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Humanitarian Protection & Intervention



Any government derives true legitimacy only from the willing consent of the governed and the first obligation of government is to provide security for its people. A government that cannot protect its people from external threats has failed in its primary responsibility, while a government that itself threatens the lives and security of its citizens forfeits any claim to legitimacy.

Michael Walzer writes that, “Humanitarian intervention is justified when it is a response to acts…that “shock the moral conscience of mankind.” Since a state cannot attack and kill citizens of other states legitimately, it doesn’t follow that they can do so within their own borders either. The question is not whether a state can kill with impunity, but the point at which external intervention is justified. Even so, the decision to intervene to protect human lives provokes endless debate and delays while innocent people die.

A humanitarian intervention is an armed intervention in another state, without the agreement of that state, to address a threat of humanitarian disaster, particularly those caused by grave and large-scale violations of fundamental human rights.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war, the world was plunged into an era of uncertainty. Instead of an expected a peace dividend, we saw a rise in low-intensity conflicts within states, incidents of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the emergence of a new strain of international terrorism – a world of small wars, weak states and new threats. As the preeminent military and economic superpower, the U.S. entered the 21st century uncertain of its role as world leader.

The 1990’s raised important questions about if, when and how the international community should respond to political conflict through intervention and peacemaking efforts. In places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti, Liberia, East Timor and more recently Iraq and Sudan, the world was been confronted with deadly situations, claiming innocent lives. Despite the apparent moral, and ethical imperatives to protect the vulnerable, the issues surrounding intervention remain conflicting and unresolved.

Intervention vs. Sovereignty
The Blair Reality Check
Elements of Intervention
Focus on Genocide in Sudan 2004
Additional Resources



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The U.S. has often intervened in the internal affairs of foreign states with military force, however its policies have been inconsistent and, as a result, often raise questions about US motives. Other countries face similar concerns when they intervene in the affairs of sovereign states. Resulting public dissent and criticism often discourage future efforts and make it more difficult to build the necessary public support and political consensus for future interventions.

As a world military and economic superpower the United States could take a leadership role in formulating an international policy to deal with emerging humanitarian crises. To have meaning and value, policies must be clearly understood and implemented with consistency. To attract broad international support, intervention policies must be multilateral, with a defensible legal and/or ethical foundation. And finally, they must be comprehensive enough and of sufficient duration to correct the situation that caused the human catastrophe. To date, no country has taken a meaningful leadership role, instead some observers have noted a trend for countries to retreat from multilateral institutions, ensuring that similar problems and dilemmas will re-emerge, as they now have western, Sudan.

Intervention vs. Sovereignty

The international community accepts the need and responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to countries whose people are threatened by natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and famine. Lives are at risk and assistance can help save lives. Paradoxically, it’s less clear when the international community, or individual states should or can intervene legitimately to prevent or stop the loss of lives due to political disasters, repression, war, ethnic cleansing or genocide.

In the case of natural disasters the victim states usually welcome aid and assistance, presumably because the leaders of victim states are concerned about the safety and welfare of their citizens. In the case of political turmoil, such empathy and concern for constituent citizens cease to exist and repressive leaders often see the death and suffering as a means to further their political goals, or protect their hold on power. Thus the issue is not whether intervention is desirable, but whether repressive states can trump morality under the protective cloak of sovereignty.

Commenting on the Kosovo intervention, Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel declared that:

“…decent people cannot sit back and watch systematic, state-directed massacres of other people. Decent people cannot fail to come to the rescue if the rescue action is within their power.” He added a controversial opinion that there is a growing trend to realize that a human being is more important than a state.

Alain Pellet, an international jurist has written: “In the case of human rights violations, sovereignty is never a defence; in cases of gross violations of human rights it has no role to play; it does not impede the [UN] Security Council from concluding that such violations create a threat to the peace and to draw appropriate consequences in accordance with Chapter VII of the Charter; and it cannot even protect heads of states from international prosecution.”

There is no moral or ethical argument that justifies the taking of innocent lives in these situations; nonetheless, there are legal arguments against intervention. These arguments most often emanate from such powerful states as China, Russia, the United States, and from dictators of repressive regimes, all of whom fear that the consequences could one day infringe on their own claims to sovereignty.

The United Nations Charter prohibits states from interfering in the internal matters of other states unless, after a prescribed process, the U.N. Security Council authorizes intervention.

“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll.

VII. Article 42: Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

Some will argue that the UN Charter authorizes action to restore “international peace and security”, not intra-national peace and security. There are, however, many cases where individual states or coalitions have intervened anyway, as well as cases where the international community has been widely criticized for not acting. The crux of the debate is between sovereignty and human rights, and between states and individuals.

