DR Congo + 3 more

The price of inaction: The Media and humanitarian intervention

Virgil Hawkins
email: hawkins@osipp.osaka-u.ac.jp
When questioned on the effect of NATO's unsanctioned air war against Yugoslavia in 1999 on the rule of law and on the United Nations, a common response among prominent academics, diplomats, and UN Secretariat staff was that "one must also consider what would have been the price of not acting", referring to the humanitarian cost. [1] It was commonly accepted that even without Security Council authorisation, the level of humanitarian tragedy in Kosovo not only made intervention acceptable, it made intervention an "overwhelming moral imperative", [2] echoing the sentiments of NATO spokesmen. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that such an assumption is misplaced, and that the media is primarily responsible for its creation.

To make the assumption that intervention with or without authorisation is morally justified, it must be determined that the cost (in terms of human suffering) of inaction outweighs the cost (both in terms of human suffering and of legitimacy) of action. Where intervention has already occurred, this will mean evaluating the costs of the intervention, and the hypothetical costs of non-intervention. Where intervention has not occurred, the hypothetical scenario will be the potential costs of an intervention.

With its selective and concentrated coverage of conflicts and a tendency to demonise one party to a conflict, the media greatly distorts our view of the real costs of intervention and non-intervention. The result is the artificial creation of a moral imperative to intervene in one or two minor conflicts where intervention may not even be warranted or effective, and the blackout of major conflicts with massive humanitarian costs, where there may well be a moral imperative to act.

The Price of Inaction

The obvious price of inaction for the people in a conflict zone is the continuation of the conflict until its natural conclusion, either by victory or by agreement. This will, of course, entail a great amount of death and suffering, which will be borne primarily by the civilian population. [3] The amount of suffering will depend on the scale and nature of the conflict. The most visible cause of death and injury is that directly related to acts of violent conflict, and includes casualties of bombs, bullets, machetes and any other direct instrument of warfare. A less obvious cause of death and suffering is starvation and disease resulting from the destruction or desertion (forced or otherwise) of the means of procurement and/or production of food, water, medicine and other basic necessities. In many cases, the humanitarian cost from such indirect causes overwhelmingly exceeds the cost from direct causes, and as the International Rescue Committee demonstrated in its mortality study on war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is impossible to separate such violent and non-violent causes of death in a conflict zone. [4] In some instances, famine and starvation are even part of a deliberate policy, and are used as weapons by warring parties against the general population.

Furthermore, left unchecked, armed conflict also has a tendency to spread to surrounding areas or states, not least due to massive flows of refugees and internally displaced persons. Refugee camps in neighbouring countries can often be used as bases for a fleeing party to a conflict to regroup (filling its ranks with idle and disgruntled refugees) and launch attacks on their country of origin, drawing the host country into the conflict. Even when armed conflict does not result in the actual spread of violence, it almost invariably has a destabilising effect on neighbouring countries.

For those countries that are in a position to intervene in such conflicts, the price of inaction can be a loss of popular domestic support. This price, however, is entirely dependent on the public's perception of the conflict. If the public believes that there is a moral imperative to act, the political price of inaction will be high, and will be low (or non-existent) where the public is unaware of a humanitarian crisis. [5] Thus the price of inaction for possible candidates for intervention is closely linked to the coverage by the media of a particular conflict.

The Price of Action

Presuming that the purpose of intervention is to prevent human suffering, further suffering during intervention in the course of bringing the conflict to a halt, should not be a major cost of intervention. At the same time, suffering during intervention is to some extent inevitable, considering the necessity of response to resistance by belligerents or "spoilers", [6] and collateral damage in the course of suppression of the military ability of warring parties. If, however, the humanitarian cost of intervention from such military action outweighs the cost of the continuation of conflict, then the intervention should be ruled out before even considering the other costs of intervention.

For countries that decide to intervene, the substantive price includes the cost of transporting a military force to the conflict zone and maintaining it in the face of resistance. Countries must also bear the price of casualties in the course of forcibly attempting to halt hostilities. In terms of political costs, if action is unsanctioned by the Security Council, intervening countries will almost invariably suffer criticism and a loss in international standing (although they may attempt to negate the effects by emphasising the moral necessity of intervention). Domestically, the benefits of intervening will generally outweigh the costs, as the decision to intervene is usually made only when broad public support has been confirmed. Such support, however, can turn sour when casualties from the intervening force become excessive (or occur at all) in the course of intervention.

The United Nations and the rule of law in general suffer when a country or a group of countries take unilateral action without authorisation from the UN Security Council. Such action weakens the legitimacy of the Council, and sets a dangerous precedent, encouraging countries to take unilateral action when they find themselves unable to reach agreement in the Council. It is a step away from the rule of law and a step towards a world governed by the law of "might makes right".

