The Thin Blue Line

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 December, 2008, 12:00am

The Thin Blue Line

by Conor Foley

Verso, HK$209

In a world where Myanmese generals shoot Buddhist monks and Zimbabwe's destitute victims of Robert Mugabe's rule are now at the mercy of a deadly cholera outbreak, there is a growing international clamour to topple such recalcitrant regimes by armed intervention in the name of humanitarianism.

The desire to save lives and do something with the utmost urgency is a natural response to desperate situations. But as this timely book points out, good intentions are not enough.

When humanitarianism goes to war and to bed with professional armies, in many instances human suffering is aggravated instead of alleviated.

Using the western intervention in Kosovo as an example, Conor Foley's judgment in The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War is that it has done far more harm than good. With a war waged in the name of humanitarianism, such a claim cannot be easily brushed aside.

International law expert Ian Brownlie and many ordinary civilians are still wondering what was so humanitarian about Nato's 78-day bombing blitz of Belgrade and Serbia, which included hits on a school, a hospital and a TV station.

In Kosovo, NGOs also became co-opted into the Nato agenda for humanitarian aid delivery as an appendix to its war effort.

Few observers can match the author's credentials in analysing the good, the bad and the ugly side of foreign interventions carried out behind the smokescreen of humanitarian objectives. Foley was there. He has worked in a dozen conflict zones from Biafra to Kosovo, from Iraq to Darfur and Afghanistan, working for Amnesty International, the UN and NGOs.

Since the 1990s, the mush-rooming of a multibillion-dollar humanitarian aid industry has led to increased NGO advocacy.

The high-profile 'Save Darfur Coalition' backed by some Hollywood stars, which urged ever- stronger intervention in the murky world of Sudanese politics, is cited as an example of overzealous claims and exaggeration of the numbers of dead and dying.

International law recognises only the right of a UN peacekeeping operation to engage in military intervention. But in 2005 a UN summit recognised the 'right to protect' citizens in extreme situations, where it could be judged 'crimes against humanity' were being perpetrated and the state had lost all opportunity to protect its own citizens.

This concept, known as R2P, has been cited by advocates of military intervention in Darfur. In May this year attempts were made to cite R2P against Myanmar's military junta when it resisted life-saving international aid in the wake of cyclone Nargis. Strong opposition from China and Myanmar's neighbours made this a non-starter.

UN peacekeeping has made an important contribution to conflict resolution in Cambodia, despite the Khmer Rouge's aggressive violations of the Paris Peace Treaty.

While this reviewer remains critical of the bureaucratic blunders and the UN's quasi-colonial role in East Timor, Foley does not give enough credit to the world body's partial success in creating a better human rights position in Dili and Phnom Penh.

This book renders a great service to all who are engaged in international missions, aid and development by casting a critical look at their record.

Foley cautions bona fide advocates of humanitarian intervention to reflect that many former colonies may view such interventions as a smokescreen for neocolonialism.

The Anglo-Saxon assumption that all concepts of human rights and international justice emanate from the predominantly white western liberal foundations of the international aid community, ready to be exported to the rest of the world, has become offensive to Asians, Africans and Latin Americans struggling for a better world.