When Can Nations Intervene Militarily in Other Nations?

Observers Increasingly Point to Humanitarian Considerations

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NEW YORK, APRIL 5, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The months-long debate over U.S. intervention in Iraq focused attention on the subject of international law and the role of the United Nations. Up until a few years ago, state sovereignty was held to be supreme.



As Nicholas Wheeler explained in his book "Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society," the U.N. Charter restricts the use of force by individual states to the purpose of self-defense. Even the use of force to save victims of human rights abuses was considered, until recently, a violation of the Charter.

All that may be changing. Shifts in post-1989 international politics, and a greater weight on human rights, has strengthened the case for humanitarian intervention. Wheeler, a lecturer in international law at the University of Wales, commented that in the last decade a solidarity-oriented conception of international society has increased in importance, relative to a realist vision of the world. The result is a growing acceptance that states have a moral responsibility to protect the security of citizens elsewhere.

Humanitarian intervention becomes a consideration in two situations; first, in failed states, where chaos place the population in danger; and second, in the case of manifestly unjust governments, guilty of gross violations of human rights. In both cases, public opinion, shocked by television depictions of mass slaughter and human suffering, has increasingly demanded that their governments do something.

Nevertheless, the idea of humanitarian intervention raises fears that it could states a pretext for meddling -- or even involve them in an endless series of military adventures.

"Advocating military intervention for humanitarian purposes is always a tricky call for human rights advocates," admitted William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA in his 2001 book "In Our Own Best Interest." Military intervention should always be a last resort, he said. But he hastens to ask: What kind of people would we be if we were utterly unwilling to consider intervention to stop the massive slaughter of the innocent?

Doubts and ambiguities

Michael Walzer, in the 1999 preface to the third edition of his book "Just and Unjust Wars," observed: "It isn't too much of an exaggeration to say that the greatest danger most people face in the world today comes from their own states, and the chief dilemma of international politics is whether people in danger should be rescued by military forces from outside."

Intervention opens up a series of difficult questions, noted Walzer. How can we determine the relative weight of the value of sovereignty and the rights of citizens in a state? How much killing is systematic killing? If intervention is justified, who should carry it out? What is the acceptable level of costs to the soldiers in the intervening force and the civilians in the invaded country? What kind of peace should the invading forces seek?

An attempt to formulate how intervention should be carried out was the December 2001 report "The Responsibility to Protect," published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The commission was chaired by Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group and former Foreign Minister of Australia, and Mohamed Sahnoun, special adviser on Africa to the U.N. secretary-general and a former senior Algerian diplomat.

They returned to the subject in an essay published in the November-December 2002 issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs. They commented that the record of the international community in resolving problems such as those noted by Walzer has been spotty.

The action taken by NATO in Kosovo in 1999 was taken without approval by the U.N. Security Council because of political divisions among the members. Intervention in Bosnia was tardy, and no action was taken to impede the massacres in Rwanda in 1994.

Evans and Sahnoun suggested in their article that it would be more helpful to talk about a responsibility to protect, rather than a right to intervene. In this way, a situation that arises could be more readily viewed from the stance of those needing help. It also focuses attention on how intervention takes place only when the state concerned is unable to look after its own citizens.

Underlying such a change in focus is a conceptual shift in thinking about sovereignty: from control to responsibility. This responsibility, the article explained, is dual: external, to respect the sovereignty of other states; and internal, to respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.

The Pope speaks out

John Paul II has also examined the question of humanitarian intervention. In his January 1993 address to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican, the Pope drew attention to what he called one of the most significant legal evolutions of the 20th century: the emergence of humanitarian law.

This change, he explained, means that it has now been recognized that there are interests -- those of the human person -- that transcend those of the state. Once diplomacy has been exhausted and large numbers of people are threatened by an unjust aggressor, states have an obligation to disarm this aggressor, if all other means have failed. The principle of state sovereignty must not become a screen behind which torture and assassination are carried out, the Pope insisted.

The Holy Father gave a more detailed exposition of his thought on the issue in his World Day for Peace message of Jan. 1, 2000, in paragraphs 7-12. "Crimes against humanity cannot be considered an internal affair of a nation," stated John Paul II. "We must thank God that in the conscience of peoples and nations there is a growing conviction that human rights have no borders, because they are universal and indivisible."

Armed conflicts within states are numerous, noted the Pope. They are due to a multiplicity of causes: ethnic and tribal rivalries; religious conflict; ideological, social and economic divisions.

Faced with these "tragic and complex situations," John Paul II said that "there is a need to affirm the pre-eminent value of humanitarian law and the consequent duty to guarantee the right to humanitarian aid to suffering civilians and refugees."

The legitimacy of this right to aid, he explained, "is in fact based on the principle that the good of the human person comes before all else and stands above all human institutions." Therefore, once other means have proved ineffective, "it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor."

He adds a number of limiting factors to the application of this intervention, however. In addition to the need to exhaust all diplomatic means first, he said, the intervention must be of limited duration and precise in its aim. Moreover, the measures taken must be carried out in full respect for international law and guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized. The Pope recommended: "The fullest and the best use must therefore be made of all the provisions of the United Nations Charter," along with the framework of international law.

John Paul II called for "a renewal of international law and international institutions, a renewal whose starting point and basic organizing principle should be the primacy of the good of humanity and of the human person over every other consideration."

The Iraqi war is now overshadowing the subject of humanitarian intervention. But it's an issue that won't go away any time soon.