The end of the Cold War brought tremendous changes. Triumphalists hailed the victory of democracy over communism, claiming it heralded a new age of freedom. New ideas circulated regarding approaches to humanitarian relief and intervention, many of them reflecting a new optimism, even hubris, about the ability of humans, in the form of the international community, to reduce human conflict and suffering. Perhaps the approaching millennium influenced such trends. In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly declared the 1990s the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The goal of reducing vulnerability to destruction was not new, witness Red Cross flood control planning in China in the early twentieth century. Meteorological advances after World War II led to progress in predicting some natural disasters. Satellite imaging later increased information on creeping desertification, the process by which land grew increasingly arid and unsupportive of vegetation.
There was also awareness of the human role in magnifying the effects of natural disaster, both because of political crises and human pressures on the environment. Environmental degradation in the form of deforestation and desertification were the result of human decisions. Poor urban populations settled on tree-denuded hillsides, for example, vulnerable to the impact of flooding and mudslides from hurricanes. Growing confidence in the ability to reduce the impact of disasters emerged from a sense that there was a confluence of helpful technology with greater understanding of the human sources of disaster. In Anatomy of Disaster Relief: The International Network in Action (1987), Randolph Kent wrote, "In the final analysis disasters are about vulnerability, and vulnerability—whatever the disaster agent—is created by mankind." Absent was a sense of fatalism or talk of "acts of God." If humans created problems, humans could solve them. In 2001, the USAID/OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) website declared cheerily "Where There's A Will, There's A Way." "Prevention, reduction, preparedness" were the focus of USAID/OFDA, resulting in such programs as the Central American Mitigation Initiative (CAMI). After Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton promised $11 million to establish CAMI to assess vulnerability and suggest plans to reduce it.
As the disaster relief network sought ways to prevent future disaster by relying on science, engineering, and organization, there were also increasing calls for building democracy. Humanitarianism was no longer narrowly defined as a compassionate response to human suffering but included the responsibility to protect human rights. Human rights were defined to include universal rights to basic material goods like food, clothing, and shelter and to political freedom as well. If these rights were denied, the human community had an obligation to intervene to preserve and protect them, whether this violated the sovereignty of nations or not. Whether or not the United States should undertake such interventions alone or multilaterally was another question hotly debated, but the idea of a responsibility to police other nations grew as the twenty-first century began.
Proponents of humanitarian intervention sometimes sought to support and enhance the leadership role of the United States. They might prefer that the United States intervene multilaterally, but believed it should lead its allies and international community. To others, the end of the Cold War paved the way for intergovernmental institutions to grow in effectiveness, unhampered by competition between superpowers. They believed in the idea of a global community.
In the 1990s the United States, in conjunction with the United Nations or the Organization of American States (OAS), engaged in humanitarian interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. The United States and the UN did not intervene to stop all human rights disasters—the most notable examples, including Sudan and Rwanda, being in Africa. (The French conducted a limited intervention in Rwanda, and the international relief network provided humanitarian relief.) Noninterventionists complained that humanitarian explanations for intervention masked ulterior motives or that U.S. policies had served to create the very crises they were now addressing. From a very different perspective, others suggested that the U.S. national interest was not at stake and deplored the possibility that the lives of Americans and innocents might be lost while "doing good." Some opponents argued that the United States should set its own house in order, spending its resources and energies at home on behalf of American workers or to combat American poverty. Some feared a tremendous drain on American resources in areas of intractable conflict.
In 1991 the United States intervened with allies in Operation Desert Storm to force Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. While the Bush administration portrayed the intervention in humanitarian terms, important strategic interests were at stake. The claim of humanitarianism was weakened because although President George Bush had urged the Iraqi Kurd and Shi'ite minorities to rise up against Saddam, the United States stood by while the dictator repressed them. However, the Bush administration initiated a relief effort, Operation Provide Comfort. Along with the United Nations, the United States set up refugee communities along the northern border of Iraq in a predominantly Kurdish region. A security zone was established and a no-fly zone instituted for protection. Because the Kurds could be isolated geographically, it was easier to intervene at a low cost in lives (although not in military resources) than in the later Bosnia and Kosovo crises.
Despite its strategic purposes, the Persian Gulf War had the flavor of a humanitarian intervention because although Hussein continued to defy Western attempts to weaken his regime, his military power and potential to wage destructive war was limited as UN inspectors discovered and oversaw the destruction of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities. On the other hand, a new humanitarian crisis emerged as the Iraqi people suffered from an embargo to force Hussein's compliance. The embargo reduced stocks of food and medicine as well as stifling the flow of oil. Measures to increase the flow of basic items were restored after harsh criticism of this policy.
