The invasion of Iraq:

Not a humanitarian intervention


Formally, the Government’s reason for invading Iraq remains its alleged breaches of Security Council resolutions (by failing to give up weapons it didn’t possess).  Not that this was a sound basis for invading, since 11 out of 15 members of the Security Council were opposed to military action last March and wanted weapons inspections to continue.  And it does seem reasonable that the Security Council as a whole, not just a minority of 4 of its members, should decide whether military action is appropriate to enforce Security Council resolutions.


But today, anybody who dares to suggest to Ministers that the invasion was based on a false premise is accused of wanting the tyrant Saddam Hussein to be restored to power – from which we are meant to get the message that it was humanitarian concern for the Iraqi people which caused the tanks to roll into Iraq on 20 March last year. 


Anybody who is tempted to believe that the US/UK are overflowing with humanitarian concern for Iraqis should remember the words of Madeleine Albright on 12 May 1996.  At the time, she was US Ambassador to the UN.  Lesley Stahl put it to her, on the CBS 60 Minutes programme, that half a million children had died in Iraq because of UN economic sanctions. “That’s more children than died in Hiroshima.  Is the price worth it?” she was asked.  She didn’t quarrel with the figure, but replied: “I think this a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”


Clwyd’s concern

Ann Clwyd has been overflowing with humanitarian concern for Iraqis for years.  The Labour frontbench used to regard her as a tiresome fool for her concern.  But, now that the Government is anxious to bolster its case for the invasion with a layer of humanitarian concern, she has become a useful fool and has been made the Prime Minister’s special envoy on human rights in Iraq.


An article by her entitled Iraq is free at last at last was published in the Guardian on 30 March 2004.  It attempted to justify the invasion of Iraq because, it was said, the Saddam Hussein regime “cost the lives of 2 million people in wars and internal oppression”.


Let us for the sake of argument not quarrel with 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.


To argue that military action was justified on humanitarian grounds in March 2003 because of what happened more than a decade earlier, but is no longer happening, is absurd.  From a humanitarian point of view, the only impact of military action in March 2003 has predictably been to add greatly to the toll of Iraqi deaths.


Blind spot

A striking feature of Ann Clwyd’s article is that there is absolutely no mention of these additional Iraqi (and other) deaths during the invasion and subsequent occupation, deaths that are still occurring in very large numbers.  Nor is there any mention of Iraqi deaths due to the twelve years of sanctions, which the US/UK were determined to keep in place while Saddam Hussein remained in power.


To be fair to her, she is not alone in having this blind spot: almost all the high priests of humanitarian intervention, for example, David Aaronowitch and Nick Cohen, have it.  One is forced to conclude than their humanitarian concern does not extend to Iraqis killed as a consequence of US/UK action.


These days the US/UK try to slough off responsibility for Iraqi (and other) deaths during the occupation by attributing them to the evil remnants of an evil regime, and to the even more evil associates of al-Qaeda, who have entered Iraq since the invasion.  But, no matter who is doing the killing in Iraq at the moment, the US/UK is responsible: they destroyed a functioning state and the disorder was a predictable consequence.  There may never be a functioning state in Iraq again.


Human Rights Watch

The US human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, published a document last January by its director Kenneth Roth, entitled War in Iraq: Not a humanitarian Intervention.  This attempted to lay down ground rules by which to judge when military intervention is justified on humanitarian grounds, and applied those ground rules to the intervention in Iraq in March 2003.  It should be compulsory reading for Ann Clwyd and those who think like her.


Its overall conclusion is that “despite the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the invasion of Iraq cannot be justified as a humanitarian intervention”.


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 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.”


Not as punishment

The 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 net result of military action in such circumstances is likely to be the deaths of even more innocent people.  Yet, Ann Clwyd and others who have justified intervention in Iraq on humanitarian grounds do so, not because of what was happening in March 2003, but almost exclusively because of killing that took place more than a decade ago.


In the specific case of Iraq in March 2003, Human Rights Watch says:


“In considering the criteria that would justify humanitarian intervention, the most important, as noted, is the level of killing: was genocide or comparable mass slaughter underway or imminent? Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention.


“We have no illusions about Saddam Hussein’s vicious inhumanity. Having devoted extensive time and effort to documenting his atrocities, we estimate that in the last twenty-five years of Ba`th Party rule the Iraqi government murdered or “disappeared” some quarter of a million Iraqis, if not more. In addition, one must consider such abuses as Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers. However, by the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein’s killing had ebbed. …


“But if Saddam Hussein committed mass atrocities in the past, wasn’t his overthrow justified to prevent his resumption of such atrocities in the future? No. Human Rights Watch accepts that military intervention may be necessary not only to stop ongoing slaughter but also to prevent future slaughter, but the future slaughter must be imminent. To justify the extraordinary remedy of military force for preventive humanitarian purposes, there must be evidence that large-scale slaughter is in preparation and about to begin unless militarily stopped. But no one seriously claimed before the war that the Saddam Hussein government was planning imminent mass killing, and no evidence has emerged that it was.


“There were claims that Saddam Hussein, with a history of gassing Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds, was planning to deliver weapons of mass destruction through terrorist networks, but these allegations were entirely speculative; no substantial evidence has yet emerged. There were also fears that the Iraqi government might respond to an invasion with the use of chemical or biological weapons, perhaps even against its own people, but no one seriously suggested such use as an imminent possibility in the absence of an invasion.”


Iraqis, both military and civilian, were inevitably going to get killed in an invasion of Iraq.  That is true whether the civilian population as a whole greeted the invaders with flowers, or resisted militarily, or the reaction was mixed.  The net result was always going to be the deaths of more Iraqis (and others).  And whether Saddam Hussein was responsible for the deaths of 2 million people over a decade ago or a tenth of that number is immaterial to that conclusion.  More Iraqis (and others) were going to die as a result of the invasion than would otherwise have done – and therefore it is impossible to justify the invasion on humanitarian grounds.



Labour & Trade Union Review

April 2004