Book Review: Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas In Humanitarian Intervention


by edited by Jonathan Moore

Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. . . . ISBN:0847690318

This is a book that needs to be read by policy makers.

As the subtitles indicates, the book’s 16 essays – including a very thoughtful one on intervention and national sovereignty by Kofi Annan – deal with philosophical, moral, and practical issues related to humanitarian intervention.

Essays range in subject matter from specific case studies (Haiti, Rwanda, Somalis), to less tangible matters, such as the role of NGOs, the problem of War Criminals and crimes against humanity, to the role of the media. One particularly insightful essay deals with the impact of HIV an humanitarian interventions.

The consensus of the essays is that the end of the Cold War, during which "all other ethical, political, and economic issues" were essentially put in deep freeze, led to the opening up of that freezer, and we had "history explode in our face." As a result, the most common form of conflict in the past decade, and presumably for some time to come, will be "communal conflicts," which are the ones that "the international system is least ready to address," but are “precisely the ones that invite intervention." One essay observes that a major impediment to timely intervention is the notion that war is something that should be done only as a "last resort," an idea rooted in the tradition of interstate conflict, presupposing functioning governments with whom one can negotiate, a situation not always applicable in humanitarian disasters, in which, some would argue, the "ethics of extreme urgency" are increasingly overcoming traditional scruples about using force and the inviolability of national frontiers. One of the essayists, Harvard professor J. Bryan Hehir, makes this point well by noting that U.S. opposition to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990-1991 was within the classic interstate mould, while our intervention to support the Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s genocidal policies – which as an "internal" matter was beyond the traditional purview of another sovereign state – was an afterthought, essentially forced on Pres. Bush due to public outcry.

A number of the essays deal with the dilemmas of intervention, issues which often cannot – and never – be known. For example would intervening in Bosnia sooner have ended the violence earlier, or perhaps precipitated even greater violence? Indeed, might the violence have ended sooner had there been no intervention at all?

In addition to Kofi Annan’s "Peacekeeping, Military Intervention, and National Sovereignty," several other essays are of particular interest, including one on Rwanda by Romeo A. Dallaire, Mary B. Anderson’s "’You Save My Life Today, But for What Tomorrow?’ Some Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Aid," "The Morality of Sanctions," by Larry Minar, and Michael Ignatieff’s "The Stories We Tell: Television and Humanitarian Aid."

An important book. But there are a number of historical inaccuracies (e.g., one of the contributors says that the death toll from "both world wars and all civil wars" in the twentieth century was 35 million, wheras the toll for World War II alone was probably over 80 million).and the translation of ultimo ratio regum is incorrect ("The king’s final argument," rather than "the last resort of kings."). More importantly, there is not much said about the often wildly varying state of training and equipment of the troops and other personnel provided by member states for humanitarian operations, and there might have been more treatment of cultural problems attendant upon interventions, not to mention the often enormous logistical obstacles.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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