Mary Beaudoin> The Myth of Humanitarian Intervention

[Editor’s Note: This article is taken from a talk given by Mary Beaudoin at the forum, “The Myth of Humanitarian Intervention,” sponsored by the WAMM Middle East Committee on May 9, 2012 in St. Paul, Minnesota.]

Leaders have always sought ways to justify wars to the public. They are not usually going to say we’re going to go to war to grab land from another country or steal their oil or lay a pipeline across their country for easy access to oil or grab a geographic foothold to prevent China from trading with that country. No, in order to get people to allow the use of their country’s name and tax money and the sacrifice of lives, they have to appeal to some deep passions within people. This usually involves convincing them that there is a need to protect—protect our own nation from outside threats or protect people in other countries from the internal threat—often of their own leadership.

 Humanitarian intervention is based on the belief that people in other countries need to be protected from the threat of their own leadership. It involves the use of force by a nation or group of nations against another nation with the main publicly-declared aim of ending human-rights violations.

 The nation under attack has not committed an act of aggression against another nation but the attacking nation or group of nations, by proclaiming a moral right, ultimately may intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation by taking military action against that nation through land, sea and area, without permission of its government. Usually this is preceded by a series of measures such as economic sanctions, embargoes, no-fly zones and failed diplomacy.

 Humanitarian intervention provides a benevolent face to war but at the same time broadly speaking it results in undermining the concept of sovereign nations. The nation state has been the form of organization and governance of people throughout the modern world and is the basis for international law. Humanitarian intervention changes that concept so that forces external to the borders of a nation make determinations for it.

Many political analysts and observers believe that the US is an empire in decline and there is certainly a lot of evidence—the current economic conditions and histories of countries with expansionist objectives–or imperial ambitions–certainly point that way. But a few analysts have the view that before, or if, that is going to happen, that the US is gathering NATO partner and aligned countries around it and arming them so enormously that it is becoming NATO itself and that’s the new form of world government that is the plan for the future (though there are other countries that may have something to say about that).

 The attacks by US-led NATO countries on Yugoslavia were the test for humanitarian intervention that began this trend. The sovereign nation of Yugoslavia was broken into pieces, the proverbial village bombed to save it and humanitarian intervention in this form began to be established.

 There are two significant doctrines that set out the principles of humanitarian intervention:

 At the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations

(High-Level Plenary Meeting), the United Nations an initiative was formed that was called:


It called for clear and unambiguous acceptance by all governments of the collective international responsibility to protect populations from four acts of atrocity: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It asked for the willingness to take timely and decisive collective action through the Security Council, when peaceful means prove inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to do it. (in other words the use of military to prevent atrocities).

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The R2P is not an international law—it is classified as “an emerging norm.” In the lead up to the NATO attacks on Libya and more recently when she talks about Syria, Hilary Clinton has said that Gadafi and Assad have not adhered to “international norms.” In other words, she is accusing them of the committing acts of atrocity while she is establishing, through talking about it, that there is a “norm.”

According to R2P, military intervention is suppose to be the last resort. R2P suggests using mediation, early warning mechanisms, economic sanctioning, etc. and chapter VII powers, to prevent mass atrocities. Civil society organizations, States, regional organizations, and international institutions all have a role to play in the R2P process. Under R2P, the authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily is suppose to rest solely with United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly.

Not all nations in the United Nations agreed to R2P. Although it may sound great in theory, it can be used for political reasons against a country which, dominant countries within the UN, are biased against. Also, there is the danger of instigating crimes within the borders of a country in order to justify calling up “the Responsibility to Protect.”

The US takes the Responsibility to Protect further (and this time not within the UN, but by the US alone) in creating a means by which humanitarian intervention can take place:


Plans for this began when in August of 2011, President Obama issued a Presidential Study Directive 10, declaring the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide to be a “core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States.”

It is my belief that the US legal advisors has been working to establish something called “a normative framework” for humanitarian intervention. By acting in a certain way and continuing to act that way, the US has been creating precedents—in other words, establishing a “normative framework” for actions which then create something called “customary law.”  In other words, it’s been done this way—therefore it’s the accepted norm—therefore it should be the law of the land.

