Blair and “Humanitarian Intervention”

Controversy has generated around the inclusion of Tony Blair on the new year’s honours list. During his time in power he devised a strategy of “humanitarian intervention” beginning in the Balkans for strong moral reasons and ending with a military quagmire in Iraq. It is important to understand the legal context of why he did this and reflect upon the complicated picture of this period of western history.

Since the end of the second world war in 1945, it has generally been accepted that there are only two legal ways to wage warfare per the UN charter. The first is self-defence, by locking out offensive action (known as “aggression” which was actually first unsuccessfully banned in the 1933) the theory runs that states will be resistant to risk the flagrant breach of international law in case imperialist or irredentist tendencies become vogue again.

The second is by a resolution of the UN through the security council. This is how the Iraq war found its legal justification – resolution 1441. Quickly after 9/11 there was seen to be enough legal justification for the US and coalition invasion of Afghanistan rather quickly because of the proximity between the hijackers, their Al-Queda backers and their refuge by the Taliban ‘authorities’ in that war torn country. The reasoning was that America was attacked offensively and illegally, therefore the legal imperative was for the US to take defensive retaliatory action against the Taliban regime as ‘harborers’ of Al Queda.

Iraq was tricky. The regime was unquestionably corrupt, it was a military dictatorship run by the Ba’ath Party which had begun in Syria as a Pan-Arabist movement but quickly disintegrated into a quasi-fascist autocracy in multiple middle eastern countries. The cult of personality built up around its Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, was infamous. His use of chemical weapons was widely documented, he had utilised them against the minority Kurdish population (in the 1980s) who are a stateless ethnic group in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Chemical weapons scarred the memory of the first world war and have since been banned by the Geneva Conventions. Notwithstanding this established principle of international law, the moral repugnancy of chemical warfare was nearly deeper than the moral repugnancy of nuclear warfare in the minds of the world’s press and populations. But the moral repugnancy of intervening militarily in foreign nations is something that ebbed and flowed with each generation of mostly western voters – think of Vietnam or Algeria.

President Bill Clinton has gone down in history as a domestic president. For example, when the South East Asian ‘miracle’ burst and became a huge risk to US capital interests the President was embroiled in his impeachment process. Even long before this he had defeated former President Bush in 1992 because of his ability to tap into the domestic situation like the US recession, whereas Bush wanted to talk about the fall of communism in eastern Europe and other foreign policy issues that the former CIA director deemed appropriate to the moment.

When the former Yugoslavia fully broke up in 1992 that decade saw ethnic warfare on a scale Europeans hadn’t witnessed since the second world war. Years into the fighting in 1999, NATO bombed targets in Kosovo in order to force an end to ethnic cleansing there. But the trouble was that this was done in the name of “humanitarian intervention” which although well established in international morality by philosophers like Mill, there wasn’t technically a legal basis for this kind of action – on its own merits. The doctrine of non-intervention means that the security council must authorise a military action only if 1) in self defence or a request for support; and 2) if “such intervention is aimed at the maintenance of international peace and security.” In short, there wasn’t an attack from outside, there wasn’t a request for support by the authorities and it was heavily disputed whether this had an international element.

Without a coherent policy [between human rights & state sovereignty] that permits states to actively protect human rights, the international community leaves ethnic minorities, and others, exposed to threats of abuse and mistreatment so long as the abusive nation does not move the conflict into the international arena.

– Kresock, David M. (1994)

Despite this, Tony Blair is attributed as persuading President Clinton of the righteousness of intervening via the Kosovo mission. Posterity has largely commended this action of NATO members. To quote a frustrated legal academic in 1994 (Kresock again):

In order to protect minorities from systematic extermination, the international community must establish the legal foundation for allowing nations with the political will to intervene militarily in disputes that do not meet the conventional definition of “international aggression.” As the desire for self-determination spreads across the globe, international law can pro- tect this valid interest by permitting humanitarian intervention only when necessary to protect human rights.

Did Blair take the moral urgency of Kosovo and attempt to apply it to Iraq? Did New Labour confidence of the 1990s fissile out as the realities of domestic power and the dynamics of international politics kick in? Ultimately this period might be viewed as the last gasps of a waining world power, desperate for a place in the world and at first establishing itself as a positive moral influence on US policy but ending up looking like a key part in the moral decay of a failed US Neo-conservative foreign policy.