Saturday, February 19, 2011

Issues Surrounding Humanitarian Intervention

In his article on humanitarian intervention, Michael Smith explains that the dynamics of international society has grown increasingly complex. Although sovereign and stable states remain the majority in the contemporary international system, they now face a greater threat from the development of renegade states (480). In addition to “failing” or “failed” states, which have broken down due to their inability to establish legitimacy, there has been an increase in states where conflict seems unavoidable. These “dangerous” states seek to bring attention to themselves through excessive and violent actions. Smith believes that these types of states will “continue to provide a worry for those trying to enforce some version of international order,” leaving no shortage of occasions for intervention (481). The international community, however, has been unable to determine when or how humanitarian intervention is appropriate. In the current international system, which Smith defines as a “subjective” environment, it is difficult to determine the moral value of humanitarian intervention. He argues that there is still a great deal of doubt and suspicion of unauthorized intervention within the international community (483). The multiple forms of humanitarian intervention (unilateral and collective) have further complicated these problems. Traditional international law has typically been unfriendly towards both types of intervention, with the exception of a few specific situations: threats to peace, breaches in peace, and “overt” aggression (483). Although organizations have intervened in state affairs to provide relief for minorities, monitor elections, and keep the peace, the UN has failed to endorse a general doctrine concerning the nature of humanitarian intervention.

Smith believes that international intervention should operate under the following principle: “Individual state sovereignty can be overridden whenever the behavior of the state even within its own territory threatens the existence of elementary human rights abroad and whenever the protection of the basic human rights of its citizens can be assured only from the outside” (498). Therefore, the international community should intervene in domestic affairs whenever there is a clear violation of human rights. Although this seems to be an appropriate guideline, it is only a step towards removing the ambiguity surrounding the concept of humanitarian intervention. The UN will be unable to endorse a general doctrine until the international community defines who is responsible for protecting human rights. Should the international community rely on specific nations to intervene whenever human rights are violated (the members of the Security Council, for example), or is it more plausible for the “defenders” of human rights to vary according to the situation? Furthermore, the international community must also define what humanitarian intervention consists of. “Is humanitarian intervention a rescue operation…or an attempt to address the underlying causes of the conflict?” (483). Until these specific issues are resolved, humanitarian intervention will remain in a cloud of confusion.


  1. Well I think that within the International System there actually already exists a baseline for intervention. The norm is called the Responsibility to Protect or R2P. Based on the concept that the behavior of a state can determine whether it is allowed to retain its sovereignty over its people.
    The three major principles that guide this idea are:

    1. A State has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing

    2. If the State is unable to protect its population on its own, the international community has a responsibility to assist the state by building its capacity. This can mean building early-warning capabilities, mediating conflicts between political parties, strengthening the security sector, mobilizing standby forces, and many other actions.

    3. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more corrosively, and as a last resort, with military force.

    These are values based directly on the United Nations doctrine and it has been used time and again by the EU and the UN. Even though these principles exist and that in the Sudan there was clearly some degree of ethnic cleansing, the International community responded in a less direct manner. Both the US and China stop short of actually intervening, instead they just asked for a resolution to the situation, but because they receive oil from Sudan, they didn't want to risk losing a resource. So until the international community can put the value of human life and rights above the individual gains of a the state, then more humanitarian situations will resolve in bloodier and slower manner.

  2. I think Jon is right that there are already some guidelines for how international organizations should respond to major human rights violations. Unfortunately, I think it is unlikely that the international community will ever be able to place the value of all human life and rights above the gains of the state. As of right now, our international organizations are largely conglomerations of nations with similar or interconnected interests. It is not likely that these nations and the representatives that they appoint are going to act in a manner that is not primarily geared towards the interests of each individual nation. The only way that I could think of that may result in consistant and productive humanitarian intervention is if this became the responsibility of an organization that maintained no particular ties to any country and made no exclusions of members from any country. Essentially, these organizations would have to be similar to PETA and Greenpeace but on a much larger scale and with a slightly different focus. Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever see such an organization arise in defense of human rights due to conflicting human interests and the fear of an "ungoverned" international power.

  3. The absence of a state should be the only time the international community should consider intervening. On the grounds of human rights, certainly not. State sovereignty must be respected above all else. If anything regional states should step up to the plate and intervene for the sake of stability. Intervention denies national interests the opportunity to play their course in development and pubic interest in the general welfare of their country.


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