The CNN Factor and Kosovo

The handling by the media of the Kosovo conflict and subsequent intervention by NATO serves as a prime example of the ability of the media (unwittingly or not) to distort both the price of inaction and the price of action in conflict.

Over the last 15 to 20 years, the focus of news has shifted away from being a source of information and towards being a source of entertainment, in which the emphasis is on the packaging and presentation of news, as opposed to the gathering of news. [7] As UN Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan noted that "From Ethiopia onward, the role of the media took an entirely new tack. The target of reporting shifted from objectivity to sympathy, from sustaining intellectual commitment to engaging emotional involvement. It sometimes seemed that the media was no longer reporting on the agenda, but setting it." [8]

This relatively recent shift was largely due to the advent of new media technology (in particular the ability to broadcast live images) and increasingly fierce competition for viewers and readers combined with decreasing budgets for news gathering and production. Attracting viewers and readers means grabbing and keeping their interest, and this requires keeping stories simple, sensational, and easy to understand. This has resulted in the emergence of the coverage of conflict as an oversimplified "morality play", in which one side in a conflict is portrayed as evil, and the other as a victim, with a formula that puts pressure on the international community to intervene and rescue the victim. [9]

Donald M. Snow refers to this phenomenon in which governments feel compelled to take action to relieve suffering (primarily due to media-induced public pressure) as the "do something syndrome". [10] In the 1990s, this syndrome became a key factor in the response of western countries to conflicts such as those in Northern Iraq (where governments in the US and the UK reversed their positions in response to media coverage), [11] and Somalia (where the media played a central role in both the decision to intervene and that to withdraw). [12]

In 1998 and 1999, the media seized upon a small-scale low-intensity conflict in Kosovo, portraying it as a major conflict through a "morality play" lens, with the Yugoslav Government (or more specifically President Milosevic) as the evil party, [13] and the Albanian population as victim. This was despite the fact that roughly half of the estimated 2,000 people killed in the 2 years prior to NATO intervention were Serbian, many of whom were the victims of attacks by the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a group recognised even in the US as a terrorist group. While it was true that the Serb crackdown on the Albanian insurgency was heavy-handed, Albanian methods were equally violent, and the conflict certainly did not fit the oversimplified good versus evil frame that the media had created for it.

One of the final catalysts for action was the exposure to the media of the site of the supposed execution of 44 men and 1 woman in the town of Racak in January 1999. [14] There was no evidence at the time of a massacre, and independent autopsies later confirmed that none of the dead had been the victims of executions or mutilations, and that at least 37 of the dead had been combatants themselves. [15] The damage had already been done, however, by the extensive and misleading media coverage, and the "do something syndrome" came into full effect. In March 1999 (prior to the start of NATO bombing), the New York Times was devoting an average of more than 18 percent of its daily international news space to the conflict in Kosovo. [16]

When NATO began its bombing campaign, it claimed that it was acting to halt ethnic cleansing and genocide. The means used, however, did not in any way reflect such an end. Even NATO's Commanding General Clark admitted that the NATO operation "was not designed as a means of blocking Serb ethnic cleansing... Not in any way. There was never any intent to do that." [17] NATO's war consisted solely of high altitude (and often inaccurate) bombing of military and civilian targets throughout Yugoslavia and served instead to worsen the situation considerably.

A massive flow of refugees began at the start of the bombing, both towards and away from Serbia. Although the number of refugees and internally displaced persons before the bombing has not been verified, it is generally estimated that in the year before the bombing, 2-300,000 were displaced. At the time of the conclusion of the NATO bombing on 3 June, more than 700,000 people had been displaced beyond the borders of Yugoslavia, and up to 100,000 Serbs had also been displaced. In comparison with the 2,000 dead in the 2 years prior to the bombing, Human Rights Watch estimated that NATO bombs killed 500 civilians alone. Military casualties are thought to considerably exceed this number. Despite estimates by the US State Department of up to 100,000 Albanian deaths during the war, five months of investigation following the conclusion of hostilities revealed only 2,108 bodies, and it could not be concluded that all of those were victims of war atrocities. [18]

Furthermore, far from halting the violence and ethnic cleansing, NATO's occupation (sanctioned by the Security Council) after the peace agreement has allowed it to continue. In the first months following NATO occupation, 200,000 Serbs were displaced from the province. International Crisis Group reported that under NATO occupation, ethnic violence was resulting in the deaths of about 30 people a week, about the same rate of killings as that in the months leading up to the bombing. [19]

Any objective analysis of the above statistics would find that not only was the decision to intervene inappropriate, the conduct of and the means used in the intervention were at the very least counterproductive. NATO's policy, which can only be described as a failure, was, however, almost fully supported by the media. The only criticism ever levelled at NATO during its bombing was over the accidental bombings of Albanian refugees. The decision to intervene, and the conduct of the intervention were almost never questioned by the Western media. Instead, it was taken for granted that this was the natural thing to do.