According to a White House press release the Obama Administration had already begun to take on what it refers to as a moral responsibility by:

1. Leading international efforts to bring pressure to bear on the abusive regimes of Qadhafi and Assad through the formation of Groups of Friends. Note they say “Friends of Syria” not “Enemies of the Current Regime in Syria.” It sounds so much nicer, so much more positive doesn’t it?  (Friends of Syria—and these friend are hand picked by the US–a coalition of US Sec. of State Hilary Clinton, and European and Arab allies) We’ll pick your friends—who will be the architects of regime change.

2. Leadership in securing the passage of UN Security Council Resolutions which

instituted no-fly zones, arms embargo, and “comprehensive sanctions against Qadhafi regime that preserved Libya’s wealth for its people (READ “OIL COMPANIES”) and a mandate for the protection of civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Also mentioned are: the newly created country of South Sudan; Central Africa, apprehension of Joseph Kony.

Commissions of inquiry to investigate alleged gross violations of human rights in Syria.

Leading efforts to combat violence against women.

The White House Office of the Press Secretary on April 23, 2012, announced that the President has ordered the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board: “President Obama has made the prevention of atrocities a key focus of this Administration’s foreign policy.”

Now an Atrocity Board has been established to prevent atrocities. It includes representatives from:

The Department of State

Department of Defense

Department of Treasury

Department of Justice

Homeland Security

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (branches of the military)

Office of National Intelligence

Central Intelligence Agency

U.S. Mission to the United Nations

The chair of the Atrocity Prevention Board will be the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights from the NSS. (What the NSS is an acronym for was not mentioned in the press release but it probably can only stand for the National Security Service of the FBI which is responsible for counterterrorism, counterintelligence and intelligence. They may not have wanted to spell it because its implications are alarming.)

By Executive order, the Atrocity Board authorizes sanctions and visa bans against those who commit human rights abuses using information technology—ie., internet. “those” includes “oppressive governments” and “technology companies.” So, in other words, the President of the US can sanction the technology used in other countries (while it also provides technology to who it chooses in those countries.) It also says that there will be domestic and international ways of increasing prosecution of perpetrators.

Governments and people can be prosecuted for writing and putting things out on the internet.

I know US citizens want to be safe but the idea of prosecuting people for what they write, not for acts, is another thing that could lead to persecution of political beliefs alone. In other words, for thought crimes.

Who decides what is a threat? Will it be decided that  any kind of analysis or criticism is a threat?

Governments and people will be hauled up to the International Criminal Court where the victors will prosecute them.

This new board exists to prevent acts that HAVE NOT YET BEEN COMMITTED. It assumes that nation states are going to commit crimes. So it’s going to act to stop them from committing crimes they haven’t yet committed, on the assumption that they are GOING TO commit them. In other words, it assumes clairvoyance on the part of the Atrocity Prevention Board.

 And it works with international partners around the world.

In the section on making “our military and civilian workforce better equipped to prevent and respond to atrocities:” It’s going to “add new tools and expanded capabilities to our arsenal.” Sometimes they don’t bother to disguise their volcabulary.

 Getting civilians and NGOs to work with the Atrocity Prevention Board is a big thrust.

It’s in the program to specifically work with USAID for research and development here and abroad.  It relies heavily on “Intelligence” (spycraft) and the Department of Defense which it says it plans to make “better equipped to prevent and respond to atrocities.” (By committing atrocities?) Here’s how: “Geographic combatant commands will incorporate mass atrocity prevention and response as a priority in their planning, activities and engagements.”

This form of humanitarian intervention sounds an awful lot like war—at home as well as abroad.

 The objectives of the Atrocity Prevention Board also happen to coincide perfectly with what appears to be US objectives with NATO—having military units in partner and aligned nations all over the world to be able to act swiftly, engaging in “preventive” war.

I’ll conclude this section with a quote from Jean Bricmont’s book, Humanitarian Imperialism:

 Nothing in United States policy indicates the slightest concern for human rights and democracy. Assigning it the prime task of defending these values is strange indeed. Moreover to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naïve vision of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in short, clean, ‘surgical” wars.

Mary Beaudoin is a member of the WAMM Middle East Committee and editor of the WAMM newsletter.

By Published On: May 17th, 2012Comments Off on Mary Beaudoin> The Myth of Humanitarian Intervention

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