In a Washington Post article reprinted in these pages on Oct. 10, “The humanitarian war myth,” Eric Posner writes: “If the United Nations were to have its way, the Iraqi debacle would be just the first in a series of such wars — the effect of a well-meaning but ill-considered effort to make humanitarian intervention obligatory as a matter of international law. Today Iraq, tomorrow Darfur.”

Not so.

Later he writes: “humanitarian war is an oxymoron.”

Just so.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was the midwife to “the responsibility to protect” precisely because we recognized “humanitarian intervention” to be an oxymoron. It is not obvious that Posner read our slim report before proceeding to criticize its main conclusions.

In using Iraq to attack the new norm, Posner sets up a straw target. Most ICISS Commissioners argued that Iraq did not meet our threshold criteria; some of us said so publicly in 2003.

Our choice of “responsibility” over “duty” flowed in part from the wish to indicate a moral but not legal obligation. We concluded that actual decisions will always be based on political judgments to meet specific contingencies case by case.

Still, the fact is that our ability and tools to act beyond our borders have increased tremendously. This greatly increases demands and expectations “to do something.” Darfur is indeed the current poster case for this. It meets all our threshold criteria for the international community to shoulder its responsibility to protect.

But we also put in another essential principle: Before undertaking military intervention, be confident of reasonable prospects for success in the mission. Given Sudan’s size and regional geopolitics, this is a big problem in Darfur. By its very nature, including unpredictability, unintended consequences and the risk to innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, warfare is inherently brutal: nothing humanitarian about the means.

The ethic of conviction, which impels us to act, must be balanced by the equally compelling ethic of responsibility, which requires us to weigh moral action against the pragmatism of consequences.

Still, the fundamental question cannot be avoided. Under what circumstances is the use of force necessary to provide effective international humanitarian protection to at-risk populations without the consent of their own government?

Without the responsibility-to-protect-norm and principles, the intervention is more likely to be ad hoc, unilateral, self-interested and deeply divisive. With the norm and principles agreed to in advance, military action is more likely to be rules-based, multilateral, disinterested and consensual.

Consider an analogy from health policy. Rapid advances in medical technology have greatly expanded the range, accuracy and number of surgical interventions. With enhanced capacity and increased tools have come more choices that have to be made, often involving philosophical, ethical, political and legal dilemmas. The idea of simply standing by and letting nature take its course is no longer acceptable. Parents can now be taken to court for criminal negligence of children’s health.

Similarly, calls for military intervention happen. War is the use of force by enemy armies: us against them. It is by no means obsolete. But states can no longer use force as and when they want, either domestically or internationally.

Collective security requires the use of force by the community of states against an aggressor: all against one. It has proven illusory.

Peacekeeping operations insert neutral and lightly armed third-country soldiers as a physical buffer between enemy combatants who have agreed to a ceasefire. “Humanitarian intervention” is the use of force by outsiders for the protection of victims of atrocities inside sovereign territory.

In the 1990s, conscience-shocking atrocities in Somalia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and East Timor revealed a dangerous gap between the codified best practice of international behavior in the U.N. Charter and the distressing state of affairs in the real world.

Rwanda in 1994 caused lasting damage to basic human ideals and U.N. credibility when we refused to stop, as we could have, a three-month genocide that killed 800,000 people.

Kosovo in 1999 gravely damaged U.N. credibility and fractured international opinion when NATO intervened without U.N. authorization.

ICISS held that while the state has the default responsibility to protect its people, a residual responsibility also rests with the broader international community. This is activated when a particular state is either unwilling or unable to honor its responsibility to protect; or is itself the perpetrator of atrocity crimes.

The goal of protective intervention is never to wage war on a state to destroy it and eliminate its statehood, but always to protect victims of atrocities inside the state, embed the protection in reconstituted institutions after the intervention, and then withdraw all foreign troops.

Military intervention, even for humanitarian purposes, is a polite euphemism for the use of deadly force on a massive scale. Even when there is agreement that intervention may be necessary to protect innocent people from life-threatening danger by interposing an outside force between actual or apprehended victims and perpetrators, key questions remain about agency, lawfulness and legitimacy.

Based on the pragmatism of consequences as much as legal doctrine, ICISS concluded that there is no substitute for the U.N. as the authorizing agent.

Iraq reinforces the lesson that the sense of moral outrage provoked by humanitarian atrocities must be tempered by an appreciation of the limits of power, a concern for international institution-building and institution-wrecking, and sensitivity to the law of unintended and perverse consequences.

Acceptance of the responsibility-to-protect-norm no more guarantees military intervention than its nonexistence had foreclosed it as a tool of statecraft. But, by shaping the calculation of the balance of interests, the norm makes it modestly more rather than less likely that victims will not be callously abandoned. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

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