Humanitarian interventions

Drawing upon examples of post-Cold War interventions, discuss the way in which humanitarian interventions have (or have not) contributed to the spread of human rights


In recent years, the collective security system at the international level has been criticized for its failure to resolve conflicts both within and between states. Various international actors have stepped up this criticism mainly in the post-Cold War era. At the same time, perceptions relating to state sovereignty have been changing a great deal. Much attention has been on efforts to generate appropriate international responses to deal with the human rights abuses of different kinds, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

However, the subject of humanitarian interventions remains deeply controversial. The main reason for arguments against humanitarian interventions is that they contravene international law by virtue of violating state sovereignty (Orford, 2003). Meanwhile, this debate has come up at a time when perceptions relating to state sovereignty continue to change. Many international actors, including human rights activists, non-governmental organizations, and at times even states, have in recent times been insisting that human rights should always take priority over state sovereignty.

The subject of humanitarian intervention triggers controversy because of its legality. The controversy also relates to the efficacy and desirability of the use of force as a way of constraining or preventing gross violations of human rights. Moreover, it raises serious issues relating to the relevance of international law with the regard to issues of the use of force and non-intervention in the internal affairs of states.

According to Abiew (1998), one of the greatest practical difficulties relating to humanitarian intervention has to do with legal limits. In this regard, the main question is on whether it is right for humanitarian interventions to be carried out. In this issue, support from sovereign states seems to be lacking. This has led some actors in international politics to call for the reform of the United Nations as well as the strengthening of its capacity and commitment to the goal of developing appropriate approaches that will facilitate the promotion of fundamental human rights and conflict prevention. This would ideally resolve all the questions relating to the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions under international law.

The objective of this paper is to discuss the various ways in which humanitarian interventions have contributed to the spread of human rights. The paper draws upon examples of post-Cold War interventions in determining the extent to which humanitarian interventions have been playing a critical part in the promotion of fundamental human rights. The thesis of this paper is that humanitarian interventions have greatly contributed to the spread of human rights in the post-Cold War era. However, the main question relates to the sustainability of this approach. This is evident in the ongoing controversy on whether or not to legitimize humanitarian interventions. Opponents of this approach argue that it may not be sustainable and may in itself become a threat to global security. Therefore, this controversy has a lot to do with the need to balance between state sovereignty and adherence to fundamental human rights.

Legitimization of the doctrine of forcible humanitarian intervention

            The doctrine of forcible humanitarian intervention has become a major issue in the post-Cold War era. According to Thomas & Tow (2002), the main reason why it is opposed is that it contradicts the classical norms of relations among sovereign states. On the other hand, one of the reasons for supporting this approach, other than the centrality of human rights, is the fact the state is increasingly losing its position as the primary actor in international relations. This is particularly evident given that most of the supporters of humanitarian interventions are non-state actors.

Those who support the classical approach to state sovereignty argue that the sovereign should be left alone to deal with their problems even when it is evident that governments are perpetrating human rights abuses against their own citizens (Weiss, 2012). The same case applies to situations where states collapse into chaos, disorder, and civil, such that the most realistic way of redeeming them is through humanitarian intervention. In such cases, some people consider humanitarian intervention to be a legitimate course of action. Support for this point of view is mainly provided in the form of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine (Murdie, 2010).

The “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine attempts to put in place crucial adjustments to the historical debate on issues of state sovereignty and humanitarian intervention (Murdie, 2010). R2P is an initiative of the United States that was established in 2005. As an emerging norm in this debate, it is based on the notion that state sovereignty is a responsibility and not a right. In this initiative, the objective is to prevent and end four main crimes that touch on fundamental human rights; namely genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes (Murdie, 2010). Under this initiative, the United Nations, hopes address the problem of these so-called mass atrocity crimes as well as to raise awareness on how to protect the human rights and lives of endangered peoples.

Through the R2P doctrine, the UN seems to have codified the human intervention norm that was developed during the 1990s soon after the end of the Cold War. The significance of this document is evident in the fact that for the first time in history, society formally acknowledged the need for the international community to weigh sovereignty against fundamental human rights. The UN was keen to legitimize the use of force in compelling rogue states to halt their campaigns of mass atrocities against certain ethnic groups. During the late 1990s, such humanitarian intervention ended a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

The other side of this debate is dominated by those who are concerned that humanitarian interventions can easily be used as a justification for one state rising up against another. These concerned influenced the decision by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to propose specific criteria for identifying gross human rights violations. The objective was to make it extremely hard for states to use humanitarian interventions as justification for invading their neighbors. This approach suggested the setting up of detailed consensus on the need for humanitarian intervention. At the same time, the ICISS emphasized the need to create provisions preventing the UN Security Council permanent members to use their veto power erratically. To address this problem, the ICISS recommended the utilization of regional organizations and the UN General Assembly.

