The Doctrine of Humanitarian War


By Karel Glastra van Loon and Jan Marijnissen

"The American war logic that lies at the foundations of earlier interventions leads unavoidably to new wars."


Hugo Grotius, a 17th century thinker, is often called the father of international law. He once said that as soon as you diverge from international law you violate the foundation of future peace and take the path that leads to chaos. It goes without saying that those words are as relevant now as they were when they were spoken for the first time. Many rightfully blame the United States and her coalition of allies for ignoring the international law in their war against Iraq. Nevertheless, this war has precedents. The protests against these previous wars were less harsh. It is legitimated to ask whether the NATO-attacks on Kosovo and Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999 were not the first steps on the path that led to chaos.


Everybody thought that the Kosovo war would be over in a few days, yet it took three months of heavy bombardment to put a formal end to the war. At that time we decided to investigate how the Yugoslavian crisis had come to this point, and to what extent the Kosovo war could be seen as a war against a criminal regime, yet a war that did not have to be fought. This resulted in a book - unfortunately not available in English - whose title translates as The last war or The latest war. In this book we concluded among other things that the fact that NATO had started the attack without permission of the Security Council was at least of doubtful legality. We also argued that the experiences of Bosnia showed that a high price had to be paid for the interventions by NATO. The American intervention in the conflict had not only prolonged the war by a year, even then it had not  led to an enduring peace. To this day Bosnia remains under some sort of UN rule, with almost no prospect of a peaceful future if the UN troop would be withdrawn.


Over a decade later, we can say the same about Kosovo. The situation there has become even more chaotic and explosive after NATO enforced a peace treaty. More than 200,000 non-Albanian Kosovars have had to flee the province since the war. A handful of Serbs, Roma and other members of minority groups who still live in Kosovo cannot safely leave their  ghettos, secured as they are by western troops.  Add to this the completely insecure situation in Serbia and one will see that even this war was not as useful and easy as some would have us think.


After this there were the attacks of the 11th of September and the ensuing war against Afghanistan. The United States claimed that this war was a case of self-defence, and thus allowed under international law. Yet from the start of the war there had been great doubts about the effectiveness of the means chosen. Instead of tracking down and trying the perpetrators, by means of judicial investigations and with the help of international security services, bombs and cruise missiles were the favoured solution. We now know the consequences this brought. The Taliban regime was brought down in no time, but the fight against terrorism was hardly successful. The arrests made by the Americans in the last couple of months were all done in co-operation with the security services. And the promise made to the people of Afghanistan not to abandon them again after the war  seems to have been an empty promise. The international military force is only able to provide limited security in the capital, Kabul. Most of the money that was promised for the rebuilding has not been transferred; and this even while experts say that the $ 4.5 billion that was promised would never be enough.


Although the "fight against evil" has found a new theatre in Iraq, it does not seem likely that the situation in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo or Afghanistan will substantially improve. The negative consequences of these "rightful wars" threaten to become bigger than the positive effects that provided the pretext for action in the first place. The international legal order has become international disorder. The American war logic that lies at the foundations of earlier interventions leads unavoidably to new wars. It seems to become less and less important what the rest of the world thinks of these wars. The moral authority of the United States and following in its wake the whole western world have gone into free fall: hate, anger, hunger for revenge and vindictive feelings are on the increase among a growing number of groups in society. They tend to form a fruitful base for extremism and terrorism. In the meanwhile the war industry may become the only economic sector that can keep showing positive growth figures.


Given this chaos it is time to wake up to the fact that the doctrine of humanitarian warfare really is a life threatening error. And yet so many political parties and opinion formers have embraced this doctrine for so long. Militarism is not the solution, but it is one of the main reasons for growing insecurity in the world. As long as this truth is denied, real solutions will stay hidden beyond the horizon.


Karel Glastra van Loon is a novelist. Jan Marijnissen is leader of the Dutch Socialist Party and one of its nine MPs.

This article was translated by Hetty Telman