation; 2) proof that force is a last resort; 3) a commitment to the minimum necessary use of violence; 4) a reasonable expectation that such use of force will minimize suffering. Questions of agency and history are paramount here. If the interventionist state in question is responsible for repeated atrocities, it is unlikely that it can be relied upon to be an auxiliary to what Alex de Waal calls ‘the humanitarian international’.

"It could reasonably be objected that this would rule out support for practically every military intervention Western states have ever carried out; but if so, it is not at all to be lamented, given the catastrophic consequences of the carte blanche that the humanitarian interventionists have frequently allowed to those states, often to their later regret. There is a temptation to say that, given a sufficiently catastrophic situation, these stipulations ought to carry less weight. This is to say that humanitarians ought to be more willing to take risks with the lives of others by urging intervention, whatever the motives of imperial states. Precise calculations of cost and benefit are not necessarily always available, it could be argued. Sometimes, the interests of powerful states might coincide with those of oppressed groups. Let us concede that this is at least a possibility: that the strategy of one military power, even one guilty of the worst crimes, can lead to a reprieve for a threatened population. But, if we are really concerned about the fate of oppressed groups, we also have to concentrate on the other possibility: that even given the best motives, the intervention of powerful states can exacerbate the baleful conditions they were supposed to eliminate – and the burden of history suggests that we are never dealing with the best motives or even very creditable ones."

The Liberal Defence of Murder, Verso, 2008, p. 221