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.
In opening this essay, we noted that the controversial invasion of Iraq stood in contrast to the three African interventions. In making that point, we do not suggest that the African interventions were without problems. All suffered to one degree or another from a mixture of motives, inadequate staffing, insufficient efforts to disarm and demobilize abusive forces, and little attention to securing justice and the rule of law. All of the African interventions, however, ultimately confronted ongoing slaughter, were motivated in significant part by humanitarian concerns, were conducted with apparent respect for international humanitarian law, arguably left the country somewhat better off, and received the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Significantly, all were welcomed by the relevant government, meaning that the standards for assessing them are more permissive than for a nonconsensual intervention.
However, even in light of the problems of the African interventions, the extraordinarily high profile of the Iraq war gives it far more potential to affect the public view of future interventions. If its defenders continue to try to justify it as humanitarian when it was not, they risk undermining an institution that, despite all odds, has managed to maintain its viability in this new century as a tool for rescuing people from slaughter.
The Iraq war highlights the need for a better understanding of when military intervention can be justified in humanitarian terms. The above-noted International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was one important effort to define these parameters. Human Rights Watch has periodically contributed to this debate as well, including with this essay, and various academic writers have offered their own views. But no intergovernmental body has put forth criteria for humanitarian intervention.
This official reticence is not surprising, since governments do not like to contemplate uninvited intrusions in their country. But humanitarian intervention appears to be here to stayâ€”an important and appropriate response to people facing mass slaughter. In the absence of international consensus on the conditions for such intervention, governments inevitably are going to abuse the concept, as the United States has done in its after-the-fact efforts to justify the Iraq war. Human Rights Watch calls on intergovernmental organizations, particularly the political bodies of the United Nations, to end the taboo on discussing the conditions for humanitarian intervention. Some consensus on these conditions, in addition to promoting appropriate use of humanitarian intervention, would help deter abuse of the concept and thus assist in preserving a tool that some of the worldâ€™s most vulnerable victims need.