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The Last Word: Hard Choices: Considering Moral Aspects of Humanitarian Intervention

1 Sep 1998

  • Author(s): Jonathan Moore


The whole phenomenon of humanitarian intervention has changed radically and grown exponentially in recent years, as the preoccupations of the Cold War have given way to both the eruption of crises within states and the inability of the international community to ignore them. These problems have become more complex, with their horrible combinations of poverty, competition for resources, displacement, ethnic stress, power struggles, violence and destruction. The means used to deal with them are also more complicated, involving various mixtures of humanitarian aid, development, diplomacy, embargoes, and security measures including the use of force. Humanitarian intervention in the most urgent cases is driven by multiple purposes and composed of multiple components, which cannot be kept separate from one another in theory or practice. Clearly, many motivations and objectives may lie behind these operations, and this in itself immediately raises questions of moral trade-offs; but the intent to alleviate human suffering is prominent.

At the same time, the "international community" is confused and at odds with itself as to what to do in most instances where humanitarian needs are part of internal conflict. How narrowly or broadly, consistently or erratically will our individual and collective interests be defined and executed? How much will we substitute rhetoric for action, illusion for reality, timidity for courage, indulgence for restraint? What will our moral calculus be?

In 1996, ICRC asked me to help produce a book which would provide some insight into these questions, and soon thereafter I began contacting people who could contribute to it. The authors of the essays in the resulting volume were chosen to provide a wide variety of perspectives. They come from diverse geographical and cultural settings, vocations, roles and exposures to specific interventions of different kinds, in different countries and at different phases. Not a rounding up of the usual suspects, this volume includes academics, lawyers, policy makers, religious leaders, military men, diplomats, NGO members, and aid workers and recipients.

Collectively, they demonstrate the value of exercising moral imagination and awareness in dealing with the ambiguities of such circumstances, and encourage the rest of us to do so. If they do feel that many humanitarian interventions are seriously flawed, they believe it important to try to improve them. For the moment, political will is vulnerable to shortened attention spans, there is more impatience and uncertainty, less consensus and fewer resources. The needs remain greater than the capacity to meet them, and the size of the challenge is greater than the effective response of the multiple actions and actors. This situation, of course, places a special premium on the careful design and exacting implementation of any given intervention. Moral factors do not lie apart from this clutter of complexity and difficulty. They are embedded, often discordantly. Moral imperatives compete not only with more material and temporal elements, but also with one another. In its intense preoccupation with immediate pressures, political decision making cannot afford to leave out moral energy and insight; neither can their inclusion be simple-minded.

A shared theme appears in the book: that perceiving the truth, and speaking it publicly, is at least an important tool, if not a sacred principle, in dealing with ambiguous and competing forces, when ethical tensions are intense and ethical choices are murky. Evading or obscuring the truth is felt to be a bad idea. The use of force in humanitarian interventions also, unsurprisingly, emerges as a key target of reflection: no contributor to the volume would ban it; some bemoan its absence; others criticize its inefficiency or insufficiency; others condemn its domination.

Frequently noted as well is the tendency of different entities — intervening governments, United Nations agencies or NGOs — to behave in acquisitive, imperialistic and programmatically aggressive ways, unmindful of the role and contribution of others and of their own limited capacity. Next is the repeated admonition for those involved in interventions to respect the culture and contribution of the target country and peoples, and for greater industry to be devoted to configuring the most redemptive working relationship between the outside and inside actors. There is some agreement that more time is needed for interventions to be successful, or at least that their duration should not be arbitrarily confined.

A final common thread in this short list is constraint. Various contributors emphasize the need, with regard to all facets of intervention, to be careful not to do too much or go too far lest the effort be counter-productive — lest programmes collapse of their own overweening ambition or other interests, parties, needs or imperatives be wrongly harmed. And this priority explicitly includes the capability to withhold or withdraw the humanitarian action when the intervention does more harm than good.

In addition to such evident themes, there is a strong implicit signal, a moral clue to be distilled from this volume. There is a commitment which emerges to embrace the full complexity of the challenge, rather than to avert the admittedly appalling whole in favour of some narrower, partial vision or strategy. And there are three prerequisites, essential principles, to be served in order to consider humanitarian interventions in their entirety: understanding, integration and pragmatism. These may be so basic as to be painfully obvious, yet our current history of humanitarian interventions reflects their paucity rather than prominence.

Jonathan Moore, Senior Advisor to the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Associate at the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, is the editor of Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 1988). This article has been excerpted from the Introduction. Mary B. Anderson, Kofi A. Annan, Rony Brauman, Romeo A. Dallaire, Richard J. Goldstone, Colin T. Granderson, Pierre Hassner, J. Bryan Hehir, Michael Ignatieff, Ian Martin, Larry Minear, Elizabeth Reid, Mohamed Sahnoun, Mu Sochua, Cornelio Sommaruga, Roger Williamson and José Zalaquett also contributed to the volume.