When a people group is being oppressed or is suffering persecution or even genocide, the global community sometimes calls for humanitarian intervention. But what are the limits? What are the guidelines? Is it even practical, possible, or effective? In The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, City College of New York professor Rajan Menon argues that "the terms of peace and justice proffered by humanitarian interventionists withstand neither ethical nor practical scrutiny."
Menon reviews instances of humanitarian intervention (and lack thereof) in the late 20th and 21st centuries, including in Libya, Grenada, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Those who call for humanitarian intervention claim a "commitment to transnational moral responsibility, human rights, and justice," yet Menon is cynical about the purity of the motives, at least in practice. The inconsistency with which the principals of intervention are applied show the poverty of the argument.
The doctrine of "responsibility to protect" (R2P) provides cover for a wide array of government interventions, but "despite its egalitarian allure and homage to justice, in practice R2P will simply reinforce existing hierarchies." Menon cynically dismisses much intervention as self-serving: "Governments will engage in humanitarian intervention when it serves their interests or when the price that they expect to pay is tolerable."
Even the International Criminal Court has proven ineffective, or at least severely limited. The countries who agree to its terms don't really need it, and the countries that need to be policed don't agree to it, and it is subject to political biases. "The presentation of the ICC as a neutral organization--above politics, guided only by law and the pursuit of justice--does not withstand scrutiny." Although there have been plenty of opportunities, "the ICC has yet to bring to justice any top leaders connected to atrocities."
Menon recognizes the importance of humanitarian intervention. If today there are not innocents being slaughters, governments treating their people unjustly, atrocities and genocide, just give it time. Great evil is committed around the world, almost continually, by governments and quasi government groups. Menon is not satisfied with the ICC, R2P, and the current state of humanitarian interventions. He does not, unfortunately, offer much in the way of a solution, other than to recognize the state of things. Perhaps that is his next book. For now, perhaps his harsh, cynical assessment will jostle decision makers toward change.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!