Humanitarian Imperialism

Along with the optimism that has accompanied the Obama election emerges a potentially new picture on humanitarian interventions. What will an Obama administration do with Darfur, or instances where genocide will occur?  Might he resort to what has been termed humanitarian imperialism?

A report by the Genocide Prevention Task Force convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Academy of Diplomacy has a few ideas of its own.  It was released this week by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Defense Secretary William Cohen.  ‘Preventing genocide is an achievable goal.’  There are discernable ‘signs and symptoms, and viable options to prevent it at every turn if we are committed and prepared.’

The Task force report makes various recommendations.  Given that both co-chairs were key players in the Clinton administration, their influence is hard to ignore. The creation of a high level agency to identify the problems of genocide with seismic urgency is suggested.  Increased resources are advocated.  There is a recommendation for the new secretary of state to launch an international initiative enlisting an entire cadre of networks and nations to prevent mass atrocity and genocide.  Then there is that option of last resort, military intervention.

The task force’s report pairs well with the interventionist rhetoric Obama has, at times, articulated.  His foreign policy advisers – Susan E. Rice and Tony Lake – are old hands from the dark days of the Rwanda genocide, where semantic gymnastics trumped humanitarian considerations.  In 1994, a gutsy, far-sighted General Dallaire commanded less weight than State Department memos questioning whether genocide was even taking place.

Then come those interminable problems with the mechanics of intervention.  Given the intractable presence of the UN Security Council, the obstacles with allowing intervention will remain serious ones.  The authors think that the U.S. will front with that customary, messianic tone of leadership – take the first measures to avert catastrophe, and others will follow.  But ironically, that message seems oddly (or perhaps not?) close to that of the Bush administration – invade a country first and the skeptics will follow.  The rhetorical frameworks may differ, but the practical results may be much the same.  When in doubt, build an offensive coalition.

Readers of this report won’t forget that the authors were themselves part of an administration that orchestrated an ostensibly humanitarian intervention outside the UN framework in 1999.  Then, it was Kosovo and the issue of preventing ethnic cleansing.  To this day, if there is an identifiable doctrine from the Clinton years, it is one that targets genocide and humanitarian catastrophe where it is in the national interest to prevent it. International jurists have subsequently tried to justify the doctrine, though it remains infuriatingly vague and inconsistent.

Given the battering the UN and international law received during the Bush years, the panaceas of the task force are encumbered by problems.  The UN, it would seem, will continue remaining the bête noire of American foreign policy, whether one is a Bush unilateralist or Obama internationalist.  The former loathes it for being the progenitor of fictitious international laws and obligations; the latter dislikes it for being lethargic and indifferent to protecting existing international laws.

With the US mired in conflicts it has struggled to control in the last seven years, driven by a unilateralist rationale that commentators now find hard to justify, the priorities given to genocide prevention may yet again be minimized.  But this will all depend on what formula the new administration will embrace.  While Obama will need to take this report seriously, he must be fully aware that the US risks being tarnished with the charge of imperialism (albeit of a different sort) yet again.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  Email:




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: