‘Humanitarian’ Intervention

Sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit one murder; nor can it be an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye. This is what US President Obama remarked in his address to the UN General Assembly. He further stated that though the UN was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly it faced the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.
President Obama’s remarks, coming amid efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, which has been sparked, if one were to buy the American narrative, by the ‘inhuman’ policies and actions of a ‘dictator’, highlight the conflict between state sovereignty and intervention in the domestic affairs of a country, especially on humanitarian grounds. Needless to say, Washington in both theory and practice is a strong exponent of humanitarian intervention, with or without a nod from the UN Security Council. However, many disagree with the world’s sole superpower’s approach.
Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the international order is based on the twin principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. However, states have been interfering in each other’s domestic affairs and this intervention has been both non-coercive and coercive.
The Cold War saw the world divided into two blocs, with each side intruding into sovereign states, not infrequently, to expand its membership. However, attention remained largely focused on inter-state conflict. The end of the Cold War and the demise of communism created fresh divisions, particularly in the erstwhile allies of the (now former) USSR. This implied a shift of focus from what happened on the borders of a state to what happened inside the borders.
In his 1992 report, ‘An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping’ presented to the UN Security Council, the then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recommended that the sovereignty principle should be reassessed by a ‘legitimate ethical’ concern for what happened within the states. This meant that the international community could no longer remain a silent spectator to violence within the territory of any of its members. This also meant that respect for human rights was a universal obligation and that at all events states must be willing to discharge the same.
The UN Charter already committed members to use force against another state if international peace and security was threatened. Hence, what was left was to establish a causal link between human rights violation and threat to international peace. A regime, the argument went, that suppressed its own people, was most likely to use force against others. A dictatorial state, therefore, became a strong candidate for international intervention.
The first post-Cold War case of humanitarian intervention was the Nato-led strike on Serbia (March-June 1999) during the Kosovo conflict to stop the genocide of the Kosovar Albanians. In October 2001, Nato attacked Afghanistan in the wake of the infamous September 11 attacks in the US. The purpose was to dismantle Al-Qaeda, which allegedly masterminded the 9/11, and remove the Taliban regime.
Strictly speaking, the Afghan invasion was not humanitarian as the purpose was not so much to liberate the Afghan people from the oppressive Taliban regime as to punish it for supporting a terrorist network. But since terrorists kill people and Al-Qaeda had sponsored global terrorism, the Nato intervention could be partly termed humanitarian.
Then in March 2003, a US-led international force invaded Iraq, took the capital Baghdad and put an end to the Saddam Hussein regime. The avowed purpose of the mission was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” Hence, the Iraq invasion was also described as humanitarian. In March 2011, Nato troops deposed Qaddafi by invading Libya. Again, the declared purpose was to protect the civilians against ‘atrocities’ of the regime.
Washington is considering a ‘limited’ strike on Syria to bring down the ‘repressive’ Assad regime. It has already intervened in the country by supplying arms to the forces opposed to Assad. Whether Americans will actually carry out the Syrian strike is anybody’s guess. But they would have the world believe that ethically there’s a strong case for doing so.
The case for humanitarian intervention rests on the premise that there are states good and wicked and it’s the duty of the good states to see to it that the wicked are reformed and the best way to do so is to bring about a regime change – by the use of force if need be. Hence, ‘bad’ guys like Saddam, and Qaddafi and possibly Assad must be thrown out.
While humanitarianism is a legitimate reason for foreign intervention, quite a few questions still arise. One, what makes an intervention humanitarian? Obviously a regime doesn’t make itself open to intervention merely because it’s dictatorial? The regime must cross a red line. But what is this red line? Is it persecution of a significant part of the population? Or is it use of weapons of mass destruction?
Was Qaddafi guilty of that offence? Saddam was accused of having amassed weapons that were never recovered. Isn’t humanitarian intervention at times a smokescreen for achieving some less ethical objectives, such as access to a nation’s natural resources?
Two, who will decide that a country is fit for humanitarian intervention, the powers that be? The UN? Suppose the use of chemical weapons constitutes the red line, who’ll decide that a regime actually went over that line? Is mere suspicion enough to convict a government? In the case of Syria, Washington and London decided to strike without waiting for such evidence.
Three, whatever the motives behind humanitarian intervention and whoever its judge, isn’t it essentially an act of power? Just as there are states good and bad, there are countries powerful and weak. If powerful states are bent upon invading a weaker state, would it be difficult for them to come up with reasons for doing so? Enforcing respect for human rights can conveniently be made a plausible ground.
Such questions apart, humanitarian intervention will continue to be an important foreign policy instrument of major powers. Market economy and globalisation have already sapped states of their sovereignty. For a good many nations whatever is left of sovereignty is being eaten up by foreign, including humanitarian, intervention. Sovereignty, adieu!