Do No Harm

Six months ago the Internet exploded with the media sensation that was Kony 2012. The swish campaign film made by US NGO Invisible Children called for international action to pursue and capture Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), deliver him to the International Criminal Court, and thereby end the long-running war the LRA has conducted against civilians in Uganda and central Africa. The campaign reignited discussion about if, when and how the West should get involved in the internal conflicts of other countries. As the debate progressed, however, there was little honest appraisal of the role intervention can play in bringing violent civil wars to an end and laying the foundations for peace building.

In the media storm of criticism that followed the release of the controversial film, one theme was particularly prominent. Many argued that the call for international involvement in catching Kony was thinly veiled neo-colonialism, motivated either by the ‘White Saviour complex’ or the desire to shore up the newly discovered oil reserves in Uganda.

This argument is based at least in part on recent historical reality: Western self-interest has eclipsed the supposed humanitarian goals of the interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Self-interest has also been a dominant factor in a host of other humanitarian interventions, if not all of them. For example, Australia’s leadership of the peace operation in Timor Leste was clearly influenced by our economic and regional security interests, as became apparent in the negotiations over access to oil in the Timor strait in the aftermath of the intervention. National interest will always be a critical factor in tipping the scales towards intervention—it is unrealistic to expect states to act otherwise. This is not to say that more noble motivations did not exist alongside self-interest in these interventions, they generally do, although perhaps more in some actors than others. But, the increasing awareness of the self-interest and economic motivations behind intervention, particularly in the wake of the interventions since 9/11, and the misuse of the language of ‘humanitarianism’ as a cloak for other objectives, has undermined its credibility as a mechanism of response to suffering and human rights abuses based on the principle of the inherent and equal value of human life.

The critical response to Kony 2012 also demonstrated an increasing awareness that the language and practice of intervention has sometimes infantilised and disempowered local populations under the auspices of ‘protection’.

There was significant concern about the ‘feel good’ engagement in international development work that Invisible Children and their Kony 2012 campaign epitomised. The proliferation of this type of development work, in which individuals and organisations whose social justice, development or human rights endeavours are largely about their own emotional response to witnessing suffering, and their feeling of ‘making a difference’, is a recent phenomenon. It comes at the cost of considered concern for the long-term sustainability of the ‘difference’ such interventions make, or the autonomy and agency of those they are purporting to help. This is what has come to be called the White Saviour impulse, which is deeply enmeshed with the individualism of late modern capitalism.

The incredible growth of the ‘volunteer experience’ industry, or ‘voluntourism’, in which well-meaning young people pay significant amounts of money for the privilege of working in an orphanage, teaching English, helping build a school, or doing some other basic development activity, exemplifies, at its best, a desire to learn about the world and, at its worst, the White Saviour impulse. So does the proliferation of small family or individual-driven NGOs which, on the basis of some connection to a developing community, start doing their own small-scale development projects.

Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer, has warned that the well-meaning sentimentality of these groups should be respected in ‘the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly’. Cole argues that this sentimentality is often not rooted in genuine concern for the suffering of others but is rather a ‘valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage’, which we, in the West, are complicit in. As such, it can result in inappropriate and sometimes harmful programs being undertaken.

By engaging in actions that make us feel like we are making a difference to the lives of poor people in far off places, like participating in a short volunteer placement or the Kony 2012 campaign, we can exonerate ourselves from recognising the myriad ways in which our way of life actually rests on the underdevelopment of those same people, and may even exacerbate it. It becomes easy not to take the difficult actions that might make a greater difference, like not buying a cheap mobile phone made by underpaid labourers in China, running off rare earth minerals that feed the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am not suggesting that small-scale actions are not worthwhile, but rather that they must be located within broader action if they are to be really meaningful. The White Saviour impulse rarely extends to this broader action.


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These two critiques—that economic motives may be more dominant than humanitarian ones, and that the White Saviour impulse is not a useful basis for engaging with the third world—are important ones to consider for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are morally compelling in their concern with the interests of the subjects of intervention. Secondly, their analysis of the way the international system functions and the way interests drive action is logical, and makes sense to even a casual observer of politics. Thirdly, they sway opinions about the legitimacy of intervention en masse—this was particularly clear in the massive backlash against Invisible Children’s campaign calls for ongoing international intervention in central Africa. They also provide a platform for challenging the dominant rhetoric of intervention, which has increasingly become a language used by the powerful against the powerless to justify actions in their interests, as noted by Jessica Whyte in her essay ‘On the Politics of Suffering’ in Arena Magazine 118. These critiques lay the foundations for a deeper and more complex understanding of the politics of intervention in the world today, helping us answer questions of why, where, when and how interventions are launched, or are not.