The United States had occupied Haiti in the early twentieth century. Resulting mostly from strategic and economic concerns, the early occupation was also a result of an American sense that the United States could make Haiti reform its political institutions to provide greater democracy. Reforms also included efforts to improve the health and well-being of Haitians. Near the end of the twentieth century, the United States intervened again. A political crisis in Haiti resulted when in 1991 a military faction toppled the elected regime of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. For three years a military regime ruled Haiti, with as many as five thousand dying in the political violence that ensued. Meanwhile, Haitians left the country in boats, creating a refugee crisis. The OAS and the UN's efforts at mediation failed. The UN, attempting to monitor human rights in Haiti, was expelled in mid-1994. Pressure mounted for a military intervention to restore Aristide to power. President Clinton favored a multilateral response, and along with the United Nations prepared a multinational force (MNF) to enter Haiti. With the MNF on the way and in the midst of talks with former President Jimmy Carter, the military government of General Raoul Cedras agreed to permit the MNF to land and oversee a peaceful governmental transition. Troops numbering twenty-one thousand landed in Haiti. Initially hailed as a successful humanitarian intervention, disillusion grew as the Haitian political situation deteriorated. Troops remained in Haiti, although their mission was redefined to peacekeeping in 1995 and then peace building in 2000, after the last of the U.S. troops departed.
In the early 1990s scenes from Somalia, located on the horn of Africa and wracked by civil war, stirred Americans. In addition to images of skeletal, desperate people, they also witnessed the abuse of the weak at the hands of the strong as the private armies of competing warlords stole food sent through humanitarian auspices. Guilt may also have moved Americans. During the Cold War the United States had been a patron of dictator Siad Barre after he left the Soviet orbit in 1977. U.S. economic and military assistance had distorted the Somalian economy. With the end of the Cold War, aid to Somalia dried up and Barre lost out in an emerging civil war. American and international humanitarian organizations sought to provide relief to civilians caught up in this turmoil, but they found themselves in danger and the relief supplies at the mercy of competing warlords. UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt complained that Westerners, including the United States, were paying more attention to the Bosnian crisis than the Somalian one.
President George H. W. Bush decided to take action in Somalia. His advisers suggested that the case of Somalia was quite different from Bosnia, where they opposed intervention. While each was in some sense torn by a civil war, it seemed that intervention in Somalia would save hundreds of thousands of lives by halting starvation. In addition, it seemed that while political efforts to promote mediation would be required, the whole process could be done quickly. This was important, because in the post-Vietnam era the United States had developed criteria for intervention that called for an "exit strategy" to avoid open-ended commitment. Another factor that may have stirred Bush was the desire to expand the post–Cold War mission of the American military in response to some domestic pressures to down-size and others to maintain a strong military. Humanitarian intervention might satisfy both sets of critics. Operation Restore Hope was thus initiated in December 1992, when Bush sent in 23,150 U.S. troops. Americans celebrated as Operation Restore Hope met its early goals by organizing and protecting the distribution of relief supplies and fostering mediation between rival clans. Although the United States had intervened militarily with the blessing of the UN secretary general, the United Nations oversaw much of the relief effort.
Unfortunately, the U.S. presence in Somalia soon became an irritant to Somalians. President Clinton reduced U.S. forces, but left a small contingent as part of a larger UN peacekeeping force. General Mohamed Farah Aidid, with whom the Americans had cooperated to conduct relief operations, began to harass the UN troops. After twenty-four Pakistani troops were killed by Aidid's forces, the U.S. forces sought to capture or kill Aidid. Hostilities between the United States and Somalians grew as U.S. forces were increasingly viewed as an imperial, invading power. After eighteen U.S. Army Rangers were killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Clinton made plans to bring all U.S. forces home, leaving the United Nations with the responsibility to oversee peace-keeping in Somalia. In retrospect, observers agreed more on intervention in Somalia than in Haiti. The general consensus was that the widespread starvation had been averted by the time of the killing of U.S. forces, and that the intervention failed when the political goal turned toward capturing Aidid. Earlier recognition of the consequences of growing anti-Americanism might have led to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. What troubled critics of humanitarian intervention was what they saw as the unrealistic goal of nation building. Competing perspectives over whether it was more moral to respond only to an immediate emergency or also to address the underlying conditions that led to the emergency seemed irreconcilable.
In 1991 and 1992 Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war. The demise of the Communist Party's monopoly on power in 1989 had paved the way for the rise of nationalist political leaders who sought greater autonomy or even independence for their regions. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991. In turn, Serbia and Montenegro under the leadership of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic created a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and initiated policies to intimidate non-Serbian ethnic groups in Croatia and Bosnia. With assistance from Milosevic, the Serb minority in Croatia fought the Croat ethnic majority, and the Serb minority in Bosnia battled the Croat and Muslim majority. Croatia won its independence. In Bosnia, the civil war dragged on, although it declared independence in April 1992. The international community watched these developments in horror, because one of the characteristics of this civil war, practiced by all sides on at least some level, was what came to be called ethnic cleansing. Villages or entire regions were violently swept clean of Serbs, or Croats, or Muslims by opposition forces who hoped to gain control of an area for their own ethnic group. The shooting of unarmed women and children shocked observers, as did reports of mass rapes of Muslim women by Serbs. Despite comparisons by some to the Nazi holocaust and talk of genocide, however, both Americans and Europeans reacted in uncertain fashion.