Unfortunately, the recommendations of the ICISS were not adopted. Instead, the UN passed a resolution declaring that R2P required authorization by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Things turned out this because of inherent problems such as lack of authoritative judgments, manipulation of criteria, and failure by governments to take stern action due to moral pressure.

It is evident that one of the main reasons why it has been difficult to legitimize humanitarian interventions is the controversies and ambiguities surrounding their adoption. In fact, these ambiguities and controversies are the ones that necessitated the establishment of the R2P in the first place. Any efforts to provide legitimation must focus on the need to balance between human security and state security. Moreover, it is also important for the role of the state to be examined in relation to arbitration of long-standing discord between intervention and sovereignty.

The issue of sustainability remains at the heart of controversy relating to state sovereignty and the moral duty to act to prevent and stop human rights violations. In this regard, the debate for scholars of international law and international relations is on which one between state security and human security ought to take precedence. At the outset, it should be noted that one would be unrealistic to talk about state security without talking about human security. At the same time, it seems morally wrong to weigh between state rights and human rights. Those who argue in favor of state rights do so in support of state sovereignty. However, this is only one of the sides of the debate. On the other side, proponents of state rights argue that sovereignty provides the world the greatest opportunity for sustainable peace and cooperation among sovereign states. This debate raises hard questions, and the UN’s R2P proposal was aimed at providing answers to some of them.

By acknowledging the need to prevent states from abusing humanitarian interventions, the UN made a major step ahead in setting a good precedent in international law. This precedent was necessary given the urgency with which the problem of human rights violations needed to be addressed. Moreover, it is worthwhile to note that most of the contemporary conflicts that lead to massive violations of human rights are intra-state character. In these conflicts, different groups, in most cases non-state actors, seek to assert their authority by seeking solace in issues such as religion and ethnicity. These issues are used as rallying points for challenging state authority with the aim of achieving parochial goals. For this reason, many states in developing countries are no longer the sole custodians of the legitimate use of force. Rebel groups have taken control over certain territories that they claim to control. In such territories, massive violations of the fundamental human rights of citizens tend to occur.

Furthermore, in many developing countries, particularly in African, most perennial conflicts tend to have a regional character, meaning that it is usually extremely difficult for a state to regulate the flow of weapons from one sovereign state to the other. In situations where majority of the populations in such internal  conflicts are unarmed, the threat of human rights violations are massive. Armed groups tend to undermine state institutions at will, leading to their eventual collapse. The resulting descent into lawlessness creates an environment where human rights violations are certainty unavoidable. For example, in recent times, many rebel leaders in Northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been known to use child soldiers. Such situations are so common in Africa that the UN feels that the doctrine of state sovereignty should not be used as an excuse for rebel leaders of ethnic militias to get away with serious war crimes, genocides, and crimes against humanity.

In intra-state wars where governments have lost control over certain regions, civilian populations are easily targeted. Moreover, armed groups take advantage of the vulnerability of these civilians to expel, main, or kill them. The humanitarian crises resulting from such wars can be very devastating. These ugly scenarios have stirred the international community into action with a view to discuss the issue of state sovereignty through a moral compass. As the issue of humanitarian interventions takes center stage, many people hope that the UN will come up with a concrete framework for ensuring that the international community can intervene militarily to save vulnerable citizens of war-torn countries from the wrath of war criminals. In fact, this way, the international society can demonstrate its respect for human rights.

The idea of utilizing the UN General Assembly and regional assembly is an acceptable step in efforts to create a framework for the legitimization of humanitarian interventions. In addition to ensuring that permanent UNSC member states do not use their veto powers erratically, it would also reduce the likelihood that a state will use humanitarian intervention as an excuse to invade another country in the pursuit of national interest. In this context, the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan comes to mind. If the decision to intervene militarily had been left to regional organizations and the UN General Assembly, the US may have been blocked from invading these two sovereign states in the pretext of global war on terror.