The underlying problem is the inherent conflicts of interest of UN members. The so-called international community (IC) and the United Nations are organizations of states, not individuals; each state is motivated by powerful self-interests and few are likely to undermine their own power, control, security and impunity by diluting claims to sovereignty.

Critics of the U.N. complain that it is little more than a talking shop. They argue that it does no more good to condemn repressive or criminal states than to condemn nature; only intervention can help make a difference and fulfill the responsibility inherent in our claims to civilization and humanity.

In effect, the UN is like a legislature, a government without an executive branch or Supreme Court. It’s a legislature, congress or parliament where some privileged individual members hold veto power, and it’s a club that can accept or deny membership, but only to states.

Issues surrounding humanitarian intervention raise many questions: Whose ethics and morals form the foundation for decisions to intervene? Who makes the decisions? Who has the right to veto proposed intervention? Who actually intervenes? Is an intervention unilateral or multilateral? What if the decision is in dispute? Is there a legal basis to intervene and does it matter? What are the consequences of intervention without legal justification, support and backing? Who cares and does it matter?

One can argue that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) confers certain unalienable human rights (like life itself) that have precedence over a state’s claim to sovereignty. Leaders of many states will disagree, however governments gain legitimacy only through the willing consent of the governed. Theorists accept that governments can forfeit their claim to legitimacy and that when they do people are entitled to change their government. This easier said than done.

States do not exist in a vacuum; they are also a part of the community of nations and earn legitimacy only by their adherence to accepted standards of behavior and conduct. Such legitimacy is generally conferred when other states “recognize” a particular state and agree to conduct diplomatic relations. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan only three states recognized the regime and opened diplomatic relations; the international community thus refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

States sometimes withdraw their diplomatic missions as a form of protest or as a prelude to war. This sends a message that there is nothing further to discuss and that the regime no longer has diplomatic currency, standing or legitimacy. Such actions to suspend diplomatic relations are usually preceded by suspensions of economic and/or military aid and/or imposition of economic trade sanctions. Without multilateral cooperation, however, attempts to sway states to conform to international standards are often unsuccessful, or subject to debate and criticism.

The Blair Reality Check

Discussing the Kosovo intervention, British Prime Minister Tony Blair identified five essential questions to answer before intervention. [To these we’ve added the italicized supplements.]

1. Are we sure of our case? 2. Have we exhausted diplomacy? 3. Can we be successful? 4. Are we prepared for the long haul? [Do we need to be?] 5. Is it in our national interest? [Is it in our common interest?] 6. [What is the desired outcome?]

Recent events in Iraq have focused attention on the need for absolute certainty regarding the case for intervention or pre-emptive military action. A key question is: can we be successful? In the case of powerful states like Russia, China, or the US, the answer could well be negative. The risk-reward ratio could argue against intervention, thus relieving these states of their core concerns about risking their sovereignty. The decision would be purely pragmatic. Critics will argue that the powerful states are above the law. In the world of “Realpolitik” they are beyond the law. Nonetheless, all states are subject to the court of world opinion. The goal is to make a better world, not a perfect one.

Blair’s fourth question, are we prepared for the long haul, ignores an obvious alternative. It may be sufficient to punish or remove a regime that has forfeited its claims to legitimacy; this doesn’t necessarily impose a requirement to re-establish a functioning government, economy or society.

While recognizing the right of self-determination, John Stuart Mill suggested that it is a human right, but not an obligation on outsiders. In his book, Just and Unjust Wars, author Michael Walzer writes: “The members of a political community must seek their own freedom, just as an individual must seek his own virtue. They cannot be set free, as he cannot be made virtuous by any external force. Self-determination is the school in which virtue is learned (or not) and liberty is won (or not).”

He then quotes John Stuart Mill, “It is during an arduous struggle to become free by their own efforts that these virtues have the best chance of springing up.”

Walzer summarizes the views of Mill that: “Self-determination, then, is the right of a people ‘to become free by their own efforts’ if they can, and nonintervention is the principle guaranteeing that their efforts will not be impeded or their failure prevented by the intrusions of an alien power. It has to be stressed that there is no right to be protected against the consequences of domestic failure, even against a bloody repression.”

These arguments may appear cold-hearted, but may also help facilitate more aggressive and more timely, humanitarian intervention. One of the obstacles to intervention is the need to build political support for the cost and long-term commitment to re-establishing order. By relieving states of the nation-building burden, it’s more likely that support would be forthcoming.

