Dealing with the Humanitarian Mandate

Certainly, this is not the first time the West engages in ‘civilizing missions’. The calls for ‘enlightening’ or ‘liberating’ more ‘primitive’ peoples echo throughout the ages. But the historical mix of the rise of universal human rights, globalized mass media, and democracy puts more pressure than ever on politicians to adhere to humanitarian principles. We see, for the first time, the direct injection of humanitarian thinking into military strategic objectives. The official mandate of NATO troops in Afghanistan states that “ISAF forces support the Afghan interim government in their implementation of human rights as well as the creation and continued assurance of internal security.”

Philosophically, the idea of fundamental human rights stands at odds with the Just War doctrine governing traditional conduct in warfare. When it comes down to it, the Just War doctrine is consequentialist: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. A different way to put this is ‘the ends justify the means’. The most obvious instantiation of consequentalist thought within the Just War doctrine is the Proportionality Principle. The principle states that the incidental harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete military advantage anticipated by a military attack on a military objective. It has been invoked to justify the dropping of the atom bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Human rights, however, are  not consequentialist. They are based on the notion that every person is entitled to fundamental, inalienable rights. Rights to life, liberty, and justice that cannot simply be trodden away under some cost-benefit maximising calculus.


How, then, can a humanitarian mandate square with the grim reality of warfare?


The answer is as easy to announce as it is difficult to realize: start with the individual soldier. Human rights are individual and cannot be ‘pre-calculated’ in headquarters. Every single civilian has a right to not be killed. Therefore, the decision of civilian status, say of a car approaching a dismounted patrol, has to be made by the individual soldier at the scene. A forced decentralization of command and control is already a result of the asymmetric nature of modern conflicts. Detection of hostile forces often occurs only at point of contact when they choose to reveal themselves, rendering the chain of command ineffective. Again, the individual soldier at the scene has to make the decision.


But the focus of the two decisions is a different one. In the former case, the soldier is trying to identify a civilian, whereas in the latter, s/he is trying to identify a threat or an enemy. Let me state in all clarity that concentrating on identifying threats is necessary not only from a pragmatic, but also from a human rights perspective. The ISAF soldier has an inalienable right to self-defence, with lethal force if necessary. This cannot be infringed upon. I would argue that in order to adhere to the officially stated aims, more effort must be put into identifying the civilian.