Humanitarian intervention was supposed to have gone the way of the 1990s. The use of military force across borders to stop mass killing was seen by many as a luxury of an era in which national security concerns were less pressing and problems of human security could come to the fore.

Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone – these interventions, to varying degrees justified in humanitarian terms, were dismissed as products of an unusual interlude between the tensions of the Cold War and the new threat of terrorism. September 11, 2001 was said to have changed all that, signalling a return to more immediate security challenges. Yet surprisingly, with the campaign against terrorism in full swing, the past year or so has seen four military interventions that their instigators describe, in whole or part, as humanitarian.

In principle, one can only welcome this renewed concern with the fate of faraway victims. What could be more virtuous than to risk life and limb to save distant people from slaughter?

But the common humanitarian label masks significant differences among these interventions. The French intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, later reinforced by UN troops, was most clearly designed to stop ongoing mass murder.

In Liberia and Ivory Coast, mostly west African and French forces intervened to enforce peace plans, but also to stop killing. The UN Security Council ultimately approved all three African interventions. Indeed, in each case, the relevant government consented, though under varying degrees of pressure.

By contrast, the US government justified the invasion of Iraq on various grounds, only one of which – a comparatively minor one – was humanitarian. The Security Council did not approve the intervention, and the Iraqi government violently opposed it.

Moreover, unlike the relatively modest African interventions, the Iraqi invasion involved an extensive bombing campaign and some 150,000 combat troops.

The sheer size of the Iraqi invasion, the central involvement of the world’s superpower, and the enormous controversy surrounding the war meant that it overshadowed the other military actions. For better or worse, that prominence gave it greater power to shape public perceptions.

As a result, at a time of renewed interest in humanitarian intervention, the effort to justify the Iraq war even in part in humanitarian terms risks giving humanitarian intervention a bad name. If that breeds cynicism about the use of military force for humanitarian purposes, it could be devastating for people in need of future rescue.

Because the Iraq war was not mainly about saving Iraqi lives, there was little serious debate before the war about whether it could be justified in purely humanitarian terms. Indeed, if Saddam Hussein had been overthrown and the issue of weapons of mass destruction reliably dealt with, there clearly would have been no war, even if the successor government had been just as repressive.

Over time, however, the principal justifications originally given for the war have lost much of their force. More than seven months after the declared end of major hostilities, weapons of mass destruction still have not been found. No significant pre-war link with international terrorism has been discovered.

The difficulty of establishing stable institutions in Iraq makes the country an increasingly unlikely staging ground for promoting democracy in the Middle East. More and more, the George W Bush administration’s dominant remaining justification for the war is that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant – an argument of humanitarian intervention.

Does that claim hold up to scrutiny? This is not a question about whether the war was justified on other grounds; my organization, Human Rights Watch, is explicitly neutral on that issue. Rather, it is a question about whether humanitarianism alone can justify the invasion. Despite the horrors of Hussein’s rule, it cannot.

Five tests

War’s human cost can be enormous, but the imperative of stopping or preventing systematic slaughter sometimes justifies the use of military force. Human Rights Watch has thus on rare occasion advocated humanitarian intervention – for example, to stop ongoing genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Yet, military force should never be used lightly, even for humanitarian purposes. One might accept it more readily when a government facing atrocities invites assistance – as in the three recent African interventions. But when there is no such consent, one should be cautious.

Given the death, destruction and disorder that are often inherent in war and its aftermath, humanitarian intervention should be reserved as a threshold matter for situations of ongoing or imminent mass slaughter.

Other forms of tyranny should be intensively opposed by other means, but only the most dire cases of large-scale slaughter can justify war’s deliberate taking of life.

If this high initial standard is met, one should then look to five other factors to determine whether military intervention can be characterized as humanitarian. First, military action must be the last reasonable option.

Second, it must be guided primarily by a humanitarian motive. Third, it should be conducted to maximize compliance with international humanitarian law.

Fourth, it must be reasonably likely to do more good than harm. Fifth, it should – ideally, though not necessarily – be endorsed by the UN Security Council or another significant multilateral authority.

Mass slaughter a justification

The most important criterion is whether mass slaughter is underway or imminent. Brutal as Hussein’s reign was, his government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention.

Granted, during the last 25 years of Baath Party rule, the Iraqi government had murdered some 250,000 Iraqis. Indeed, there were times in the past when humanitarian intervention would have been justified – for example, during the 1988 Anfal genocide, in which some 100,000 Kurds were slaughtered.

But in March 2003, the government was not engaged in killing of anywhere near this magnitude, nor had it been for some time.

But could the invasion have been justified to prevent Hussein from resuming mass murder in the future? No. Humanitarian intervention may be undertaken preventively, but only if slaughter is imminent. No one seriously claimed before the war that Baghdad was planning imminent mass killing, and no evidence has emerged that it was.

That does not mean that past atrocities should be ignored. Rather, they should be prosecuted. Indictments should be issued and suspects arrested if they dare to venture abroad. But the extraordinary remedy of humanitarian intervention should not be used to secure justice for past crimes, only to stop current or imminent slaughter.