However the way these critiques are mounted can also have the opposite effect, stifling any discussion of Western military intervention into third world countries by labelling it neo-colonial or economically motivated as a default position, without due consideration for the particularities of each case. Effectively, this rejects discussion about intervention in any context, which is problematic in a world presently characterised by widespread civil war and the mass suffering and human rights violations that come with it.

According to the Conflict Barometer, in 2011 there were thirty-eight highly violent conflicts, of which thirty-six were intra-state, and a further 148 violent crises, of which 143 were intra-state. These are the highest numbers of violent conflicts and crises since 1945. Contemporary intra-state conflicts often have notoriously high casualty rates, which are even higher when you include war-related deaths, for instance from the spread of disease, including HIV/AIDS, ill-health and starvation, which go hand in hand with warfare. The death toll in Syria is estimated at upwards of 21,000 deaths in the past seventeen months, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, and is increasing rapidly, with 1600 deaths reported by UNICEF in the last week of August. The sixteen-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has accumulated a death toll of more than 4 million from direct military action and war-related causes. According to the International Crisis Group, in the three years after the 2008 breakdown of peace talks with the LRA in Uganda, the rag-tag militia of somewhere between 200 and 700 soldiers killed more than 2,400 civilians in the central African region, abducted more than 3,400 and forced more than 440,000 to flee. This says nothing of the long-term impact of the horrific violence and rape used by the LRA to brutalise civilians, often in retaliation for Ugandan or other attempts to curtail its power.

Such levels of violence perpetrated against innocent civilians demand a moral response, but can be impervious to the pressures of non-military efforts, like embargoes or peace negotiations. In such cases, military intervention can have a unique and positive effect in stemming violence, as I will explore below. There are clearly problems with the way ‘humanitarian’ intervention has been practised in recent years, but these problems alone are not justification enough to preclude the international community from addressing the brutalisation of whole communities.

If the bias is always against intervention, we risk undermining the hard won gains of years of collaborative international efforts to develop international norms and laws around human rights, humanitarianism and the laws of war. These norms were developed to minimise the capacity of states and armed forces to brutalise civilian populations, and have grown in large part from the conviction of the inherent value of human life and concomitant moral imperative to preserve it as much as we are able. Institutionalised variously through the United Nations and other legal mechanisms like the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court, they signal to decision makers that they do not have free reign to mistreat civilians; that the international community is watching and has the framework to respond to or hold to account those who violate them. Essentially, individuals are the focus of this normative framework, and it is their rights, wellbeing and security that are the concern of the international community, embodied in multilateral and supra-state institutions like the United Nations.

There is a significant problem with this international policing approach: it sets up a dichotomy between the West and the rest, largely because the vast majority of countries in which there are gross human rights violations are in the third world, and it is Western activists and states who are often at the forefront of calls to respond to these violations. It is easy to perceive this international policing as the West imposing its morality and norms on the rest of the world, but to do so suggests that we should stand by while horrifying violence is perpetrated. Another problem of this approach is the fact that these norms will always be unevenly applied, especially given that their implementation requires the commitment of significant resources from states.

But there are answers to these two criticisms. Firstly, I would suggest that we stand by the many people in the third world who have been integral to the development of human rights norms, and who call for international attention and action on gross violations of human rights in their countries and regions. Secondly, the uneven application of human rights needs to be seen as a political reality: to some extent it must be accepted as part and parcel of the international system of norms around intervention. The international community cannot intervene in all civil wars or cases of gross human rights violations, not only because resources would just not stretch far enough, particularly given that the West shoulders the majority of the financial costs of intervention, but also because there are some contexts in which intervention is not politically or strategically feasible. Tibet is a clear example of this: China’s global political power makes international consensus or a UN mission in Tibet impossible and, even if an intervention was launched by a coalition of international forces without UN Security Council authorisation, the Chinese military strength would make it highly unlikely to succeed. Therefore, that a humanitarian intervention is undertaken in Timor Leste but not in Tibet is a result of a complex set of considerations for intervening states, and this inconsistency is less a symbol of the inherent hypocrisy of the norms underpinning humanitarian intervention than an indicator of the pragmatism associated with all international political action.

Another implication of the automatic bias against intervention is that we risk blinding ourselves to the potential for such interventions to have positive impacts on peace building and the alleviation of suffering in conflict-affected societies. For instance, the deployment of 100 US military advisers in October 2011 to support the Ugandan army’s efforts to capture Kony had already achieved significant outcomes by the time the Kony 2012 campaign was launched. Kony and the LRA had started letting their ‘bush wives’ and captured children go, as they were preventing the militia from moving as fast as necessary through the jungles of central Africa to keep ahead of the US-supported forces pursuing them. This is something that years of negotiations had failed to do, as Betty Bigombe, the chief Ugandan negotiator in peace talks with Kony for the past two decades, personally told me. Bigombe recounted that during the peace negotiations she raised the issue of the abducted children, asking Kony to let them go, but he refused to even consider releasing them, arguing that to do so would be to admit that they had been abducted in the first place, something that would undermine the LRA’s credibility.

