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Humanitarian intervention: a history of perverse incentives

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Friday, 28 August 2015

The tableau of humanitarian intervention remains frozen in a moment. In October 1993, the deaths of eighteen soldiers in Mogadishu shattered the resolve of the American public – within a matter of months American troops had been completely withdrawn, and a year later the United Nations did the same. Left behind was what UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar referred to as “the most serious humanitarian crisis of our day” – 4.5 million people in need of emergency humanitarian aid, 1.5 million at risk of immediate starvation within a country razed of infrastructure, and in the midst of a decades-long civil war.

Behind this tragedy was a stark political lesson: regardless of what can otherwise be said about his character, then American President Bill Clinton accepted the moral imperative at hand and shouldered the majority-burden of the international intervention –for this he, and his predecessor George Bush Senior, gained little or no political capital. However, when things turned for the worst and American lives were lost, public outrage hit an immediate fever-pitch. The choice for Clinton was simple: continue with the Somali intervention or retain public approval and seek re-election – he could no longer have both.

And, as it tends to do, the political consideration easily outweighed the moral. The fault here was not unique to the Clinton administration, it is increasingly hard to find a politician of any variety, within any context, who is willing to sacrifice his/her career for any single issue. Our political leaders, as they should, respond to both the incentives and the disincentives they are presented with, and it is considerably easier to behave ethically when that behaviour also enjoys popular support.


As it stands, the principle of humanitarian intervention has been constantly plagued by a history of just such perverse incentives.

The abandonment of Somalia to the caprice of warlords was, for Clinton, a necessary political decision. However, in retreat he was forced to pay a second public-opinion cost: first for the deaths of American soldiers, and then subsequently for the media image of the world’s only superpower limping away from battle after a relatively minor set-back.

It was therefore easy to predict that, after the assassination of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana in April 1994, following which simmering ethnic tensions exploded into genocide, that the international community would be reticent about getting involved. This hesitation made all the difference: in the three month period following the assassination, 800 000 Rwandans were hacked to death with machetes. The debate in the UN Security Council quickly turned farcical as member states went out of their way to avoid using the term ‘genocide’, in order to avoid their obligations under the Genocide Convention. When they did finally act, it was to pass resolution 912: reducing troop numbers from 2558 to 270 – worse than merely being passive, the international community actively opened the stage for Rwanda’s genocidaires.

If we are to trust him now, this was, for Clinton, his biggest regret in office – yet he, and the international community, had the ideal opportunity to make amends. The collapse of the Communist Party rule in the former-Yugoslavia in 1990, began the collapse of the Yugoslav federation. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991, and Bosnia-Herzegovina followed suit in 1992. The ethnic violence that followed – primarily between Serbs, Croats and Bosniak-Muslims – prompted the creation of a new criminal category: ‘ethnic cleansing’.

A spattering of UN commitments gave the veneer of international action, whilst the resolutions in question were patently inadequate, under-funded and under-resourced – the international community were trying to look involved whilst also remaining entirely uncommitted. Yet international audiences steadily grew uneasy and, as the conflict smouldered along unabated with 250 000 people killed and 2.7 million in need of emergency humanitarian aid, NATO eventually felt pressured to intervene where previously they had been happy to remain detached. The resulting intervention in 1995 brought a swift end to the conflict and forced Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to sign the Dayton Peace Accords, a reality acknowledged by Milosevic at the time: "NATO won the war… [I]t was your NATO, your bombs and missiles, your high technology that defeated us... we Serbs never had a chance against you”.

Yet, rather than being applauded for acting where no-one else would, NATO suffered from a plurality of lasting accusations. By stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for ending the Yugoslav conflict, NATO also inadvertently made themselves the sole target of those seeking to hold someone to account for the tardiness of that action. Conversely, NATO were criticised for the inadvertent deaths of Serbian civilians who were caught up in the successful bombing raids. Similarly, the charge of hypocrisy was also levelled, with incoming UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali labelling the international interest in resolving the violence in Yugoslavia yet not in Somalia, as a “rich man’s war”.


With this public relations nightmare still fresh in their minds, as the 1990’s were drawing to a close and Serbian forces began amassing on the Kosovar border, NATO were eager to avoid a repeat scenario. Believing that the primary lesson from Yugoslavia was ‘if you are going to act, then act early’, NATO launched a preventative 78-day bombing campaign on Serbian targets. The success of this air campaign was undeniable, with the United Nations agreeing to accept administration over Kosovo, and the Serbian parliament being forced to pass a NATO-orchestrated peace plan.

However, because the primary justification for the intervention (mass atrocities against the Kosovar population) was merely threatened rather than underway, and because UN approval had not yet been acquired, NATO were set upon by waves of international condemnation: American Senator John McCain dismissed Kosovo as “foreign policy as social work”; Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan described it as “the new gun-boat diplomacy” invoking Britain’s historical invasion of China; Nelsen Mandela saw it as “more dangerous to world peace than anything that was currently happening in Africa”; and Deputy Chair of the Russian State Duma (Parliament) Defence Committee, Alexei Arbatov, claimed that “Russia has learned many lessons from Kosovo. Above all, the end justifies the means. The use of force is efficient problem solver… negotiations are of dubious value and should be used as cover for military action”.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir later seized upon this tone in order to successfully deter international intervention in Darfur: “we will not accept colonial forces coming into the country”. With their intervention labelled as an act of aggression even before it materialised, the responsibility for halting the violence was happily abandoned to the African Union. However, the United Nations were soon being pressed to absorb and supplement the predictably under-resourced African forces – this was exactly the position in which the majority of key international actors did not want to find themselves. The result was a Security Council charade, whereby countries tried to avoid committing themselves to meaningful action by indefinitely delaying and convoluting the negotiations.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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