Humanitarian intervention: the American model

by Dmitry Kosyrev, RIA Novosti, August 11, 2008


Sending armed forces into the territory of a sovereign state without the UN's authorization, so-called "humanitarian intervention," is an American invention.

Its date of birth is thought to be 1999, Yugoslavia. But that is not quite so. What happened in 1999 was the launching of the term, an attempt to make it part of international practice.

But in reality much of the experience of such military actions dates further back. Among the numerous wars and military actions undertaken by the U.S. after the adoption of the UN Charter, one should pay attention to the operations in Grenada and Panama, and look at the attempted intervention in Somalia. The experience acquired then came in handy in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

Grenada, 1983. The order to launch a preemptive military operation against the Caribbean island state of Grenada was given by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, although formally the decision to use military force was taken by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. The pretext for the military operation was "the taking of American students as hostages." Later it turned out that Grenada authorities had simply decided to provide the students with guards because shortly before armed clashes had broken out in Grenada and the leader of the local Marxists who had just come to power had been murdered by his associates, creating tensions in the country.

Reagan declared that a Cuban-Soviet invasion of Grenada was imminent and that weapons were being stockpiled there that would be used by international terrorists. As it turned out, the arms dumps in Grenada were filled with old Soviet weapons and no new consignments had arrived. Next the U.S. declared that there were 1,200 Cuban commandos on the island. Later it turned out that there were no more than 200 Cubans, a third of whom were civilians.

After the capture of the island by American troops, many civilian casualties at the hands of the American troops were recorded.

Panama, 1989. The decision on the armed invasion and the overthrow of the Panamanian government was taken by George Bush Sr. The declared reason was the involvement of Panama and its head, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, in drug-trafficking (above all, supplies to the U.S.) and the fact that in the 1980s the city of Panama had become a money-laundering center.

The American invasion of Panama was marked by two features. The first was an atypical scale of American military atrocities. Reports spoke not only about casualties due to air raids, but of U.S. soldiers opening up machine-gun fire on street crowds and of American vehicles crushing and firing on cars with people. As a result of this action, a whole quarter in Panama, partly consisting of wooden buildings dating back to the 1900s, was gutted by fire. For a week thereafter the Americans left the city at the mercy of the criminals they had released from jails. Almost all the supermarkets, warehouses and businesses were looted. The country suffered damage to the tune of $2 billion.

It was in Panama that a group of hand-picked journalists and cameramen was first created and briefed and sent to similarly hand-picked places just before the military action was launched. Most of these media people were at American war bases. The American command did not allow undesirables into the combat zone. The technology of briefings, press conferences, meetings with prominent politicians, businessmen and other local VIPs was worked out. Correspondents of foreign newspapers and TV companies who did not belong to the news team were caught and attempts were made to murder some of them. All the radio and TV stations were instantly captured and then used to disseminate American propaganda.

The same scenario has been acted out repeatedly, notably in Yugoslavia in 1999 and in Iraq in 2003, except that news coverage was organized well in advance and was much more professional.

Somalia, 1993. That operation, unlike the previous ones, had UN sanction, and can be described as a humanitarian intervention. The soldiers of the U.S. and some other countries were in Somalia as peace-keepers to secure the delivery of the humanitarian care.

The pretext for that operation was the murder of four U.S. military police by the militants of the Somali rebel General Aidid in 1992-1993. Washington sent a Delta Force unit to Somalia to arrest or liquidate Aidid. In the meantime an American helicopter was shot down, three Americans died, and the crowd mutilated their bodies and dragged them through the streets.

Finally, on October 3-4 Aidid's headquarters in a city neighborhood was raided with disastrous results. Eighteen Americans died in Mogadishu and it was decided to withdraw the American contingent from the country. It was one of the darkest pages in American military history.

NATO's air war against Yugoslavia in March-April 1991 was launched under the pretext of the need to prevent a humanitarian disaster, namely, the plight of refugees and also ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (NATO spoke exclusively about the plight of Albanians ignoring similar problems of the Serbian population).

It was in 1999 that the thesis on the right of the alliance to launch humanitarian interventions all over the world without UN security sanctions was introduced in the NATO strategy. The U.S. National Security Strategy circa 2002 stipulates the right to launch preemptive strikes as part of the fight against international terror. In 2005 the strategy was enlarged by the provision that victory in the war against terror can only be achieved if there is a change of regime in some countries. Examples cited included Iran, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.

The talk at the U.S. Congress at the time was about "the UN not helping peoples but governments," about "the problems usually arising in the countries where the governments are in conflict with their own people." Hence, effective humanitarian assistance presupposes the breach of state sovereignty.

The best known and the largest military action taken without UN sanctions was, of course, the war waged by the U.S. and Britain against Saddam Hussein's regime in March-April 2003.

A special category among such interventions is an intervention that does not involve land forces but relies primarily on air raids. In all these cases the UN did not authorize the actions. They include the bombings of North Vietnam in the 1960s and Cambodia in the 1970s (let it be recalled that U.S. troops did not engage in any other military actions in North Vietnam), Ronald Reagan's decision to bomb Libyan cities in 1983 and many others.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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