This is largely due to the fact that the intervention was decided upon and conducted in a manner to satisfy domestic public opinion via the media. It serves as a prime example of the power of the CNN factor and the "do something syndrome". With massive and oversimplified media coverage drawing attention to the 'dire' humanitarian situation in Kosovo, the governments of Western countries were under an enormous amount of domestic pressure to act. More than anything else, the price of inaction would have been a fall in popularity ratings out of failure to intervene to halt a humanitarian tragedy.

Notwithstanding, there were political risks associated with intervention, the most prominent being the danger to popular support posed by possible NATO casualties. To avert such risks, the intervention was limited to high altitude (out of range of anti-aircraft fire) bombing. It was clear that the primary purpose of NATO's strategy was to avoid casualties among their own soldiers. NATO thus was able to satisfy the contradictory demands of the media- that is, to do something without allowing any NATO casualties in the process. The intervention demonstrated that for governments, the need "to be seen doing "something" now outweighs the need to do "the right thing." [20] The result was a policy that, although inappropriate and unsuccessful, was almost unquestioningly supported by the Western media.

Another reason for the unquestioning stance of the media was the news corporations' reliance on their own governments for information. With low budgets and increasingly unspecialised and inexperienced reporters, 'official sources' provide a cheap and reliable way to gather information. Particularly in recent conflict situations, journalists venture onto the battlefield less and less, instead relying on daily briefings by government spokesmen. [21] Such a relationship between the military and the media has become particularly prominent since the Gulf War. [22] This practice results in the dominance of the official government spin in the news and allows officials to minimise the spread of potentially damaging information.

The Other Side of the CNN Factor

The CNN factor demonstrates how the media, through saturation coverage in a "morality play" formula of a select conflict, is able to raise the price of inaction among the constituencies of Western countries to almost unacceptable levels. This price of inaction, however, should not be confused with the level of the actual humanitarian price of inaction. In taking up a single conflict and devoting a large percentage of coverage time or space to it, coverage of other conflicts suffers, often to the point that other conflicts are not covered at all. This is particularly problematic when the humanitarian situation in conflicts that are not covered is often much worse than that in conflicts that are. I would like to refer to this problem, in which governments do not consider responses to the majority of major conflicts in the world due to lack of public awareness of their existence, as "the other side of the CNN factor".

There have been no attempts to seriously respond to massive conflict-related human suffering in most of Africa, [23] central Asia, and other parts of the world, where conflict and conflict-related disease and famine are responsible for millions of deaths. Far from the glare of television cameras, there is apparently no "overwhelming moral imperative" to intervene in such conflicts. Without incentives to act (in terms of national interest or domestic political factors), not only is there no military intervention, there is insufficient humanitarian aid, and a total absence of high-level diplomatic attempts to produce peaceful solutions.

Together with the CNN factor, the other side of the CNN factor serves to severely distort the perception of the humanitarian price of inaction. The situation in Kosovo, with 2,000 deaths in 2 years prior to intervention, was a minor conflict with a relatively low level of humanitarian emergency. In comparison, the massive war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 1.7 million conflict-related deaths in less than 2 years (which was occurring at the same time), continues to be a massive and almost untreated humanitarian emergency. Horrendous humanitarian conditions in numerous conflicts in the Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan (to name just a few) are beyond comparison with those of the conflict in Kosovo, with death tolls often hundreds of times greater.

The perception of the humanitarian price of inaction is, on the other hand, another matter altogether. In the 3 months prior to the NATO intervention in the Kosovo conflict, coverage of the conflict in the New York Times averaged more than 14 percent of the total international coverage. [24] In the same period, coverage of much larger ongoing conflicts in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia-Eritrea, and Sierra Leone averaged 0.8, 0.6, 0.6, and 0.8 percent respectively, an almost insignificant amount of coverage. [25] If one were to have watched one 30-minute program of CNN World News every day, in the year 2000 one would have seen a total of 8 hours and 34 minutes of programming on the peace process and conflict between Israel and Palestine, but only 16 minutes on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [26] Over the same period and under the same conditions, on BBC World News one would have seen 2 hours and 56 minutes on the peace process in Kosovo (6-18 months after the conclusion of hostilities), but only 29 minutes on the on-going conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [27]