Contribution of humanitarian interventions to the spread of human rights

One of the greatest achievements made through international humanitarian interventions is the elevation of the debate on human rights as a matter of international concern.          Many, countries, particularly in the West, support the idea of developing human rights norms through amendments to international law. This marks a trend towards a situation where the rights of the individual are increasingly taking primacy over state sovereignty. In this environment, the world is headed to an age where governments can no longer expect to escape sanctions whenever they facilitate violations of the fundamental human rights of their citizens. In other words, human rights are increasingly being entrenched into the wider body of duties and responsibilities of governments. These governments have the responsibility to provide adequate protection to vulnerable populations who may be targeted through internal conflict situations.

By proposing the R2P doctrine, the UN addressed a concern that had for a long time been highlighted by critics of state sovereignty (Roberts, 2010). The concern in this regard was that the UN Charter abhors any efforts by the world body to intervene in the domestic affairs of sovereign issues. However, since the world ushered in the post-Cold era, the UN has moved a step ahead by adopting a number of resolutions seeking to broaden the definition of threats to international peace. The purpose of this undertaking was to emphasize on the need for interventions aimed at addressing the humanitarian needs of populations affected by different crises, including those that are of domestic nature.

In the context of this new development in the UN, some scholars argue that the UNSC now has the legal mandate to intervene with the aim of ending human rights violations. It is also seen to have acquired the legal right to authorize intervention by a regional organization or a group of states in order to ensure that citizens are protect from fundamental human rights violations as provided for in international law. Although opinion tends to vary regarding this stand, UN-authorized humanitarian interventions involving military force since the late 1990s are a reflection of an emerging consensus within the international community that respect for human rights has become a matter of serious international concern.

Although major milestones have evidently been achieved in efforts to raise this concern at the global level, it is unfortunately that timely response is always lacking. The Security Council tends to remain inactive during the early stages of the emergence of a looming humanitarian crisis. In most cases, this “international concern tends to be outweighed by structural and political obstacles. This greatly hinders the ability by the Security Council to take action in a timely manner. Some of these structural and political obstacles include cold relations among the permanent UNSC members, lack of political will on the part of various member states, a tendency by the permanent members to engage in inconsistent action, and the power of veto. These factors tend to have a paralyzing effect on the UNSC whenever humanitarian crises emerge.

Whenever such inaction on the part of the UNSC occurs, a group of states or a regional organization may unilaterally intervene in another state with the aim of preventing widespread violations of human rights. Such states, groups of states, or regional organizations fail to await authorization by the UNSC. For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened militarily in Kosovo to prevent fundamental human rights violations by stopping a campaign of ethnic cleansing. This humanitarian intervention was praised by many people around the world. At the same time, it raised very difficult questions regarding the legality and legitimacy of failure by NATO to seek authorization by the UN Security Council.

Two schools of thought have emerged in the debate regarding the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention. In the first one, supporters of intervention argue that the far-reaching developments made in international law on human rights as well as the UN Charter had radical implications for international law. This school adopts a “deontological moral standpoint” to argue that the human being, as opposed to the state, is the basic unit of reference in discussions on concerns of the international legal system (Hehir, 2010). This implies that all nation-states derive their legitimacy and authority from the will of the people. The underlying argument is that sovereignty should never be understood as an inherent right of nation-states; rather, it derives from the rights of individuals. In other words, this school of thought upholds the supremacy of fundamental human rights whenever they are in conflict with the issue of state sovereignty. In this school of thought, emphasis is on the fact that the concept of state sovereignty can only become meaningful if states observe individual rights, albeit minimally. The school also argues that any force used in efforts to defend fundamental human rights should not be interpreted as a use of force that is inconsistent with the intents and purposes of the United Nations.

In the second school of thought, the idea of humanitarian intervention is vehemently opposed (Weiss, 2012). This school strongly supports and maintains the position held in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter (Weiss, 2012). This article provides a watertight prohibition against attempts by one state to use force against another. This article extinguished all provisions for unilateral intervention that may have existed prior to the establishment of the UN Charter.

Supporters of this approach contend that the protection of fundamental human rights does not in any way warrant the use of military force without authorization from the UNSC. They hold this position even in situations where violations of these human rights become a subject of international concern. The proponents of this school add that peace must always prevail even where a conflict emerges between different values defined by the UN Charter.

