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The Intervention Syndrome

Kosovo is often held up as a test case for the concept of “humanitarian” intervention. But as Iraq spirals into chaos, diplomats and leaders everywhere are again asking themselves if it is ever appropriate for alliances of nations or the international community as a whole to intervene when a sovereign country appears unable or unwilling to defend its citizens from genocide, war crimes, or ethnic cleansing.

At the center of this debate is the so-called doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” As the United Nations-appointed Ombudsperson in Kosovo for the past five years, I have had the unique opportunity to observe the aftereffects of that doctrine following NATO’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. Kosovo has subsequently become an international experiment in society building, led by the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Experiment is the right word here. Indeed, Kosovo has become a Petri dish for international intervention. Having lived and worked long enough in Kosovo to see the outcome so far, I contend that such experiments require further research.

Clearly, the need for international intervention in crises is often time-specific and a fairly swift response is frequently required. However, apart from military factors, where such intervention is being considered, it is of vital importance to focus international policy discussion on the rapid deployment of a linked civilian and security presence. This is especially true where human suffering is caused by communal conflict, as was the case in Kosovo.