There is, of course, a direct relationship between the level of media coverage and public awareness on an issue. Each year the Yomiuri Newspaper of Japan takes a survey on the top international events of the year, with the readers voting for events or issues that stood out in their minds. In 1999, NATO's war with Yugoslavia was ranked third (after the major earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan) and East Timor's troubled road to independence fifth. Other armed conflicts that appeared on the survey included Chechnya (eleventh), and India and Pakistan (twenty-first). Although even a shooting incident in a US high school was ranked at seventh place, not a single event in Africa (conflict or otherwise) appeared in the survey's top thirty events. [28]

There is also a direct relationship between the lack of media coverage and the failure to intervene, particularly where significant national interests are not at stake. The most prominent example was Operation Assurance, the proposed intervention to facilitate humanitarian assistance to refugees in Eastern Zaire in 1996, appropriately dubbed "the Greatest Intervention that Never Happened". [29] The move to intervene was led by Canada, eventually received the support of the US, and was authorised by the UN Security Council on 15 November 1996. [30] Developments in Eastern Zaire, however, saw the large-scale repatriation of refugees by 18 November, which partially ameliorated the humanitarian crisis, and the force was never deployed. These developments provided the justification to halt the intervention (the US in particular resisted going ahead with the operation), and some gave credit to the threat of intervention for facilitating the return of the refugees. A former diplomat at the UN revealed that the US had based its decision on whether to intervene or not on the level of media attention, and decided against going ahead with the operation when it became clear that the media was not particularly interested. [31]

Lack of media coverage also affects non-military intervention, namely the provision of humanitarian aid. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy, discrepancies in the provision of aid are a result of "humanitarian favouritism". She pointed out that while Kosovo and East Timor "received nearly as much or more than requested" of emergency humanitarian appeals in 1999, for seven of the neediest countries, "actual funding ranged from only 17 to 44 percent of the amounts sought." [32] Refugee camps for Kosovars were also a far cry from those in Africa, where people were dying daily from malnutrition and treatable diseases. [33] Far from providing only basic necessities, many camps for Kosovars were complete with amenities such as supermarkets and basketball courts. A refugee from Kosovo was even crowned Miss Albania in 1999.

Conclusion: Putting the Price into Perspective

The purpose of this paper is not to endorse unconditional military intervention into all major conflicts and massive humanitarian emergencies. Massive suffering is not the only condition that should be taken into account when considering intervention. As Michael O'Hanlon points out, when deciding which conflicts to attempt to solve by force, the scale of death and suffering, whether or not intervention is likely to create great-power conflicts, and whether or not many lives can be saved at a low cost to intervening soldiers should be considered. [34] For example, large-scale resistance met by India or Pakistan would most likely rule out the possibility of military intervention in Kashmir. Likewise, dense jungle and a total lack of infrastructure would make military intervention in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo extremely difficult to effectively execute. In short, the practicalities of intervention should not be ignored when calculating the price of humanitarian intervention.

By the same token, the scale of death and suffering should still be regarded as the most important condition for deciding whether or not to intervene, considering that the ultimate goal of humanitarian intervention is to respond to and relieve human suffering in the face of massive human rights violations. Humanitarian factors in foreign conflicts are not, however, a high priority for governments. The protection of national interests and the government's approval ratings are the prime concerns of governments. Thus the price of inaction is measured not so much in terms of humanitarian suffering, but rather in terms of approval ratings.

As conflicts in distant countries have little bearing on the everyday lives of citizens, whether or not they are aware of the magnitude of a crisis, and whether or not they are concerned, is entirely dependent on the level of media coverage. Where the public is at a level of awareness sufficient to incite widespread concern, approval ratings of the government will be affected as the public focuses on their government's response to the conflict, raising the price of inaction from the point of view of the government. Likewise, where there is a media blackout of a major humanitarian crisis, the price of inaction will be insignificant, and approval ratings unaffected. In this way, the media has the power to control the price of inaction by governments in humanitarian crises, regardless of the actual humanitarian price of inaction.

There is a need for some sense of balance to be restored to the media's handling of humanitarian crises, to ensure that undue pressure is not applied on governments to intervene where intervention is inappropriate, and that governments have a greater incentive to consider solutions to conflicts where there is a significant moral imperative to act.


[1] The author conducted a series of interviews of diplomats, UN Secretariat staff and academics at the UN Headquarters in New York, September-December 2000.

[2] Interview with representative of former non-permanent member of the Security Council, New York, December 2000.

