When, and When Not, to Intervene to Save Lives

Humanitarian Action: Fine in Theory, Thorny in Practice

ROME, OCT. 2, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The Vatican is in favor of adding a new principle of humanitarian intervention to the U.N. Charter. This was the view expressed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano in an interview published Sept. 22 in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

The crises of past years in such places as Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans have provoked debate over how to deal with humanitarian needs. A collection of essays, “Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal and Political Dilemmas,” gathered some of the recent academic discussions on the topic. A pair of Duke University scholars, J.L. Holzgrefe and Robert Keohane, edited the 2003 book.

In his essay Holzgrefe notes that the U.N. Charter prohibits intervention the domestic matters of a state. He adds, however, that some international lawyers argue that, even within the Charter, intervention is allowed in some circumstances. This would be the case when, for example, there are massive human-rights abuses, or a threat to peace in neighboring states, due to a massive exodus of refugees fleeing persecution.

In fact, in recent years the U.N. Security Council has sanctioned humanitarian intervention based on such grounds, in Haiti, for example. Nevertheless, justifying such intervention requires a specific U.N. authorization for it not to run afoul of the provisions in the Charter that prohibit military aggression, Holzgrefe argues.

He also points out that humanitarian intervention is not an easy matter to resolve. It involves a complex mixture of moral and legal arguments. Moreover, the empirical claims on which intervention may be based are often difficult to establish with certainty.

Collapse of sovereignty

Fernando Tesón, professor of law at Florida State University, in his essay argues that humanitarian intervention can be justified on the basis of the argument that state sovereignty is an instrumental and not an intrinsic value. “Tyranny and anarchy cause the moral collapse of sovereignty,” he writes.

Defending what he termed “the liberal argument” in favor of intervention, Tesón noted that the use of force to achieve humanitarian ends does lead to objections based on a rejection of war. Some people committed to human rights oppose humanitarian intervention because they consider war to be a crime, even when carried out for noble ends.

But Tesón argued that sometimes it is morally permissible to fight and that, “occasionally, fighting is even mandatory.” Justifying aggression to defend human rights can be done according to the moral principle of double effect, maintained Tesón. Thus, the harm caused by intervention may be morally excusable when such harm is not willed and the goal sought is normatively compelling.

In the end, Tesón points out, “Rescuing others will always be onerous, but if we deny the moral duty and legal right to do so, we deny not only the centrality of justice in political affairs, but also the common humanity that binds us all.”

Changing views

Humanitarian intervention is a departure from the realist or neoliberal theories of international politics, observed Martha Finnemore, associate professor at George Washington University. Such intervention is not normally carried out on the basis of looking after a state’s economic and political interests. An example of this is the intervention by the United States in Somalia, where it had no major geopolitical interests at stake.

In her 2003 book, “The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force,” Finnemore explained that humanitarian actions by states did take place in the past. Among the cases she cites is the suppression of the slave trade in the 19th century. The British in particular used military force in order to wipe out this practice, even though the action was limited to the commercial actions, and not to the forcible eradication of slavery itself.

Nevertheless, with ever-greater attention being placed on democracy and human rights, the number of humanitarian interventions has risen greatly in the past decade. Behind the increasing weight given to humanitarian factors are a number of factors.

First, the notion of who is able to claim protection has changed. In the 19th century the powerful states were mainly concerned with protecting their own citizens. Today, the non-white and non-Christian populations are being given more attention, and their plight is given a greater weight.

Second, for intervention to be accepted as legitimate it is no longer acceptable for it to be an initiative by one country. Rather, a multilateral action, normally authorized by the United Nations, is required, Finnemore contends. The end of the Cold War made it more feasible to obtain the consensus needed for multilateral operations, thus explaining the notable increase in such actions in recent years, adds Finnemore.

Third, goals have evolved from merely overthrowing a government, to the need to install a democratic regime that will produce humane and just leaders.

But humanitarian considerations are still only one of a number of forces operating in determining international politics. The absence of any intervention to stop the slaughter in Rwanda in 1994 “shows that humanitarian claims must compete with other interests states have as they weigh the decision to use force,” Finnemore writes.

Another factor that can complicate matters for humanitarian intervention is the requisite that it be multilateral, observes Finnemore. While it does have the advantage of sharing costs and responsibilities it also makes coordination difficult. As well, the experience of some U.N. operations in recent years shows that sharing decisions can seriously weaken the effectiveness of military actions.

Virtue reassessed

Some further caveats about humanitarian intervention were raised by David Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School. In his recent book, “The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism,” Kennedy notes that proponents of intervention “find it easier to take responsibility for engagements than for disengagements, and for successes than failures.” Moreover, he warned that greater attention needs to be paid to the negative consequences of intervention.

Kennedy also warns that the human-rights vocabulary and the institutional framework of human rights “are riddled with contradictions which would not stand up to logical scrutiny for a minute.”

Part of the book reflects on how the growing tendency for humanitarian interventions has changed the relationship between humanitarian activists and the military. Humanitarianism is no longer something necessarily asserted against military strategists. Instead there is a newfound cooperation. “Humanitarians have entered the world of policy-making,” he notes. And with this there is a tendency toward greater pragmatism and attention to worldly factors.

Nevertheless, this change is not accepted by all humanitarians. Some activists interpret humanitarian law in a narrow fashion, excluding any use of force. “There is apparently something scandalous about an aircraft carrier sailing off to war as the realization of international humanitarianism,” comments Kennedy.

And merging humanitarianism with military and political strategy is no easy matter, he adds. Differences remain between the broader humanitarian vision and the way military forces judge matters. For example, civilian deaths will weigh more heavily with humanitarians. The military strategist may ask how many civilian deaths can be accepted to protect a soldier. “At this point, the humanitarian is likely to pull back,” being more conscious of the need to defend the norm that civilians not be killed.

In his newspaper interview Cardinal Sodano specified that humanitarian intervention should be limited to situations where it is evident that human rights are being trampled in a nation. Deciding when and where those situations arise, is no easy matter, as the academic debate shows.

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