If you’re going to talk about humanitarian interventionism (and with Conor as our guestblogger this week, we are), then sooner or later, you are going to come up against the Big One; the argument that the fact of the Rwandan genocide forever legitimises the general principle of a “responsibility to protect”. A version of this can be seen in James Traub’s review of “The Thin Blue Line (I should note here that IIRC Conor does say in his book that there should have been more of an intervention in Rwanda):
In 2005, the world’s heads of state, gathered at the U.N. General Assembly, adopted the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect,” which stipulates that states have an obligation to protect their citizens from crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities, and that, should they be unable or unwilling to do so, other states incur that obligation. That responsibility, in the most extreme cases, includes military action. R2P, as the norm has come to be known, formalizes the principle, which lies at the heart of humanitarian intervention, that the right of people to be free from the worst forms of mistreatment supersedes the right of states to be free from external intervention. It is scarcely possible in the aftermath of Rwanda to argue otherwise, and so no one does directly.
The implication here is that there was no intervention in Rwanda, and that this was the reason for the genocide (Traub’s sentence “It is scarcely possible …” summarises the rhetorical strategy with rather more grace and subtlety than is typical – it’s not particularly uncommon for supporters of intervention to simply accuse opponents of having the blood of Rwanda on their hands). The thing is, there was a military intervention in Rwanda.
It was called “Operation Turquoise“, carried out by the French government acting under a UN mandate, aimed at stabilising the recognised government of Rwanda and establishing a “safe zone”. It’s described in Conor’s book, and in most histories of the Rwandan genocide. It’s not at all an obscure fact about Rwanda that Operation Turquoise happened there.
The reason why humanitarian interventionists don’t typically mention Turquoise, however, is that it was an unmitigated disaster. It drew resources away from the existing UN peacekeeping force, it had confused rules of engagement which left it all too often acting as a bodyguard for genocidaires and it withdrew halfway through the genocide, leaving a massive refugee problem.
On the other hand, I don’t quite understand why this means that advocates of humanitarian intervention get to erase it from the record. Operation Turquoise was an atrociously planned, wildly under-resourced relative to its aims, and largely politically motivated intervention which had the effect of making things worse. In other words, it was an utterly typical example of the type. In Rwanda, there was exactly the kind of humanitarian intervention which it’s reasonable to expect in any other case. Which is why I agree with Jim Henley; Rwanda made me an anti-interventionist.
My point here is that the word “responsibility” in “responsibility to protect” is weasel. People who think that the R2P is a good idea tend to assume that “responsibility” means “obligation”, and that the R2P doctrine places an actual legal obligation on the world’s democracies to not only carry out an intervention, but also to do so with a full complement of military resources, and without any concern for their own political interests (the Save Darfur Coalition had a particularly bad case of this; at times they seemed to literally believe that “genocide” was a magical word that would create a fully equipped United Nations army of more than 50,000 strong, complete with helicopters and trucks, as if they’d been sown from dragons’ teeth).
It’s clear that no state in the world would ever really find it possible to accept such an open-ended commitment on the part of its limited military capacity, from a simple economic point of view notwithstanding the politics. And so “responsibility to protect” in practice is going to mean “option to protect”; the R2P doctrine provides a pretext for larger powers to carry out military interventions as and when they want one and without too much consideration for the consequences, so long as they can come up with a suitable ex ante humanitarian rationale.
Basically what I’m saying here is that if you want to create a legal space for humanitarian interventions, then you need some means of ensuring that we get only good humanitarian interventions, which do the job they’re intended for. Otherwise you’re going to get a lot of Operation Turquoises, and very few … well, can someone give me an example of a humanitarian intervention which did actually work?