The Humanitarian Transformation: Expanding Global Intervention Capacity

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

March 1, 2004

Reprinted by permission of Survival, (Volume 46, Issue 1, Spring 2004).

Although the threat of mass casualty terrorism has altered strategic priorities in the United States, the global community as a whole faces many of the same problems that it faced in the 1990s: civil wars; failed or failing states; and other humanitarian disasters around the world. The Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, and their difficult aftermaths, show the overlap between humanitarian and geostrategic interests. These interventions also demonstrate that demanding military stabilisation missions will be required as much for the ‘war on terrorism’ as for traditional peacekeeping. Civil conflicts still shape most of regional and global politics and development, and in many cases are still preventable or at least stoppable. Moreover, trends in demographics, economics, the global weapons market, and international politics suggest that they are unlikely to diminish much further on their own.1

Several hundred thousand people a year continue to lose their lives directly to war as well as to war-related famine and disease. Almost 90% of the dead are innocent non-combatants. A growing percentage of combatants are now child soldiers, in some wars as high as 60%.2 But these wars have other costs as well. They provide terrorist groups with havens, as in Afghanistan, and with motivating causes, as in the Middle East and South Asia. Moreover, they not only help keep Africa and other parts of the developing world mired in misery, economic stagnation, and disease, but in a world of globalisation, have implications for public health across the planet. There is also a political cost. The continuation of these wars starkly undercuts the common Western argument that democracies protect and promote human rights. In a world essentially run and dominated by the industrial democracies, their continued failure to do much about such conflicts weakens not only their moral authority, but also undercuts their international legitimacy as global leaders. It also breeds cynicism and anger in much of the Islamic world, where Americans in particular are portrayed as indifferent to the suffering of Muslims and focused only on their own security and economic interests.

The wealthy democracies can no longer hide behind the claim that they are somehow prevented from doing something by concerns of sovereignty, international law, or limits placed by the UN Charter. In a marked change from the start of the 1990s, the permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia and China in particular) are now less inclined to veto operations seeking to avert humanitarian catastrophe. (NATO’s war against Serbia over Kosovo underscored that difficult cases still can arise. But for the vast majority of the world’s most deadly conflicts, most of which are in Africa, legal mechanisms for intervention are generally available.3) Even in Iraq, where the world had a huge debate over the need for a US-led invasion, there was little UN disagreement about authorising the United States and its coalition partners to conduct a peacekeeping mission there after Saddam’s fall. Indeed, many individuals from developing countries themselves now argue that sovereignty is not an absolute as once voiced. Instead, it requires a sense of responsibility on the part of national leadership towards its own citizenry; ignoring or violating that responsibility is to surrender many of the traditional prerogatives and protections of state sovereignty.4 A number of developing countries are increasingly willing to play their own part and use national military assets to forcibly reduce the severity of civil conflict within their own regions.5