U.S. President Barack Obama, in his March 28 speech on Libya, justified the international intervention by raising the specter of "a massacre" in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, which he said "would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world." It isn't the first time an American president has employed U.S. power to stop senseless killing. But despite the prominent role humanitarian intervention plays in U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never had a blueprint for responding to potential mass atrocities -- until now.
As the U.N. Security Council resolution imposing the no-fly zone makes clear, it's not only Obama who has been moved by fears of a modern-day genocide. "Look back to Rwanda: fail. Look back at Darfur: fail. Look back at the Balkans: partial fail," Kevin Rudd, Australia's foreign minister and former prime minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation soon before the decisive March 17 vote, as he made his appeal for international intervention in Libya to prevent what he called "large-scale butchery of Libyan civilians."
But as the Obama administration recently discovered, conjuring military might to vanquish evildoers, while noble, is not exactly a straightforward business. The Libya intervention continues to be challenged by ill-defined goals and ambiguous rules of engagement, not to mention intracoalition squabbling over leadership of the mission once the United States steps back.
That's where the Mass Atrocity Response Operation (MARO) Project comes in. A joint endeavor of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the U.S. Army War College's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, the project recently released a handbook of considerations vital for effective military strategy for intervention into mass atrocities and genocide.
This body of hypothetical situations soldiers may encounter on the ground attempts to give life to rhetoric that can easily go limp in times of crisis. The guide attempts to provide the military with specific strategies for responding to a wide range of potential developments that it will encounter in volatile situations.
By providing a range of military options at the ready, the concept could help add a layer of legitimacy to interventions, such as the one unfolding in Libya, its planners say. "Currently there isn't anything official to help commanders, planners, or policymakers think through the operational challenges of how the military could prevent or stop mass atrocity," said Sally Chin, the project's director. "We hope that this advance thinking will not only make any potential response more effective, but given the complexities of responding to mass atrocities once they are ongoing, it will also help politicians better appreciate the value of preventive efforts."
160-page handbook, which is agnostic about the merits of intervention decided
at the political level, is designed to help military officers respond to the
sort of questions that frequently present themselves during humanitarian
interventions. "How do you distinguish civilians from combatants?"
said Chin, listing off some of the common challenges. "What happens if
those groups who were victims become perpetrators? How much responsibility do
the interveners have for the future well-being of the civilians they have
saved? What happens if a MARO metastasizes into a different kind of operation
such as a civil war? What are some of the potentially negative second- and
third-order effects of the intervention?"