The invasion of Iraq:

Not a humanitarian intervention



“We conclude that, despite the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the invasion of Iraq cannot be justified as a humanitarian intervention”.


This was the conclusion of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the reputable US human rights organisation, as expressed by its director Kenneth Roth in a document, entitled War in Iraq: Not a humanitarian Intervention, published last January.


Roth attempted to lay down ground rules by which to judge when military intervention is justified for humanitarian reasons, and applied those ground rules to the intervention in Iraq in March 2003.


The document starts from the obvious premise that military action inevitably results in death and destruction, and may make matters a great deal worse, and that therefore military intervention for humanitarian purposes should only be contemplated in extreme circumstances to prevent actual, or imminent, killing on a grand scale:


“To state the obvious, war is dangerous. In theory it can be surgical, but the reality is often highly destructive, with a risk of enormous bloodshed. Only large-scale murder, we believe, can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not in our view rise to the level that would justify the extraordinary response of military force. Only mass slaughter might permit the deliberate taking of life involved in using military force for humanitarian purposes.”


The HRW ground rules exclude military intervention as a punishment for past atrocities:


“’Better late than never’ is not a justification for humanitarian intervention, which should be countenanced only to stop mass murder, not to punish its perpetrators, desirable as punishment is in such circumstances.”


This principle is manifestly reasonable since the only result of military action in such circumstances is to add to the toll of innocent dead.


Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, has consistently argued for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on humanitarian grounds, and she is now the Prime Minister’s special envoy on human rights in Iraq.  In an article in the Guardian on 30 March 2004, entitled Iraq is free at last, she attempted to justify the invasion because, she said, Saddam Hussein’s regime “cost the lives of 2 million people in wars and internal oppression”.


Let us for the sake of argument not quarrel this wildly exaggerated figure.  The vast majority of the deaths occurred more than a decade before the invasion, which they are now being used to justify – in the Iran-Iraq war and its aftermath, and in the Iraq-Kuwait war and its aftermath.  No such killing was going on in March 2003.


It is absurd to argue that military action to overthrow the regime was justified on humanitarian grounds in March 2003 because of what happened more than a decade earlier, but was no longer happening.  Predictably, military action in March 2003, and its aftermath, has merely added greatly to the toll of Iraqi (and other) deaths.


These days, the Prime Minister also puts forward a humanitarian justification for taking military action: the Iraqi people have been freed from the yoke of Saddam Hussein, who murdered them in their tens of thousands.  Look at the mass graves, he often says.  But, as we have seen, that argument doesn’t stack up – those mass graves date from over a decade ago, and no such killing was taking place in March 2003.  Invading Iraq in March 2003 didn’t prevent any Iraqi deaths, it has merely added to their number – by around 30,000 to date.


There is another problem with the Prime Minister using a humanitarian justification for military action.  Prior to the invasion, he frequently said that Saddam could remain in power, if he disarmed.  For example, he told the Commons on 25 February 2003:


“I detest his regime – I hope most people do – but even now, he could save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully.”


So, Saddam was free to oppress the Iraqi people indefinitely, if he disarmed.



Labour & Trade Union Review

October 2004