The haunting lessons of history justify military interventionby AC Grayling / August 29, 2013 / Leave a comment
During the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, there were urgent calls from around the world for something to be done to protect the victims. Because the only effective way of doing it was to send in troops, nothing was done.
In an interview with CNBC after the event, President Bill Clinton said that if the US had promptly sent 10,000 troops into the country, 300,000 lives could have been saved—a third of those killed. The sense that the international community had failed the Tutsis of Rwanda in part lay behind Nato’s involvement in the Kosovo conflict of 1998-9, when Yugoslav army action resulted in civilian deaths and the displacement of a quarter of a million people, many of them into freezing winter conditions without shelter.
Nato’s Kosovan intervention did not have UN support, despite the fact that the Security Council had passed a resolution shortly before (number 1199) expressing “grave concern” at the “excessive and indiscriminate use of force” by the Yugoslav army. Controversy over whether Nato’s involvement was “legal” therefore quickly arose; those saying it was illegal citing the absence of express UN licence for it, those on the other side citing the consistency of Nato’s actions with UN concerns and principles.
These precedents are among those that figure in thinking about possible intervention in Syria by outside powers. Naturally enough, prudential considerations weigh more with doubters than questions of principle; they always do. The bad experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan—in essence, getting bogged down in unwinnable conflicts at great expense to one’s own citizens’ lives and one’s own country’s money—are at the forefront of minds. Any sense of shame on the international community’s part at not lifting a finger to help the Tutsis in 1994 has largely faded; the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrian citizens, some in what seem to have been chemical poison attacks by the regime, scarcely seems to remind us of it.
The quarrel is now one between morality and legality. Military intervention in Syria by the US and other powers would be legal if there were a UN resolution licensing it. In the absence of such a resolution—and with Russia and China on the Security Council baulking at any such moves, that absence…