The recent US invasion of Afghanistan is a suitable example. First of all, the invasion was justified as retaliation for and protection against attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists, harbored by the Taliban regime. (The US also afforded an opportunity for the Taliban to surrender members of al-Qaeda.)

Elements of Intervention

Although Intervention typically suggests military operations, intervention can and should take a variety of forms, including:

· Diplomacy & Conflict Prevention · Coercive Inducement · Sanctions · Military Intervention

Within each of these broad categories are a number of sub-sets, comprised of threats and promises, carrots and sticks.

Diplomacy & Conflict Prevention – Representatives attempt to negotiate with the culpable regime to cease offensive activities and to suspend such activities during negotiations. Diplomats endeavor to identify root causes of the problems and offer incentives for cooperation, balanced by the threat of sanctions or intervention. By the time the international community becomes aware of and engaged in a potentially catastrophic situation it’s likely that violence has begun and once underway, it’s extremely difficult to stop, as adversarial parties have usually crossed the line of no return.

Coercive Inducement – This approach involves early deployment of military forces in the role of peacekeepers and observers. The idea is to contain the crisis, separate adversaries, while continuing to pursue diplomatic alternatives. The peacekeeping force is placed in a difficult and precarious position with strict rules of engagement that can render the force virtually impotent and vulnerable. This form of involvement is not technically an intervention, in that the regime must consent to deployment of foreign troops, which may be possible in relatively few instances. Despite the associated problems, one benefit is that this facilitates the security forces in collecting intelligence and in upgrading force capabilities should they need to escalate the level of involvement.

Sanctions – Typical sanctions include suspension of military and economic assistance, trade embargoes, and cessation of diplomatic relations. However, sanctions are problematic; they’re relatively hard to enforce and easy to circumvent; they tend to impose collective punishment on the victims of repression, and they often fail to impose hardship on the subject regime. In some cases the ruling elites prosper from sanctions. In some cases there may be opportunities for targeted sanctions that more directly impinge on the regime’s welfare. Sanctions can be modulated to increase or decrease their impact relative to the cooperation received. To offer any hope of success, a sanctions program must have broad international cooperation, especially from neighboring states.

Military Intervention – When all other measures have proved fruitless and atrocities continue there may be no alternative to military intervention. Military intervention can take many forms, depending on the goals and nature of the situation on the ground. (Discussed later)

Human Rights Watch has established five basic criteria for military intervention:

First, military action must be the last reasonable option to halt or prevent slaughter; military force should not be used for humanitarian purposes if effective alternatives are available.

Second, the intervention must be guided primarily by a humanitarian purpose; we do not expect purity of motive, but humanitarianism should be the dominant reason for military action.

Third, every effort should be made to ensure that the means used to intervene themselves respect international human rights and humanitarian law; we do not subscribe to the view that some abuses can be countenanced in the name of stopping others.

Fourth, it must be reasonably likely that military action will do more good than harm; humanitarian intervention should not be tried if it seems likely to produce a wider conflagration or significantly more suffering.

Finally, we prefer endorsement of humanitarian intervention by the U.N. Security Council or other bodies with significant multilateral authority. However, in light of the imperfect nature of international governance today, we would not require multilateral approval in an emergency context.

Once the threshold to military operations has been breached there are a wide range of options available, none of them particularly attractive, all of them uncertain and potentially costly in money and lives. They range from supplying weapons to a resistance force, if there is one, to naval blockades, air strikes and deployment of ground forces. Especially troublesome is the potential to ignite regional escalation if neighboring states are unsupportive, or if they harbor ulterior motives.

Military intervention is fraught with stipulations and limitations. The response should be proportionate to the threat and the minimum required to stop the atrocities and prevent their re-occurrence. As a practical matter it’s difficult to imagine how this can be accomplished short of removing and replacing the existing regime. The degree of difficulty depends on the size, quality and commitment of the regime’s military. Experience has shown that even in failed states like Somalia, lacking any government or formal military force, intervention can face extreme problems and resistance.

Unfortunately, there may be ulterior motives for intervention, beyond the moral or humanitarian concerns. These motives may be political or economic and regime change alone is not generally sufficient to accomplish such goals. The regime must be replaced with one that is acceptable to the intervening state or states, or the interventionists must implement changes that have a desirable political or economic outcome and benefit. Although the intervention may be morally justified, the imposition of a new regime, or government could deny people their fundamental rights of self-determination.

Although the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were not humanitarian interventions, the U.S. set parameters and requirements for the new governments. The new governments had to be democratically elected, the government could not be a theocracy, and the countries could not be subdivided into smaller states. Such provisions undermine the people’s rights of self-determination and can face intense criticism from within and without the country. Artificial government structures that fail to satisfy the needs and desires of the local people may have bleak future prospects.

