15 August 2006

Human Rights Interventions: Principles vs. Practices

During the Kosovo conflict, the human rights consensus seemed particularly powerful to those who sought to question the policies forwarded by the advocates of rights intervention. Kirsten Sellars noted that questioning the altruistic motives behind the Kosovo bombing campaign was regarded as 'heresy': 'The consensus rules that anything done in the name of human rights is right, and any criticism is not just wrong but tantamount to supporting murder, torture and rape.' The use of available facts to challenge the case for war, found relatively little support or media space in this climate of consensus. This was true whether the issue at hand was the manipulation of the Rambouillet talks by US officials, to cut short peace negotiations by demanding Nato freedom of manoeuvre across the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; or the fabricated stories during the bombing campaign of alleged evidence of planned genocide and fake German Defence Ministry documentation of 'Operation Horseshoe'. For critical factual coverage of the conflict many people turned to non-Western media sources, where strongly researched articles were published in many countries, including Russia, China, India, Greece, Egypt and Israel. It seemed that the facts on the ground mattered less to the Western advocates of intervention than the principle that a stand must be made on the side of the human rights cause.

This would appear to be confirmed in the responses of commentators to the revelations, in the years since the Kosovo war, that the claims of mass slaughter or genocide of Kosovo Albanians, which were the media focus during the bombing campaign, were an exaggeration. In August 2000, the ICTY put the preliminary body count of Serbs and ethnic Albanians that died in the civil conflict at between 2,000 and 3,000, raising doubts over the alleged 'proportionality' of the Nato military response of 12,000 high-altitude bombing raids, including the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions over heavily populated areas and destruction of much of the civilian economy of the region. The leading British liberal broadsheet, the Guardian, editorialised in response that, yes, Nato may have 'lied' about its bombing campaign, and yes, massacre claims may have been 'exaggerated' and 'manipulated': 'Yet the sum of all these criticisms does not change the central issue. Was intervention needed?' What the Guardian sought to defend was that 'the principle of intervention was right' rather than the practice of it or its outcome. It appears that once the discussion of international relations revolves around 'principles' rather than 'practices' the existing consensus on human rights activism can all too easily sidestep factual criticism.

This confidence in the justice of the cause of the Nato bombers, and of the principle they were seen to be acting on, reflected a profound transformation in the perception of international priorities. In fact, the most common criticisms of the Nato campaign, from human rights activists, were that it should have been launched earlier or that it should have been extended (against US opposition) to send troops in on the ground and to the Nato occupation of Serbia itself. Back in 1990, few people would have imagined that, within the decade, the international human rights community would be advocating the military occupation of independent countries on human rights grounds, the establishment of long-term protectorates, or the bombing of major European cities on a humanitarian basis.
SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 15-16

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