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Justifying Humanitarian Intervention

In 1998, I visited Central Asia's former Soviet republics for talks--concerning the democratic development that was--or should have been--taking place in those newly independent countries. My hosts were former communist leaders who were now more or less democratically elected presidents. Each spoke easily about institutions, democratic procedures, and respect for the rule of law. But human rights were another matter entirely.

In each country, I presented lists of political prisoners and asked about their fates. In one country, the president immediately decided to free a man accused of plotting a coup. But even this seeming success was morally ambiguous. The president had not made a political decision; he had bestowed a personal favor. I was receiving a gift--itself merely another demonstration of the president's arbitrary exercise of power--not proof of respect for moral principles.

In one country, I spoke with a leader of the Islamic fundamentalist opposition, which had waged a long civil war against the government. This man now styled himself as chairman of a "Committee of National Reconciliation." Guards armed to the teeth surrounded him, yet he firmly supported the notion of democratization. Indeed, he saw it as his surest route to power, because the vast majority of the population thought exactly as he did. Democracy, he hinted more ominously, would enable him to "eliminate"--he did not dwell on the exact meaning of the word--those who did not.

In such democracies without democrats, "human rights" are more problematic to discuss than procedural formalities, because they are not thought of as "rights" in the legal sense, but merely as pangs of conscience, or else as gifts to be exchanged for something else of value. This distinction matters because it points to the limited effectiveness of formalized legal norms as a means of promoting human rights.