The US mission has had other successes: senior Kony aide and top LRA military strategist Major General Caesar Achellam Otto was captured by Ugandan forces in the Central African Republic in May, weakening the LRA’s top command, and numerous LRA cadres have also been defeated in recent months. That the small US mission has contributed to these achievements in a relatively short amount of time, after many much larger local and regional efforts have failed, is a significant contribution to the efforts addressing the LRA’s impact on communities in central Africa, and suggests that the force is also limiting the LRA’s capacity to operate freely in the region. These are important achievements, which are complementing the various non-military efforts to respond to the LRA in the region.


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So, putting Uganda aside, it is worth considering other examples of military interventions that have had positive impacts.  Closer to home, the Australian-led UN mission in Timor Leste halted the violence perpetrated by Indonesian troops in the aftermath of the 1999 Timorese independence referendum, and facilitated the transition to independent statehood. This broad state-building mission had its weaknesses, which contributed to the 2006 electoral crisis and the fragility of the new state structures. Nevertheless, the mission did stop the widespread violence that followed the referendum, and created a platform for an ongoing process of peace building that would not have otherwise existed. There is general consensus that Timor Leste is on a good trajectory, and it is unlikely that violence will erupt on the same scale again. These achievements would not have been possible in the absence of military intervention by the international community.

The UN mission in Nepal is another example where intervention played a vital role in stopping civil war and creating a space for peace building, although it occurred in the context of a negotiated peace process, unlike the intervention in Timor Leste. It is particularly interesting because it was a ‘designer mission’ that departed from the standard template of large, multi-dimensional interventions, with great success, and might suggest a future approach for international interventions. Ian Martin, the mission’s head, faced numerous obstacles while planning the mission, largely from people within the UN bureaucracy who argued that the mission should follow the standard template of a large mission with a substantial military component. He resisted pressure, and instead established a light intervention of 186 unarmed serving and retired military officers, who oversaw the two armies, in addition to a civilian component. Martin recounts, in the 2010 Review of Political Missions, that many at the United Nations thought the mission could only be performed by substantial numbers of armed peacekeepers. However, careful and politically astute planning and implementation meant that the small mission successfully oversaw the disarmament and demobilisation of the two armies, and created the space for peaceful elections and ongoing peace consolidation in Nepal. Martin, when I spoke to him, called for a wholesale rethink in how interventions are conceptualised and rolled out, arguing that serious consideration has to be given to the potential of small, well-targeted missions to have much better outcomes than the unwieldy large missions that are more common.

The United Kingdom took a similar small, targeted military approach to their intervention that brought to a halt the civil war in Sierra Leone, although unlike in Nepal, it was an active military mission, and was launched in the context of a failing large-scale multi-dimensional UN operation. The war in Sierra Leone began in 1991, and was infamous for the widespread use of rape and mutilation of civilians as weapons of war. More than 50,000 people were killed, and a further 2 million civilians, constituting one third of the population, were displaced. An unarmed UN peacekeeping force was first deployed to Sierra Leone in 1998, under the protection of a regional Military Observer Group, but it quickly became clear that their impact was limited in the face of ongoing violence, and in 1999 an armed mission was established. Despite the size of the mission, which included 13,000 military personnel by mid-2000, it was unable to restore order to Sierra Leone, and the Revolutionary United Front maintained control of half the country. In fact in May 2000 the RUF kidnapped more than 500 UN peacekeepers, stole their weapons and equipment, and held them hostage, continuing the war with the stolen UN military hardware. The mission was on the brink of collapse when the United Kingdom launched a unilateral operation to evacuate British citizens, establish order and save the UN mission, sending in 1200 marines, supported by air and sea power. This operation stopped the rebels’ military advance, shifted the balance of power in favour of the government, and was a catalyst for the ceasefire that became the foundation of the enduring peace in Sierra Leone. Although the peace remains fragile, it is slowly being consolidated with time, and is unlikely to have been achieved in the absence of the United Kingdom’s targeted intervention.

These examples suggest that, while highly complex and difficult endeavours, intervention can play an important role in bringing violent civil conflicts to an end and creating a space for longer term peace building. They also suggest that intervention can be reimagined away from the large-scale operations that have dominated the international approach to intervention since the end of the Cold War, towards types of intervention that are responsive to the politics and reality of the contexts in which they are applied, and have the potential to be far more effective.