The question of intervention to prevent human suffering, to prevent holocaust, was debated in multiple arenas: in Europe, in the United States, in the United Nations. Using force for humanitarian purposes provoked ambivalent responses. Moreover, historical precedents for intervention in civil war were not promising. The specter of Vietnam loomed in the United States, as did the more recent fiasco in Lebanon in 1983. There were political consequences and emotional anguish when American service personnel lost their lives in what many Americans viewed as hopeless endeavors. Therefore, the United States thus at first portrayed the problem as a European one and encouraged European solutions. Europeans had similar concerns, and in addition Germany faced constitutional limits on its ability to use force except in self-defense or in defense of allies. The international community understood the complexity of ethnic animosities in the former Yugoslavia and the intransigence of such conflicts to political solution. Stopping the carnage seemed undeniably important, yet assigning resources to what promised to be an indefinite, long-term commitment seemed unwise. Most of the military options in which the Europeans and United States were willing to engage involved air strikes that, while punitive, seemed unlikely to promote a long-term cessation of ethnic violence. As chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, opposing intervention, pointed out that the only effective way to end violence was to send in ground troops, which all sides were reluctant to do.
President Bill Clinton wavered indecisively from indications of possible forceful action to declarations that the United States could not fix Balkan problems. In February 1994 Clinton gave Serbs surrounding Sarajevo an ultimatum to abandon their siege. At the last minute the Serbs complied, although only after several Serbian planes had been shot down by U.S. jets acting under NATO auspices. Attempts to mediate the conflict were finally successful, resulting in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. The settlement partitioned Bosnia between Muslim and Croats on the one hand and Serbs on the other. This political solution seemed the only way to prevent continued violence, yet it worried many observers because old animosities continued to simmer. The diplomatic solution, achieved through threat of force, was seen as an example of successful humanitarian intervention. But the violence was not over, and international attention soon turned to Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian area of Yugoslavia.
In the name of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, Milosevic encouraged the repression of Kosovar Albanians, often through the offices of the Serbian police in Kosovo. In response, the Kosovo Liberation Army retaliated with bombings and attacks on Serbian police and government officials. In 1988 UN resolutions denounced the abuse of civilians by the police, established an embargo against Yugoslavia, and warned that the international community would consider "additional measures to maintain or restore peace and stability in the region."
Representatives of the United States, the European Community, and the Russian Federation comediated peace talks. In mid-March 1999 the talks broke down, and on 20 March, Serbia launched an offensive in Kosovo, burning homes, killing ethnic Albanians, and driving them into the mountains and into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. With U.S. approval, NATO began forceful humanitarian intervention in the form of air strikes on 24 March, which Russia condemned. NATO targeted sites in Belgrade such as the Yugoslav and Serbian interior ministries, Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party headquarters and his home, and Serbian state television. But air strikes also killed civilians, including sixty-four Kosovars in a convoy and eighty-seven Kosovar Albanians in an air attack on Korisa. In addition, three U.S. airmen were captured by Serbia and several pilots were killed. An international incident occurred when NATO planes hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three. Russia continued to criticize the bombings and suggested to China that the bombing of its embassy was deliberate.
Meanwhile, relief to refugees in Bosnia, Albania, and Macedonia was undertaken primarily by organizations of the United Nations such as UNHCR that oversaw the needs of refugees in Bosnia, Albania, and Macedonia. Some refugees gained temporary or even permanent entry into the United States. As more and more reports of ethnic cleansing seemed verifiable, the UN war crimes tribunal indicted Milosevic and four other Serbians for crimes against humanity.
This was no disaster relief operation. In Kosovo providing relief from suffering meant intervention to stop mass killings. While traditional relief aid was offered by UN agencies, the International Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations, an additional goal of the operation was the protection of civilians, not only Kosovar Albanians but also Serbs who faced vengeful reprisals. Getting in, restoring "normal" life, and getting out was not a viable option. As in Somalia, it was clear that humanitarian intervention had to be followed by peacekeeping, which in UN practice had come to mean efforts to maintain cease-fires while remaining neutral between warring parties. British, French, and U.S. troops were chosen for the purpose. In 2001, forty thousand NATO troops remained in Kosovo and in Macedonia, where ethnic tensions threatened to create a new humanitarian emergency.
Rwanda gained international attention in the spring and summer of 1994. Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down, an incident followed by terrible slaughter in a competition for power fueled by ethnic rivalry between rival Hutus and Tutsis. The Rwanda Patriotic Front moved through the countryside, murdering civilians, mostly Tutsis, as they went. UN forces in the country left, having no mandate to intervene. Some human rights organizations called for international action to stop the massacres, which resulted in over half a million dead. French forces created a safe zone in southern Rwanda, but that was the extent of international intervention. As over 800,000 Rwandan refugees fled to neighboring Zaire, American and other relief organizations swung into high gear, offering typical relief assistance. Cholera swept through refugee camps and shortages of supplies plagued the relief effort. Some criticized the relief community for failing to do more, expressing confusion over the roles and responsibilities of the relief community. Should the relief network do something to stop the genocide, to relieve suffering under dangerous conditions, to use its cumulative voice in the international community to explain the political sources of the violence? The decision by the United States not to intervene disappointed even some critics of intervention, who could agree with interventionists on stopping genocide. Charges of racism and inconsistency in American foreign policy were made.