Indictment an alternative

Even to stop or prevent mass killing, military force – with its substantial risks – should be used only as the last reasonable option. Of course, in March 2003, there was no mass slaughter in Iraq. But even to stop the Iraqi abuses that were continuing, military intervention was not the last reasonable option. Criminal prosecution, at the very least, should have been tried first.

To be sure, an indictment is not the same as arrest, trial and imprisonment. But as a long-term solution, an indictment held some promise. The experience of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and former Liberian president Charles Taylor suggests that the stigma of an international indictment profoundly undermines even a ruthless dictator, often in unexpected ways.

By allowing Hussein to rule without the stigma of an indictment for genocide and crimes against humanity, the international community never tried an option that might have contributed to his removal and a reduction of abuses, even in the absence of military intervention.

Humanitarian aims

A humanitarian intervention should be conducted with the aim of maximizing humanitarian results. Governments that intervene to stop mass slaughter inevitably act for other reasons as well. But a dominant humanitarian motive is important because it affects numerous decisions that can determine an intervention’s success in saving people from violence.

Humanitarianism, even understood broadly as concern for Iraqis’ welfare, was at best a subsidiary motive for the Iraqi invasion – far behind Baghdad’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and connection with terrorist networks.

This is not an academic point; it affected the way the invasion was carried out, to the detriment of Iraqis.

Most significant, an intervention guided by humanitarian concerns would have been better prepared to fill the security vacuum that Saddam Hussein’s toppling predictably created.

The last time his government was in serious jeopardy – during the uprisings following the 1991 Gulf War – the country was rocked by large-scale summary executions. Elsewhere, sudden changes of regime, such as the Serbian withdrawal from the Sarajevo suburbs in 1996, have been similarly marred by widespread looting and arson.

In part to prevent such violence and disorder, the US army chief of staff before the war, general Eric Shinseki, predicted that “several” hundred thousand troops would be required.

But the Pentagon’s civilian leaders launched the war with only 150,000 combat troops. As a result, once the Iraqi government fell, coalition forces were quickly overwhelmed. Looting was pervasive. Arms caches were emptied. Violence was rampant. A humanitarian intervention would have taken better steps to prevent such predictable disorder.

Humanitarian law

Maximizing compliance with international humanitarian law is particularly important for an intervention that is launched for humanitarian reasons. The Iraqi invasion largely met this requirement, but not entirely.

Coalition aircraft took extraordinary care to avoid harming civilians when attacking pre-selected, fixed targets. But their record in attacking targets of opportunity and coalition troops’ conduct in fighting the ground war were mixed.

As Human Rights Watch showed in a December 2003 report, US efforts to bomb Iraqi leaders failed abysmally. The 0-for-50 record reflected a targeting method that was dangerously indiscriminate, allowing bombs to be dropped on the basis of evidence suggesting little more than a leader’s presence somewhere in a community. Substantial civilian casualties were the predictable result.

US ground forces, especially the army, also used cluster munitions near populated areas, with predictable loss of civilian life. After Human Rights Watch revealed that a quarter of the civilian deaths in the 1999 Nato bombing of Yugoslavia were caused by the use of cluster bombs in populated areas, the US Air Force substantially curtailed this indiscriminate practice.

But the US Army, in responding to Iraqi attacks, regularly used cluster munitions in populated areas, killing many civilians. Such disregard for civilian life is incompatible with a genuinely humanitarian intervention.

Better or worse for Iraqis?

Was the invasion of Iraq reasonably calculated to make things better rather than worse for the Iraqi people? One is tempted to say that anything is better than living under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

But vicious as his rule was, chaos or abusive civil war might be even deadlier, and it is too early to say whether such violence might still emerge in Iraq.

Washington’s failure to deploy the number of troops needed to stabilize post-war Iraq increases the likelihood of this nightmare scenario.

Still, the balance of considerations probably supports the conclusion that Iraq is better off after the invasion – though that one criterion, in the absence of the others, does not make the intervention humanitarian.

UN approval

I would not insist on UN Security Council approval to justify humanitarian interventions, but it is a valuable check on the appropriateness of an intervention. Given the council’s many imperfections, one’s patience with it would understandably diminish if large-scale slaughter were underway, but there was no such urgency in early 2003. The failure to secure the council’s endorsement thus weighs more heavily.

Of course, the Security Council was never asked to opine on a purely humanitarian intervention of Iraq. The principal case presented to the UN concerned weapons of mass destruction. Even so, a council-approved invasion is likely to have seen more troops join coalition forces, making the invading forces better prepared to prevent post-war chaos.

In sum, the Iraqi invasion fails the test for humanitarian intervention. Most important, the killing in Iraq at the time was not of the dire and exceptional nature that would justify military action.

In addition, intervention was not the last reasonable option to stop Iraqi atrocities. It was not motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns. It was not conducted to maximize compliance with international humanitarian law.

It was not approved by the Security Council. And while it probably made the Iraqi people better off, it was not sufficiently designed to promote that likelihood.

Yes, Hussein was an awful tyrant. Few shed tears at his overthrow. But in the interest of preserving popular support for an option on which future potential victims of mass slaughter will depend, proponents of the Iraqi war should stop trying to justify it as a humanitarian intervention.

Kenneth Roth
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch, the largest international human rights monitoring organization in the US.