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If we accept that intervention can have positive effects, the question becomes how to decide when to intervene, and the ‘Do no harm’ principle is perhaps the most useful guide in discussions like this. American economist and researcher Mary Anderson first articulated this principle in relation to the international community’s engagement in contexts of war and peace building in her 1999 book, Do No Harm, and the principle has since become a paramount guide to action in such contexts. Anderson explored the way aid efforts can support both peace and war, depending on how they are implemented, and argued that no international intervention should be undertaken in a way that worsens the situation to which it is responding. However, while she cautions against actions that ‘do harm’, she argues that ‘it is a moral fallacy to conclude that because aid can do harm, the decision not to give aid would not do harm’. In the context of intervention, the principle, at heart, calls for a balancing of the harm that may be caused by an intervention, against the harm that would occur if an intervention is not launched. It simultaneously calls for any intervention to be undertaken in a way that does as little harm as possible, which is particularly instructive in relation to discussions of how the dominant intervention model can be redesigned. This approach inherently accepts that there may be some unintended harmful consequences of an intervention—for instance, a military humanitarian intervention may, and indeed is likely, to result in some civilian deaths. However, if the deaths and harm caused by the intervention are less than what is likely to occur in the absence of an intervention, the principle would suggest that intervention is acceptable.

The ‘Do no harm’ principle extends to the requirement that interventions should not undermine local conflict-resolution or peace-building efforts, thereby emphasising the importance of supporting local capacities for conflict resolution, peace and self-determination. This suggests that intervention should not happen where there are no local calls for it, and that people from the country being intervened in should be included in decision-making processes around the intervention, not only because they are aware of the complexities of the situation, but because they will be the actors carrying the process forward, and should feel ownership over it. This carries with it, of course, the need to ensure that a broad cross-section of the community are involved in these discussions, and that they are not monopolised by existing power holders, who tend to be the men with guns.

So, how does this principle help us deal with the Syrian situation, where calls for intervention have been met with concerns about the likelihood of success? Since the civil war began, calls for international action to stop the violence have included suggestions of an international intervention to stop the Assad regime’s violence against civilians. Some have called for a large multi-national military intervention to be launched to combat the Syrian army. However it is unlikely that such a force would be able to halt the violence perpetrated by the strong and expansive Syrian army, and there is a good chance that it would become embroiled in the increasingly complex web of armed groups fighting in the war. As a result it is likely that such an intervention would lead not only to an intensification of the violence, but a complexification of it, which could result in the sort of entrenched violence the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to. The ‘Do no harm’ principle militates against such an intervention. The difficulties of the Syrian situation lead me to wonder, along the lines suggested by Martin, whether the international community should be considering an intervention that departs from the large military force model, one that is more targeted, locally responsive and politically astute.


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Returning to Uganda and the Kony 2012 campaign which kick started so much of this debate, some have argued that the LRA is fundamentally a Ugandan problem that requires a Ugandan solution, and that the international community should resist the White Saviour impulse, and stay out of it. But any serious assessment of the role the LRA plays today shows that this argument does not reflect reality. The LRA is no longer fighting a politically motivated conflict against the government of Uganda, and has not operated on Ugandan soil since 2008. It has morphed into a militia motivated by a circular logic of violence for its own sake, rather than for political goals. It has become a regional problem and, in that it is contributing not only to regional conflict processes but to a growing humanitarian crisis, it is also an international problem. Its victims are the most vulnerable people in the region, and it is their suffering that matters to an international community that develops norms around human rights.

Just removing Kony from the mix in central Africa, as Kony 2012 advocated, will not solve the problems and conflicts that dominate the region. But it is likely that it would result in the collapse of the LRA as a military threat, in doing so removing one major actor from the busy stage of warlords and warriors in central Africa. This might only be a first step in supporting the region to move towards peace, and would have to be followed with complex peace-building, security-building, reconciliation and justice processes, but it would nonetheless be an important step in the quest for peace in central Africa, and one that can satisfy the ‘Do no harm’ principle if the intervention continues in its current form of the small-scale US military contingent.

Jessica Whyte argues that a human rights agenda centred on the politics of suffering has come at the expense of collective struggles for justice and the principle of self-determination. There is the risk that the politics of intervention similarly foreclose these possibilities. However, it is possible for interventions to be conducted in a way that actually creates the space for these projects by halting mass violence and human rights violations and allowing locally driven peace processes to develop. Indeed, well-thought out, politically astute and well-intentioned interventions should be about creating a secure space for populations to build their own peace.

Intervention on humanitarian grounds is a relatively new and complex arena of action that raises difficult questions about how we see ourselves in relation to others in the world and how we understand our responsibility to respond to the suffering of strangers. Although the complexity of the sphere in which intervention occurs means that it can be used as a facade for objectives that are far from humanitarian, this alone should not preclude the possibility of humanitarian interventions. Guided by the ‘Do no harm’ principle, they can play a vital role in halting violence and creating a space in which a peace process may be built by the local population, with the support of the international community.

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