Another perspective relating to the analysis of the legitimacy and legality of humanitarian intervention highlights aspects of affirmative, legalist, and reformist positions (Belloni, 2001). According to Belloni (2001), the best way to understand these strands is to focus on the case of the unilateral action undertaken by NATO in Kosovo. In this example, NATO intervened militarily for humanitarian reasons. The objective of this action was to stop a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The affirmative position is based on the view that humanitarian interventions are lawful and legitimate under international law. This is the same argument that proponents of the affirmative position held with regard with the Kosovo intervention (Belloni, 2001). On the contrary, the legalist position adversely denied that the use of armed force was unlawful because it did not fall within the realm of special accepted cases. Proponents of this position hold onto it regardless of the fact that the aim of the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo was to ensure that the campaign of violating fundamental human rights of citizens through ethnic cleansing was stopped.

The reformist position is based on the view that international law in its present form fails to provide an acceptable position regarding the legality of humanitarian intervention. This lack of clarity leads these proponents to argue that humanitarian interventions might be regarded as lawful in certain circumstances. On this basis, attempts are made to identify the conditions under which humanitarian interventions are necessary. At the same time, efforts are made to reform international law.

For many legal pundits, the most acceptable position is the positive argument, which completely rejects the right of non-consensual  or forcible humanitarian intervention. These legal pundits argue that although the state is under obligation to safeguard and respect the citizens’ fundamental human rights, no legal right has been provided under international law for the use of force by any state or organization to ensure such compliance. On this basis, they completely reject NATO intervention by terming it “illegal”. The main reason for regarding it as illegal is the fact that it was not authorized by the UNSC.

However, a purely legalist position seems inadequate and deficient for purposes of analyzing both the legitimacy and legality of humanitarian intervention. This is because it does not consider aspects of legitimacy. Legitimacy is an equally important consideration given the fact that many states and regional organizations tend to be constrained by political and structural obstacles in efforts to intervene forcibly in countries where mass atrocities are being committed with the aim of providing humanitarian assistance.

At the same time, it would unacceptable for legal considerations to be ruled out completely. Such a move may undermine efforts to arrive at an objective appraisal of the contributions of humanitarian interventions to the spread of human rights around the world. The fundamental political consequences of ruling out legal considerations may overturn any benefits achieved during the process of intervention. In other words, a legal perspective is appropriate in efforts to achieve the goal of sustainability with regard to international peace and the spread of human rights.

Today, many contributions made in the spread of human rights may be attributed to efforts by various actors in international politics to put into consideration affirmative, legalist, and reformist positions in their discussions on humanitarian intervention. These considerations are of utmost importance in determining justifications for different situations where humanitarian intervention is being contemplated. One of the fundamental criteria being put into consideration in the post-Cold War era is the overall legitimacy and respectability of the countries participating in a given action. Other factors include modalities and procedures of the action, and whether the military action is implicitly or explicitly being supported by a number of international organizations and countries. Moreover, an emerging norm is one where efforts are made to determine whether the action being contemplated is necessary and proportionate to the anticipated gains.

Challenges of humanitarian interventions in the post-Cold War era

Although many achievements have been made in efforts to safeguard and respect fundamental human rights through humanitarian efforts, numerous challenges have always stood in the way of this mission. The idea that fundamental human rights can constitute a legitimating reason for the use of violence has been extremely slow to emerge. In some cases, it has been vehemently contested, with some intervening states choosing to deny it. Various actors in international politics have been reluctant to accept the so called “solidarist” approach that not only permits intervention but also morally requires the intervention of external military whenever supreme humanitarian emergencies emerge (Wheeler, 2000).

Much more debate is required before a normative agreement that resembles a “solidarist” perspective is reached. This is because a lot of skepticism still surrounds the idea of intervention in the name of safeguarding human rights. Those who do not portray skepticism hope that humanitarian interventions can greatly contribute to the emergence of a new sense of solidarity among states, which is similar to the one that sovereign states demonstrate during natural calamities, disasters, and catastrophes such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis.

In some cases, serious challenges are encountered in efforts to maintain a balance between international justice and international order. International justice is hinged on international law while international order is primarily pegged on state sovereignty. Balancing between these two polar ends in the context of humanitarian interventions is an extremely difficult undertaking. The issue at stake in this debate is that of sustainability. Without international order it may be impossible to talk about sustainability in international relations. The fact that international relations take place in a social context compels many states to argue that it is the moral responsibility of other states to intervene whenever one of them violates the rights of its citizens. This creates a paradoxical scenario where states are compelled to engage in international relations while at the same holding onto state sovereignty. The paradox is evident in the fact that states are bound by moral and legal obligations in the process of relating with each other. In many cases, humanitarian interventions violate legal obligations while failure to act contravenes moral obligations. States have had to contend with this ambiguity in the post-Cold War era in the efforts to contribute to the spread of human rights.

