Published on Wednesday, November 5, 2003 by the Boston Globe
In Iraq, US Ignores Human Rights Lessons
by John Shattuck

HUMAN RIGHTS hawks are glad that Saddam Hussein is no longer murdering his citizens. Why, then, are we upset over President Bush's Iraq policy? Because it ignores the lessons of earlier human rights wars, is failing to stabilize the country, and risks doing more harm than good.

Since the end of the Cold War, violent political, ethnic, and religious conflict, compounded by brutal repression and state failure, has created a climate of global insecurity. Over the past decade, human rights wars have engulfed the people of Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other failed states, to say nothing of the Middle East, killing more than 6 million civilians and forcing more than 40 million more to become refugees. These wars are rooted in the same deadly environment in which terrorism thrives, as Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attackers showed by using Afghanistan and Sudan as training bases.

International security depends on containing these conflicts, and doing so requires clear rules about whether, when, and what type of "humanitarian intervention" may be justified to protect human rights. Here are four:

First, large-scale genocide or crimes against humanity are being committed.

Second, the conflict is creating major regional instability, which the neighboring countries want to contain by supporting a multilateral intervention sanctioned by the United Nations or a regional organization like NATO.

Third, intervention is not likely to lead to wider conflict -- for example, by stimulating increased terrorism or provoking other countries to enter into the hostilities.

Fourth, the planned scale, duration, and intensity of the intervention are sufficient to achieve the objective of saving lives and rebuilding the country.

Bush's preemptive regime-change invasion of Iraq failed to meet these criteria. The military operation was conducted unilaterally by the United States and Britain and was strongly opposed by countries throughout the region, the Muslim world, and beyond. Despite Saddam Hussein's appalling history of human rights abuse, there was no evidence last spring that his regime was engaged in continuing genocide that required immediate military action. (Saddam's genocide against the Kurds and Shi'ite Muslims following the Gulf War should have been prevented by international forces in 1991.) In fact, Saddam's human rights record was used by Bush largely as an afterthought to make up for his administration's failure to produce evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

The unilateral US intervention has made it far more difficult to stabilize Iraq, stimulating ongoing attacks against the occupying forces, increasing the recruiting power of terrorist organizations, and shattering the international cooperation necessary for postintervention efforts to rebuild the country. These efforts must succeed if Iraq is ever to be stabilized (to say nothing of democratized), but American taxpayers are paying a staggering price for their president's dangerous preemptive unilateralism.

Bush's Iraq policy is one extreme of the US response to a human rights conflict. At the other extreme is doing nothing. But intervention may be necessary to save lives and prevent further escalation of violence and to preserve vital US interests.

As Bush's failing unilateralism demonstrates, a broad coalition of countries is the only effective instrument for humanitarian intervention. Coalitions sanctioned by the UN confer legitimacy, give political support, provide resources and expertise to the reconstruction effort, and reduce the risk that intervention will lead to greater conflict. Over the past decade, five separate international military actions led or supported by the United States were conducted to stop wars over human rights. Each case demonstrated the importance of sustained multilateral reconstruction in creating long-term stability.

In Haiti, the United States worked closely with the UN and the Organization of American States in 1994 to stop the escalating political killings by a military junta and restore the country's democratically elected president. The lesson of Haiti, however, is that premature exit of a multinational force can prove disastrous.

Two other US-led interventions involved NATO's use of air power -- in 1995, to back US and European diplomacy aimed at ending the genocidal war in Bosnia, and in 1999, to force the Serbian government to stop killing Kosovar Albanians and open the way for nearly a million forcibly expelled refugees to return to their homes. A fourth humanitarian intervention was conducted by the UN in 1999, led by Australia with US support, to secure East Timor after the massive killings of Timorese by Indonesian paramilitaries. Finally, in response to the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States led a UN-sanctioned intervention in Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda terrorists, which also served belatedly to stop the escalating crimes against humanity being committed by the Taliban.

Humanitarian intervention is an essential tool for protecting international security. Until the Bush administration learns the lessons of earlier human rights wars and renounces its disastrous doctrine of unilateral preemptive war, however, the US operation in Iraq will give humanitarian intervention a bad name.

John Shattuck, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and author of "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response."

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.