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Global Cop — Preventing Human Rights Wars in the 21st Century

After several failed intervention attempts, can the United States prevent future human rights wars?

February 21, 2004

After several failed intervention attempts, can the United States prevent future human rights wars?

The United States has the power and the responsibility to work with other countries to address problems of global instability through a variety of means, ranging from preventive action to active intervention.

To do so, we must start with the lessons of the last decade. In Rwanda, the world stood by while 800,000 people were slaughtered over 14 weeks in a genocide that raged through the country like wildfire.

The Rwandan reign of terror was instigated by extremists bent on seizing power through ethnic extermination.

The world's response to Rwanda illustrated what happens when nothing is done to stop political opportunists from launching a human rights war.

While Rwanda may have seemed remote at the time to most Americans — and inconsequential to U.S. interests — its lesson is that genocide can have vast humanitarian, security and geopolitical costs.

Since 1994, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion on U.N. "peace operations" in and around Rwanda.

If some of these dollars had been spent earlier to strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping force — in response to warnings sent by its commander in February 1994 about the impending violence — many lives might have been saved. And central Africa might have been spared the worst effects of a genocidal conflict.

In contrast to the total failure of peacekeeping in Rwanda, the deployment of a multinational force in Haiti was a turning point in U.S. policy toward post-Cold War human rights crises.

Conducted without casualties, the Haiti operation was a first step toward freeing American policymakers from the peacekeeping straitjacket they had imposed on themselves after the failed Somalia mission of 1993.

The "Somalia-Vietnam Syndrome" had been a major factor in keeping the United States from intervening in Rwanda and Bosnia in 1994.

The Haiti operation opened the way for the development of a new doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" — and its implementation a year later by NATO in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999.

Haiti also demonstrated four important truths about managing and resolving human rights conflicts.

First, security-driven approaches — such as forcibly repatriating refugees — are more likely to exacerbate a human rights conflict than to contain it.

Second, an interventionist policy can succeed only if it has domestic political support and multinational participation.

Third, intervention requires a commitment to nation-building — not just an "exit strategy."

By providing insufficient resources, and withdrawing or reducing them too soon, the multinational coalition that intervened in Haiti failed to improve significantly the country's prospects for long-term progress.

And fourth, to be successful, international support for the economic and democratic development of a post-conflict society requires a committed internal political partner.

The international partnership with Haiti's democratic government has been unstable from the beginning on both sides.

The early chapters of the Bosnia story contain lessons about how not to respond to a human rights war. But the later ones begin to show the way.

The most important lesson of the four-year conflict in Bosnia is that the United States cannot stand on the sidelines and leave the problem to others. Nor can the United States act alone.

The long slide toward war in Yugoslavia might have been halted by aggressive European and American diplomacy, backed by warnings to would-be aggressors about the consequences of territorial seizure and human rights abuse as the country began to splinter.

Instead, local leaders like Milosevic and Tudjman were allowed to start their ethnic terrorism with impunity.

When U.N. peacekeepers arrived in 1992, they might have been able to contain the conflict if they had been operating under rules of engagement that allowed them to respond immediately and forcefully to human rights crimes.

Instead, these early peacekeepers were given a weak mandate that turned them into observers who entered into commitments they could not keep, which made them become appeasers — and eventually hostages.

The turning point in Bosnia came in the summer of 1995, when the international rules of engagement were finally changed and diplomacy at last was backed by force.

The spotlighting of human rights atrocities was used to begin to push the warring parties to the negotiating table — and a price was attached to the commission of war crimes.

The legacy of Bosnia is that a human rights war can erupt anywhere, even in Europe. The lesson of that war is that only a well-coordinated, robust military and civilian intervention has a chance of stopping it.

Adapted from John Shattuck’s “Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America’s Response.” Copyright © 2003 by John Shattuck. Used by permission of Harvard University Press.