First of all, let me say that my respect for HRW shot up about 10 fold after reading this. I had always seen them as a bleeding-heart, cry-at-every-minute-allegation-but-never-DREAM-of-actually-DOING-anything-about-it type of organization, one that would try and end a genocide by slapping the perpetrators with a "harsh condemnation." So I was quite surprised to find out that, not only did HRW support interventions in certain situations, it even had a relatively sophisticated criteria to determine when those interventions were justified (and amazingly, one that doesn't blindly worship the UN or multilateralism). They argue that:
In our view, as a threshold matter, humanitarian intervention that occurs without the consent of the relevant government can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life. To state the obvious, war is dangerous. In theory it can be surgical, but the reality is often highly destructive, with a risk of enormous bloodshed. Only large-scale murder, we believe, can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not in our view rise to the level that would justify the extraordinary response of military force. Only mass slaughter might permit the deliberate taking of life involved in using military force for humanitarian purposes.
In addition, the capacity to use military force is finite. Encouraging military action to meet lesser abuses may mean a lack of capacity to intervene when atrocities are most severe. The invasion of a country, especially without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, also damages the international legal order which itself is important to protect rights. For these reasons, we believe that humanitarian intervention should be reserved for situations involving mass killing.
If this high threshold is met, we then look to five other factors to determine whether the use of military force can be characterized as humanitarian. First, military action must be the last reasonable option to halt or prevent slaughter; military force should not be used for humanitarian purposes if effective alternatives are available. Second, the intervention must be guided primarily by a humanitarian purpose; we do not expect purity of motive, but humanitarianism should be the dominant reason for military action. Third, every effort should be made to ensure that the means used to intervene themselves respect international human rights and humanitarian law; we do not subscribe to the view that some abuses can be countenanced in the name of stopping others. Fourth, it must be reasonably likely that military action will do more good than harm; humanitarian intervention should not be tried if it seems likely to produce a wider conflagration or significantly more suffering. Finally, we prefer endorsement of humanitarian intervention by the U.N. Security Council or other bodies with significant multilateral authority. However, in light of the imperfect nature of international governance today, we would not require multilateral approval in an emergency context.
These are somewhat similar to the guidelines I created for a paper in progress on the Iraq war. My guidelines were
First, the country in question must either have interests directly tied to the US or be in the midst of an egregious, continuing, and flagrant human rights violation. Second, no other nation or group closer to the source of conflict can be both willing and able to defuse the situation. If a local party can defuse the situation but requests US aid, the US should grant it but is not obligated to do so. Third, the US must act with the interests of the country in question at heart, not our own political desires (though win-win syllogisms are always useful). Fourth, the US must act in a manner that mitigates the conflict, never aggravating it.
My guidelines are somewhat more leiniant, but quite similar. And I have a geniune appreciation for the realism present in an issue that is too often cast solely in idealistic terms. In fact, I agree with virtually everything that HRW has to say. My only point of departure is that I think "lesser" human rights violations can legitimately trigger an intervention.
HRW recommends that alternative methods be used to end human rights violations that are not genocide. For example, they propose diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and most importantly, indictments for violations of international law. In an ideal world, I'd agree with them. However, the track record of these proposals is not good. Dictators (especially in isolated states like North Korea) have managed to turn a deaf ear to global outcry with little to no consequence. Furthermore, sanctions have historically been used to strengthen the hand of oppressive regimes. Leon T. Hadar uses the example of Burma to argue that
"sanctions strengthen the hand of the ruling authorities by creating a scapegoat for their own internal policy failures and narrowing the opportunity of private individuals…to expand their economic, social, and cultural contacts with the citizens of the West"
Furthermore, expressions of moral indignation can only last so long before they become "old news." Making our human rights policy solely dependent on diplomatic pressure lets dictators try and "wait out the storm." At best, it will only encourage them to violate human rights more quietly, and as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and China among others demonstrate, it is rather easy to violate human rights systematically, persistantly, and egregiously without arousing a sustainable international outcry. The worst case scenario is that human rights violaters will see global inaction as tacit consent to their oppression. Samantha Power uses the example of Serbia:
Slobodan Milosevic saw that he got away with the brutal suppression of independence movements in Slovenia and Croatia and he reasoned he would pay no price for doing the same in Bosnia and Kosovo. Because so many individual perpetrators were killing for the first time and deciding daily how far they would go, the United States and its European allies missed critical opportunities to try to deter them. When they ignored genocide around the world, the Western powers were not intending to 'green light' the perpetrators. But because the killers told themselves they were doing the world a favor by 'cleansing' the 'undesirables,' some surely interpreted silence as consent or even support.
While the threat of criminal indictments might be a more effective tool, it will only work if there is also a credible threat of actual prosecution and prison time. However, states are unlikely to surrender their own leaders to international courts even under the best of circumstances, let alone when the only decision-maker is often the one with the outstanding warrant. In this context, it is unclear how HRW expects to make legitimate legal progress against human rights violaters without intervening to extract them. They suggest that the legal threat will prevent leaders from traveling abroad, but that gets us back to the situation of "quiet" rights violations. Though the HRW approach has intuitive appeal, practically it means consenting to innumerable human rights violations around the world, with virtually no hope of recourse or redress for the victims.
In evaluating how our action in Iraq meets this criteria, HRW concludes that the war fails the first, second, and fifth (semi-optional) clauses, and largely met the third and fourth clauses. I agree with this assessment, however, I think that it is more of a critique of US pre-war actions than the theory that war was a reasonable action. Yes, we should have worked more aggressively to exhaust our actions before invading. And clearly, our focus on WMDs and terrorism was misguided. But had we acted properly in terms of these two areas, we'd still, odds are, have to invade Iraq. These failures are indictments of the Bush administration's particular war policies, but not of the war in theory.
Ultimately, oppressive regimes need to be held strictly accountable for their actions. At times, this might have to include legitimate military threats. However, with that caveat, the five-prong criteria given by HRW seems reasonable, even prescient given the current state of affairs in Iraq. Kudos to the authors.