There is no shortage of recent cases where one or more states have intervened in another state (Panama, Grenada, Bosnia, Kosova, Iraq, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Haiti), however, the erratic pattern of intervention does not reveal much of a basis for policy formulation. Some of these cases involved humanitarian motives, others did not, but all violated the sovereignty of the subject states and in no case was the intervening state subject to international disapproval and tangible consequences.

It is a red herring to delay or deny humanitarian protection to people under imminent threat of genocide, democide, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape or physical persecution to preserve the sovereignty of failed and illegitimate states and repressive regimes. The real debate needs to focus on methods to establish coherent policies and procedures and facilitate rapid, effective responses.


Documentation & Validation:

The first obstacle to intervention is documenting that there is a factual case of gross human rights violations. In the current case of Sudan, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring that the Sudanese government is engaged in genocide. Meanwhile, European Union representatives declared there was no evidence of genocide. Reports by the International Crisis Group indicate that there is a humanitarian crisis that might qualify as genocide. The US has brought their case to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which is directed to investigate further.

If the UNSC finds sufficient evidence, a new resolution could be brought to authorize intervention, but would be subject to veto by any permanent member of the UNSC and both Russia and China are likely to cast a veto. Any state that felt compelled to intervene in Sudan would have to act unilaterally or as a coalition, but without UNSC approval, making the whole process moot and delaying action while people are being slaughtered.

The international community should create an independent International Human Rights Court, or agree to use the European Human Rights Court as a court of jurisdiction. Any state, or authorized independent entity could petition the court, provide evidence to document and validate charges of gross human rights violations or genocide. By rendering a decision any state, or coalition would then have legal justification to intervention, and no state would have veto power. There would, however, be no requirement to intervene, conceivably the legal approval could be sufficient to coerce the guilty party to cease and desist.

Monitoring Interventions:

In cases where a state intervenes in the sovereign affairs of another state, the action is generally taken with UN approval and outside accepted international legal channels. This leaves the intervening state subject to a wide range of charges, criticisms and potential liabilities. Although not a humanitarian intervention per se, the US invasion of Iraq is an adequate example. During the military invasion, embedded journalists accompanied US forces. In future cases, UN observers or monitors should accompany military forces to aid in legitimizing and monitoring events to help prevent additional human rights violations.

If states chose to intervene without UNSC approval, independent monitoring would enhance legitimacy and help preclude political and legal complications. In retrospect such monitoring could easily have prevented the human rights abuses in Iraqi prisons and/or help mitigate Iraqi civilian casualties, or confirm that serious mitigation efforts were undertaken. Conducting interventions properly and effectively would encourage future activities of this type and thus serve to deter violators.

United Nations Peacekeeping & Peacemaking Forces:

The blue U.N. helmets are a symbol of peacekeepers in hot spots throughout the world, but it is usually difficult, expensive and time consuming to gain support for peacekeeping deployments – and such deployments require approval of the subject state or parties to a conflict. Peacekeepers are often deployed with extremely restrictive rules of engagement and it’s recognized that a poorly trained, or inadequate force, unable to defend itself is of little value and can present other problems.

Others have already proposed establishing a standing UN Rapid Deployment Force for use in emergency situations. Such a force would include specially trained, volunteers provided by any number of states. The idea is not new, but to date, there has been no progress toward actually creating such a force.

However, there are interim measures that could be more feasible in the near term. One alternative would be for the UN to use security forces from private military contractors, essentially subcontracting the work to private firms. Although fraught with political issues and a problematic track record in many parts of Africa, the idea is worthy of consideration if it can save lives that are at imminent risk.

Finally, the first responsibility of any new state or reconstituted government is to provide security, which entails developing and army and police force. Again Iraq is a good current example. The U.S. and other states offer military training and assistance programs as part of a foreign aid package. A new government could also hire private contractors as has been done in some African countries. Either approach has strings attached, or presents other problematic issues. A new government might turn to the US, Israel, South Africa, China or Russia for military training and support, a decision that begins to shape their foreign policy and destiny.

If one views the U.N. as a form of state franchiser, it seems reasonable that that the U.N. would provide a range of services associated with nation building, including military training. Done under U.N. auspices, the franchisee would be free of future obligations and entanglements. The training would be sure to include serious human rights training elements, and this service would help justify the U.N. establishing a standing military component. It would be a logical step toward developing a future rapid deployment force. Private military subcontractors could do the training as well, which would begin to address a number of growing concerns about PMCs.