It seems a clear framework of determining the legitimacy of forcible intervention has already been agreed upon by actors in international politics. This is a major step ahead in efforts to promote human rights. One of the tenets of this framework highlights aspects of massive violations of human rights and breaches amounting to crimes against humanity. These violations and breaches may be perpetuated by the state. In other cases, the role of the state may be limited to that of rendering support to perpetrators. Another cause may be state collapse, which effectively incapacitates the government to deal with these atrocities.

Alternatively, the UNSC may be paralyzed, rendering it unable to take stern action either because of antagonism among the permanent members or because of the exercise of veto. Moreover, it may be evident that military option would serve the situation better particularly in situations where all peaceful means have been exhausted in efforts to end human rights violations. Similarly, it seems more acceptable for a group of states to participate in the intervention as opposed to one state. In this case, the sole purpose should be to stop atrocities and human rights violations. The best-case scenario is one where majority of the member states of the UN accept or are not opposed to the decision.

Unfortunately, this issue, when viewed from different perspectives, only reinforces the seemingly intractable dilemma between moral and legal considerations. A case in point is the fact that many observers have repeatedly insisted that the issue of Kosovo is not justifiable in legal terms. According to these observers, interventions such as the one undertaken in Kosovo should be resorted to in ad hoc, extreme situations only. On the basis of this option, doors are left open on the issue of determining which cases of human suffering because of human rights violations qualify to be regarded as “extreme”. At the same time, the need for caution is expressed in efforts to ensure that the hard-earned international legal order that exists today is not jeopardized.

Humanitarian intervention from the African perspective

African is the poorest continent in the world. It is also under distress in many aspects, chief among them human rights violations. Moreover, the continent was severely distress by human and material exploitation during colonialism, and most recently, during the Cold War. During the Cold War, many proxy wars were fought on the continent as the East and West wrestled over the spread of their respective ideologies. At the same time, the African continent has been undergoing a drastic process of modernization.

Colonialism was widely portrayed by the West as being benevolent. However, in the real sense, it was imperialistic and exploitative. This caused many African governments to become suspicious of the West. This environment of suspicion has continued to prevail even in the post-Cold War era. For example, many African states are opposed to the idea of humanitarian intervention. They see it as an affront to state sovereignty. This suspicion is compounded by the realization by African states that sovereignty remains their greatest shield that continues to protect them against Western countries keen to meddle in their domestic affairs in the furtherance of their national interests.

The European humanitarian forays into the continent generated too many negative consequences that Africans became cautious about any external assertions of such humanitarian protection or benevolence. This is evident in the way African states remain very hostile towards any attempts to modify the rules of non-intervention as enshrined in international law and the UN Charter. This position on the part of African governments is understandable given that they recently emerged from the yokes of colonialism in the hands of European imperialists.

During the Rwandan genocide, France was accused by many African countries for being motivated by political considerations as compared to humanitarian factors in Operation Turquoise. In this genocide, hundreds of Rwandans died in a genocide that pitted the Hutu ethnic group against the Tutsi ethnic group. At the same time, the UN was accused of standing on the sidelines while hundreds of innocent Rwandans were being massacred. Many observers on the continent argued that the West failed to intervene in the genocide because it did not stand to derive any meaningful benefits as far as national-interest considerations are concerned.

Moreover, Africa is weak in many aspects: politically, economically, and militarily. Territorial integrity is not guaranteed through military means alone. The environment of economic and financial buoyancy in which they operate renders them vulnerable to internal and external threats to state sovereignty. During the Cold War, this vulnerability was being demonstrated largely through inter-state conflicts. In today’s post-Cold War era, many things have changed. One of them is the rapid increase in intra-state conflicts. These conflicts are fuelled by different agents, including armed groups, multiple social movements that pose a challenge to the state, and coups and counter-coups driven by the struggle for regime survival. Many civilians get caught up in these crises, which quickly degenerate into serious humanitarian crises. Human rights violations usually constitute an integral element of these crises.

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