Is humanitarian intervention ever justified?

Humanitarian intervention is military intervention that is carried out in pursuit of humanitarian rather than strategic objectives. It is concerned with the promotion of human rights and welfare and the alleviation of the suffering of civilians in countries where human rights violations have taken place. Humanitarian intervention increased in the post Cold War era since the ‘liberal peace’ that ensued was founded on a common belief of international norms and behaviour. Interventions took place in countries who trampled on human rights to make the world more peaceful by connecting them to liberal order. In many cases humanitarian intervention is necessary and justified but for the most part, the international community has either responded inadequately or recklessly, thereby making matters worse.

Humanitarian intervention has been justified based on the notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’. In September 2005, UN member states adopted R2P, presented by the ICISS, which recognised that sovereignty was conditional on adherence to human rights. This drew upon liberal ideas that the primary responsibility of the state is to protect its own people – if it does not, it gives up its sovereignty and the international community is obliged to act. This was demonstrated in the Security Council authorising the set up of a ‘no fly zone’ in Northern Iraq in 1991 to protect the minority Kurdish population who were being persecuted by the Saddam Hussein regime. The International community was responding to the despair of civilian populations. R2P was also exemplified in 2011 when the Security Council demanded an immediate ceasefire in Libya to prevent ongoing attacks on civilians which might amount to crimes against humanity. Eventually, NATO planes started striking Gaddafi’s forces when the ceasefire was not adhered and created a no fly zone. The wars in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001 were justified on the grounds of liberal intervention which has wider goals of regime change and democracy promotion. Saddam Hussein had been repressing the rights of Kurds and the majority Shia population while the Taliban has been restricting the rights of women in particular and so intervention was necessary.

However, humanitarian intervention has been criticised for violating the principles of state sovereignty that were established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Realists has regarded humanitarian intervention is a breach of international law as it shows a disregard for traditional respect for national boundaries. Blair’s ‘Doctrine of International Community’ urged intervention in Kosovo in 1999 by asserting that human rights were more important that state sovereignty and that the international community had a duty to intervene when a government was violating the rights of its citizens. This was heavily criticised in the Security Council by China and Russia for violating international law and the sovereignty of Serbia. US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan was also criticised in the Security Council and it failed in its objectives. In Afghanistan, the Taliban now have de facto control of 80% of the country and have sought legitimacy through an embassy in Qatar. The Iraq War led to increased sectarianism and has given rise to terrorist groups such as ISIS who have become an important force in international politics. Similarly, intervention in Libya has left a failed state which has since become a terrorist hotspot and a dangerous location for refugees. Humanitarian intervention has therefore not adequately protected human rights.

Humanitarian intervention is arguably justified in order to maintain regional stability. Humanitarian emergencies/ crises tend to have radical implications for the regional balance of power, creating instability and wider unrest. For realists, this would provide an incentive for regional powers to favour humanitarian intervention. This was exemplified with India’s intervention in the 1971 East-West Pakistan War due to the war’s implications of redefining the make up of the Indian Subcontinent, creating the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Intervention to preserve regional stability was also shown in the case of the Kosovo War, non-intervention could have created wider unrest in Europe as a whole. Blair’s ‘Doctrine of International Community’ was the basis for intervening in Kosovo in 2003 against the Serbs who were repressing the Kosovans. NATO therefore had an incentive for humanitarian intervention since in this age of globalism, what happens within the borders of a state is subject to widespread criticism. Arguably, this is also the reason as to why many countries have urged US intervention in Syria to prevent the influence of Russia and Iran in the Middle East. Trump has arguably begun this by authorising an attack on a Syrian military airfield in Homs in April 2016 even though as a candidate he had sought isolationism and retrenchment.

Regardless, humanitarian intervention has had very selective applications. The security council has proved incompetent in addressing human rights violations in many cases. Humanitarian intervention did not occur when 8000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica and when the Tutsi government in Rwanda murdered 800,000 Hutu’s. It has also failed to address the ongoing repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, with 100,000 having been exterminated or fled the country. The Security Council has refused to intervene and regard it as a genocide and has instead prioritised its relationship with the Burmese government and promote the ‘good news narrative’ of Burma which has established a democracy from a military dictatorship. Humanitarian intervention has also not taken place where the great powers or their allies are the perpetrators. Russia will not have action taken against it for its suppression of human rights in Chechnya and the Crimea and China will not have action taken against it for its suppression of the human rights of Tibetans and the Muslims of Xinjiang province. As of 2015, Israel has been condemned in 62 resolutions by the Human Rights Council but the USA will veto any condemnation of Israel over its actions in Palestine. Ultimately, humanitarian intervention comes down to the security council veto and has become a tool in great power politics.

Globalisation and the 24/7 news and television coverage broadcast around the world has increased awareness of human rights abuses worldwide. The domestic issues of a state can no longer just be contained to the state – human rights violations by a government are subject to international condemnation. Witnessing such atrocities via the news, may force foreign governments to become involved in countries where human rights are being violated. Clinton was drawn to send to US troops to Somalia in 1993, known as Operation Restore Hope. The aim was to aid the humanitarian operations of food aid, at a time when the country was on the brink of a famine, which were being prevented by warlords. In this case, humanitarian intervention helps to back up humanitarian aid missions in times of emergency in countries where security and human rights are a liability. Liberal, Bernard Henri Levi argues that ‘Aleppo will be the shame of our generation’ if intervention does not occur in Syria.

However humanitarian intervention is arguably unjustified as it is merely a form of Western cultural imperialism as opposed to altruistic desires to protect human rights. Humanitarian intervention has been used largely in the non-western world while the human rights violations of Western nations goes ignored. Chomsky argues that humanitarian intervention is not new, but is an ‘old project’ used by the West to ‘civilise’ foreign populations and establish its superiority by implementing western ideas. This is also the view put forward by post colonial theorists such as Edward Said. Said argues that the West has crafted the idea of the ‘international community’ to ‘sort out’ uncivilised states and alter them via humanitarian intervention. The attempt to establish ‘democracy from above’ during the War on Terror deepened tensions between the Islamic World and the Western world and also violated the human rights of the civilian populations in the process. Intervention has also been criticised for having economic ends rather than human ends. The War on Terror was arguably part of a wider US strategy of securing oil supplies in the Middle East considering that the region possesses 60% of global oil supplies and consolidating US global hegemony in a region with potentially rogue states. The Western great powers have been immune from intervention due to their structural power – the actions of the USA in Guantanamo Bay and its torture of non-combatants in Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and the UK’s use of extraordinary rendition and secret courts have gone uncriticised by the UN.

In conclusion, while liberals continue to assert the universality of human rights and that all human populations deserve the respect of basic human rights, humanitarian intervention has largely been a misguided or inadequate response to the protection of human rights. In most cases humanitarian intervention has done more harm than good. It is argued that Syria is the low point in humanitarian intervention which reached its apogee with intervention in Iraq and Sierra Leone in the 1990s and was discredited after the War on Terror.

Tasnia Uddin




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