The Houla massacre – in which 108 people were killed, most executed – has renewed calls for intervention in Syria.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been touting the “military option” on television. The philosophe of the Arab Spring, Bernard-Henri Lévy – hard as this is to believe – has called for action.
I still think war is highly unlikely, as I spell out in this piece for BBC News. But I thought it interesting to look at the relationship between massacres and intervention.
The passages below are taken from Martha Finnemore’s Constructing Norms of Humanitarian Intervention [PDF], a chapter in the 1996 edited volume The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics.
On the history of intervention:
Before the twentieth century virtually all instances of military intervention to protect people other than the intervener’s own nationals involved protection of Christians from the Ottoman Turks. In at least four instances during the nineteenth century, European states used humanitarian claims to influence Balkan policy in ways that would have required states to use force – in the Greek War for Independence (1821-1827); in the Lebanon/Syria conflict of 1860-1861; during the Bulgarian agitation of 1876-1878; and in response to the Armenian massacres (1894-1917). Although full-scale military intervention did not result in all these instances, the claims made and their effects on policy in the other cases shed light on the evolution and influence of humanitarian claims during this period.
On who used to get protected:
[The Greek War for Independence] illustrates the circumscribed definition of who was “human” in the nineteenth-century conception of that term. The massacre of Christians was a humanitarian disaster; the massacre of Muslims was not. This was true regardless of the fact that the initial atrocities of the war were committed by the Christian insurgents (admittedly after years of harsh Ottoman rule). The initial Christian uprising at Morea “might well have been allowed to burn itself out ‘beyond the pale of civilization’”; it was only the wide-scale and very visible atrocities against Christians that put the events on the agenda of major powers.
Hypocrisy has pedigree:
[H]umanitarian action was rarely taken when it jeopardized other stated goals or interests of a state. Humanitarians were sometimes able to mount considerable pressure on policy makers to act contrary to stated geostrategic interests, as in the case of Disraeli and the Bulgarian agitation, but they never succeeded. Humanitarian claims did, however, provide states with new or intensified interests in an area and new reasons to act where none had existed previously. Without the massacre of Maronites in Syria, France would almost certainly not have intervened. Further, she left after her humanitarian mission was accomplished and did not stay on to pursue other geostrategic goals, as some states had feared she would. It is less clear whether there would have been intervention in the Greek war for independence without humanitarian justifications for such interventions. Russia certainly had other reasons to intervene, but she was also probably the state with the highest level of identification with the Orthodox Christian victims of these massacres.
On the reluctant humanitarians:
What is interesting in [some] cases is that states that might legitimately have claimed humanitarian justifications for their intervention did not do so. India’s intervention in East Pakistan in the wake of Muslim massacres of Hindus, Tanzania’s intervention in Uganda toppling the Idi Amin regime, Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia ousting the Khmers Rouges – in every case intervening states could have justified their actions with strong humanitarian claims. None did. In fact, India initially claimed humanitarian justifications but quickly retracted them. Why?
How humanitarian intervention has evolved:
[T]he definition of who qualifies as human and therefore as deserving of humanitarian protection by foreign governments has changed. Whereas in the nineteenth century European Christians were the sole focus of humanitarian intervention, this focus has been expanded and universalized such that by the late twentieth century all human beings are treated as equally deserving in the international normative discourse. In fact, states are very sensitive to charges that they are “normatively backward” and still privately harbor distinctions.
Finally, on the norms of intervention, and power:
[T]he way in which normative claims are related to power capabilities deserves attention. The traditional Gramscian view would argue that these are coterminous; the international normative structure is created by and serves the most powerful. Humanitarian action generally, and humanitarian intervention specifically, do not obviously serve the powerful. The expansion of humanitarian intervention practices since the last century suggests that the relationship between norms and power may not be so simple.