[3] It is estimated that in conflicts since the end of the Cold War, up to 95 percent of the casualties of armed conflict are civilians. See Kumar Rupesinghe, Civil Wars, Civil Peace: An Introduction to Conflict Resolution, London: Pluto Press, 1998, p. 2.

[4] International Rescue Committee, Mortality in Eastern DRC: Results from Five Mortality Surveys, May 2000, www.theirc.org. The survey estimated that between August 1998 and May 2000 there were more than 1.7 million conflict-related deaths, 200,000 of which could be attributed to acts of violence.

[5] Conversely, there also exists a phenomenon where the media, by overexposing human suffering, can bring about apathy in the public rather than interest and concern. This phenomenon is known as "compassion fatigue". See Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue, New York: Routledge, 1999.

[6] For an commentary on 'spoilers' see Stephen John Stedman, 'Conflict Prevention as Strategic Interaction: The Spoiler Problem and the case of Rwanda', in Peter Wallensteen ed., Preventing Violent Conflicts: Past Record and Future Challenges, Upsalla: Department of Peace and Conflict Research, 1998, pp. 67-86.

[7] See Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue, p. 25.

[8] Kofi Annan, 'Peace-keeping in Situations of Civil War', New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, Vol. 26, 1994, p.624.

[9] See John C. Hammock and Joel R. Charny, 'Emergency Response as Morality Play: The Media, the Relief Agencies, and the Need for Capacity Building', in From Massacres to Genocide: the Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crisis, Rotberg and Weiss eds., Massachusetts: the World Peace Foundation, 1996, pp. 115-116.

[10] See Donald M. Snow, Distant Thunder: Patterns of Conflict in the Developing World (Second Edition), Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1997, p. 193.

[11] For a commentary on the role of the media in western response to the conflict in Northern Iraq, see Martin Shaw, Civil Society and Media in Global Crises: Representing Distant Violence, New York: Pinter, 1996, pp. 79-95.

[12] For a commentary on the role of the media in western response to the conflict in Somalia, see Stephen Livingstone, 'Suffering in Silence: Media Coverage of War and Famine in the Sudan', Rotberg and Weiss eds., op. cit., pp. 68-89.

[13] For example, on 19 April 1999, the cover story in Newsweek was the war in Kosovo, and the cover featured a photograph of Milosevic under the headline "The Face of Evil".

[14] See Michael Parenti, To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, London: Verso, 2000, pp. 104-107.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Calculated by measuring and categorising the square area of articles (including pictures) on the front page and in the international section of the New York Times.

[17] BBC Summary World Broadcast, 19 April 1999, as quoted in Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1999, p. 36.

[18] Steven Erlanger with Christopher S. Wren, 'Early Count Hints at Fewer Kosovo Deaths', The New York Times, 11 November 1999.

[19] Quoted in Michael Parenti, To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, p. 163.

[20] See Larry Minear, Thomas Scott, Thomas G. Weiss, The News Media, Civil War, and Humanitarian Action, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994, p. 1

[21] See ABC, 'War of Words', Lateline, 15 July 1999, www.abc.net.au/lateline/stories/s36992.htm.

[22] See Martin Shaw, Civil Society and Media in Global Crises: Representing Distant Violence, pp. 73-77.

[23] One exception is the response of the international community to the conflict in Somalia (although casualties among those intervening saw the intervention abandoned). Another exception was the response (particularly by the UK) to the conflict in Sierra Leone. Although belated and as yet not entirely effective, efforts are being made towards a solution. In the year 2000, the level of media coverage was also somewhat responsive, with the conflict being the African conflict most covered by CNN, BBC, The New York Times, Le Monde, and the Yomiuri.

[24] See note 16.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Study by the author of one 30-minute segment of CNN World News and BBC World News per day for each day of the year 2000, measuring each news item in seconds.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Yomiuri Newspaper (Japanese edition), 24 December 1999.

[29] See 'Operation Assurance: The Greatest Intervention That Never Happened', The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, http://www.jha.ac/articles/a036.htm, 4 June 2000.

[30] UN Security Council resolution 1080.

[31] Interview with representative of the UN Secretariat at UN Headquarters, New York, December 2000.

[32] '"Humanitarian Favouritism" Threatens the World's Most Needy: UNICEF', UN Newservice, 22 December 1999. Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Tajikistan and Uganda were listed as the seven neediest countries.

[33] See T. Christian Miller and Ann M. Simmons, 'Relief Camps for Africans, Kosovars Worlds Apart', Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1999.

[34] Michael E. O'Hanlon, 'Doing it Right: The Future of Humanitarian Intervention', The Brookings Review, Fall 2000 Vol. 18 No. 4, p. 34.