Focus on Genocide in Sudan 2004-2005

After the U.N. failed to respond to human rights violations and possible war crimes in Kosovo, NATO intervened and many observers predicted this would be the end of an era of humanitarian intervention. Today, a new crisis is approaching, or underway in Sudan. The international response to the Sudanese situation will be an informative case study on the current state of intervention politics by the international community. In March 2004, the International Crisis Groups (ICG) published a report, Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis, describing the growing humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s the western province Darfur. Sudan is Africa’s largest country, covering 2.5 million square kilometers, almost five times the size of France, with a population estimated around 38 million. An estimated 6 people million live in Darfur. ICG estimates that as much as one fifth of that population is currently internally displaced. The report stated that, “The situation in the western Sudanese region of Darfur is now acknowledged to be a humanitarian and human rights tragedy of the first order, but the international response has been slow and inadequate. The UN Security Council must take strong measures against the Khartoum government, which has acted in bad faith throughout the crisis, and encourage the African Union (AU) to follow up more decisively its efforts to improve the situation on the ground and mediate a political settlement.” Since this report the situation has begun to gain traction with the international media.

Sudan has endured 21 years of internal conflict, primarily in the potentially oil-rich southern provinces and in the mid 1990’s became the temporary home for Usama bin Laden and an al-Qaeda staging area for African operations. It’s alleged that the Sudanese Arab-Islamic government is supporting genocide by the Janjaweed militia against black African residents in the western province of Darfur.

On 23 July 2004, the US Congress passed a resolution by unanimous vote, declaring that, “…the atrocities unfolding in Darfur, Sudan, are genocide.”

On 10 August 2004 the Beijing Times reported, “The European Union (EU) said here Monday that it has found no evidence of genocide in the troubled region of Darfur, though there was widespread violence there. The EU has sent a fact-finding mission to Sudan recently, which was headed by Pieter Feith, an adviser to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. "We are not in the situation of genocide there. But it is clear there is widespread, silent and slow, killing going on, and village burning of a fairly large scale."

US Secretary of State, Colin Powell then asserted that up to 50,000 people have been killed and a million displaced from their homes, as Janjaweed militias have burned entire villages forcing starving, impoverished people to flee to relative safety.

In September 2004, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1564, calling for an investigation into reports of genocide. The resolution was prepared by the United States and co-sponsored by Germany, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom and passed by an 11-0 vote, with Russia, Algeria, China, and Pakistan abstaining.

UN Resolution 1564 calls for: 1) expansion of the number and mandate of the current 300 African Union troops in the country, 2) international over flights in Darfur to monitor what is happening, and an end to Sudanese military flights there, and 3) the UN is to assess whether acts of genocide have been carried out and identify the perpetrators.

For additional information visit Flashpoints: Guide to World Conflicts – Sudan Conflict Briefing

  Additional Resources  

The Moral Foundation of International Intervention
by Leonard Binder

What Justifies Military Intervention?
by Charles Knight , Project on Defense Alternatives

Just War and Humanitarian Intervention
Jean Bethke Elshtain. National Humanities Center Ideas, 2001 (pdf file)

Humanitarian Intervention, NATO and International Law
Clara Portela. Berlin, Germany: Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security, December, 2000 (.pdf file)

Just War and Intervention: The Challenge of the International for Social and Political Thought
Justin Rosenberg. Sussex University Joint Social and Political Thought Seminar, 27 May 1999.

Humanitarian Intervention and Just War
Mona Fixal and Dan Smith. Mershon International Studies Review #42 (1998). Posted on the Mount Holyoke College International Relations Website

Kosovo and the Just War Tradition
By Bjørn Møller

War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention
By Ken Roth Human Rights Watch

Humanitarian Military Intervention
Foreign Policy in Focus

Program on International Policy Attitudes
Series of Public Opinion poll results

International Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States
Americans and the World

Humanitarian Intervention? Global Policy.org http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/humanint/

Human Rights, Humanitarian Intervention & Sanctions
by Arthur C. Helton and Robert P. DeVecchi Council on Foreign Relations

The Ethics of Armed Humanitarian Intervention
United States Institute for Peace (USIP)

Humanitarian intervention: a controversial right United Nations http://www.unesco.org/courier/1999_08/uk/ethique/txt1.htm

The Reasonable Public and the Polarized Policy Process
I. M. (Mac) Destler

About Sudan

Genocide Emergency: Darfur, Sudan
Twelve Ways to Deny a Genocide
By Gregory H. Stanton
Genocide Watch 13 September 2004

Darfur Rising: Sudan's New Crisis
International Crisis Group
25 March 2004

Darfur Deadline: A New International Action Plan
International Crisis Group
23 August 2004

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