As the threats of civil war deepen in central and eastern Africa, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the question of military intervention to stop or prevent mass atrocities looms as large as ever in the public debate. The US-led coalition against ISIL has already conducted more than 9000 airstrikes against the terrorist statelet, the US military is reversing its military drawback from Afghanistan, and the UN has more than 40,000 uniformed peacekeepers in sub-Saharan Africa.

For human rights advocates, these military engagements—which range from peacekeeping to coercive peace enforcement to outright belligerent intervention—present thorny moral quandaries. Can organizations dedicated to peace take sides in an armed conflict? Can they trust that Western governments and intergovernmental organizations will actually wage war (or enforce rule of law) on the global periphery with sufficiently humanitarian goals? Can they ever set atrocity thresholds to trigger such military interventions? Can they responsibly endorse particular military operations over others? Can they realistically anticipate the potential costs and benefits of such interventions? Can they identify the local voices actually representing victims threatened by mass atrocities? Can they really determine that all plausible non-military alternatives have been exhausted?

Answering these questions may be impossible, yet their urgency is irresistible when countless lives hang in the balance. Military intervention, as blunt and unwieldy a cudgel as it is, may in certain circumstances be the only way to bring war criminals to their knees and mass atrocities to a grinding halt. At the same time, such intervention is also almost certain to set in motion a chain of unintended consequences for which human rights NGOs hardly wish to take responsibility, such as counter-ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and anarchic disintegration in Libya.

These theoretical difficulties are virtually insurmountable. In fact, they suggest that the very formulation of the question is wrong. It is not an agonizing dilemma. It is an absurd one.

Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, drove straight to the heart of the problem in an op-ed following the international controversy surrounding Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in 2012. Human rights advocates are “heroic,” he lauds—but they are also frustratingly difficult. “They moralize. They don’t compromise. They don’t know when to shut up. They don’t see the Big Picture.” His classically realist critique of the human rights movement is worth quoting at length:

But the most expert of these advocates understand (at least when the microphones are off) that America operates in the real world: that our influence over the internal abuses of other countries is limited; that it’s easier to condemn a relatively inconsequential regime than one that provides us with oil or military bases; that humiliating leaders of countries like China may strengthen the hand of hard-liners; that sometimes quiet diplomacy is more effective than a public rebuke.

Keller’s candid assessment illuminates some of the fundamental limits of the modus operandi popular in the human rights community. Naming, shaming, calls for economic and political sanctions, and threats of international criminal prosecution are its traditional tools. These have one element in common: punishment. From embarrassment to outright judicial conviction, leading human rights NGOs seek to curb violations of international human rights and humanitarian law through exclusively punitive advocacy.

Yet a much wider range of measures exist to prevent deadly conflict, some of which involve elements expressly antithetical to the human-rights ethic, such as amnesty for war criminals or economic and political incentives aimed at oppressive governments. Human rights NGOs nearly universally reject any non-punitive measures as forms of acquiescence to oppression.

And military intervention is, by definition, the epitome of punishment. Inherent in their very methodology is a dark logic that compels human rights organizations dedicated to peace to travel down the spectrum of punitive advocacy until they arrive at full-blown war.

The Libya campaign in 2011 demonstrated this paradox with tragic clarity. As many commentators have noted, the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya rapidly morphed from a minimal civilian-protection mission into an outright seven-month campaign for regime change.  Writing in July of that year, journalist David Rieff characterized the Obama administration’s justification for intervention as moralistic posturing that belied its true goals. It was not simply a “humanitarian intervention,” Rieff argued. It was war. And war “is not police work, not armed humanitarianism, not human rights activism with an air force.” NATO’s elected means (ousting Gaddafi) and its purported ends (protecting civilians) were simply incompatible.

Rieff indicates the obvious contradiction at the heart of so-called humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian ends are, in a basic sense, fundamentally at odds with war. War by its nature has certain goals incongruent with the humanitarian goals of saving lives, providing relief, rehabilitating the displaced, and rebuilding institutions. War aims to subdue the enemy by destroying lives and property. Inevitably, pairing such ill-suited means and ends generates absurdities such as killing innocent people, allying with dubious armed rebel groups, destroying infrastructure, violently polarizing political communities, and toppling governments wholesale in the name of “human rights.”

Regardless, it is possible that such measures are sometimes warranted. But if the propensity to support violent intervention is built to such an alarming extent into the DNA of human rights organizations, there is a strong case that they lack the moral credentials to advocate for such interventions at all. For human rights professionals primarily committed to shaming, sanctioning, and prosecuting, using the protection of human life to justify military intervention is inherently disingenuous. Abandoning the bulk of the peacebuilding toolkit a priori on the basis of a punitive methodology ironically forces the sword into the hand of the human rights activist while robbing her of the credibility to wield it.


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