Human Rights and International Law (3): Humanitarian Intervention

This post focuses on one type of humanitarian intervention only, namely so-called armed humanitarian intervention (although I’ll drop the “armed” for easier reading). Humanitarian intervention is an armed intervention in one state by another state or states with the objective of ending gross violations of human rights, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Whereas the moral case for such an intervention is very strong, it remains controversial because of the fact that violence is used and that the national sovereignty of the “receiving” state is violated. One could easily justify the breach of sovereignty since the fate of the victims is obviously more important than sovereignty. Furthermore, this breach is inherently temporary because neither annexation nor interference with territorial integrity is at stake. But the use of violence is more difficult to justify.

It seems that humanitarian intervention is only justified when certain conditions are met:

1. Legitimate authority

The states that act cannot unilaterally decide that intervention is necessary. There must be some kind of general conviction that the situation is serious and that some kind of forceful intervention is warranted. A Security Council resolution can be the authority.

If there is a general conviction that action is necessary but there is no explicit Security Council approval of intervention – because of the veto or because of other reasons – then we have to be careful. If states can unilaterally decide to intervene, even against world opinion, then we have international chaos. Everybody takes the law in his own hands, and states will quickly find human rights excuses to intervene wherever they want. Some legitimate authority must have expressed something close to a world opinion regarding the necessity of intervention. Individual actors cannot decide autonomously. An approval of the General Assembly may indicate that there is consensus, but a Security Council resolution is better because this will guarantee that the intervention will not cause superpower conflicts.

2. Collaboration

As an elaboration of the previous point, one must demand that the intervening states be as numerous as possible in order to avoid accusations of self-interest, partiality and power politics. Collaboration also increases the chance of success (see condition 4.)

3. Right intention or appropriate goal

The main goal of the intervention must be the protection of human rights. The accusations that often accompany US-led interventions are generally unhelpful, except of course when they are true.

4. Probability of success

There must be a real chance that the intervention can be successful.

5. Last resort

Other and more peaceful means must have been tried first, although the urgency of the matter can make immediate military action acceptable.

6. Proportionality

The intervention must be proportional to the evil it is meant to destroy. Not enough intervention can cause more harm than before without a real chance of solving the initial problem. Too much intervention will also cause more harm than before. The costs must not outweigh the benefits. We must prevent more harm than we cause, although one must be careful when making utilitarian calculations. Violence always results in rights violations. Hence the rights violations one is willing to accept as a consequence of violent intervention cannot outweigh the violations that originally caused the intervention. How many rights violations can one cause when fighting rights violations? Theoretically, one cannot sacrifice certain people’s rights – for example, the rights of innocent civilian victims of air bombardments – for the sake of other people’s rights – for example, the victims of the dictatorship that is the target of the bombardments. However, most of us believe that in extreme circumstances, it is acceptable to sacrifice some rights or the rights of some in order to protect many more rights or the rights of many more. This means that violence is only acceptable in extreme cases, namely when the rights of many or many rights are violated.

7. Ius in bello

The laws of warfare must be respected.

8. Peace

If there is a threat to international peace, then the intervention will have a stronger claim to legality. But this is not a necessary condition.

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