Is Humanitarian Intervention Justified


Fundamentally, there has never been a consensus on the justification for humanitarian intervention. While one school of thought argues that it is the right thing to do, another school of thought believes that it is unethical to engage in humanitarian intervention. In one hand, the people against the humanitarian claim that realistically argue that humanitarian intervention interferes with the receiving country’s sovereignty, which must be treated with great supremacy. Therefore, this school of through argues that humanitarian intervention involves the use of armed forces that interfere with the territorial integrity of the receiving state and therefore humanitarian intervention should never be used. On the other hand, the school of thought pro-humanitarian intervention takes a liberal point of view and argues that humanitarian intervention is a liberal approach to protect the innocent while punishing perpetrators of war. While the United Nations (UN) has occasionally allowed the use of force while intervening on various wars, some countries on different occasions have unilaterally acted against the wars. Therefore, it is monumental to evaluate the underlying ethical and moral dilemma o the use of humanitarian intervention, its legal and political intervention.


This essay seeks to analyze these two schools of thought, using case studies and examples to identify their respective justifications. By the end of this essay, the author shall have identified the need for the international community to develop a framework that favors humanitarian intervention based on decision-making processes that recognize and places the victims of gross human rights violations. Furthermore, the essay will take sides by establishing why humanitarian intervention is morally right, to address the massive human right violations faced by the victims of war. In doing so the author will argue that there is no need for upholding the traditional beliefs of state sovereignty as an obstacle to interventions that seek to prevent human right violations. Thus, the author will, in the end, argue that humanitarian interventions have the ethical responsibilities of saving innocent war victims and should not be overridden by claims of state sovereignty.

However, this essay insists that humanitarian interventions are not justified under all circumstances and that some situations do not need humanitarian intervention. Therefore, the essay will use certain case studies to demonstrate the situations that need humanitarian intervention, with specific reference to the circumstances and forces behind those interventions. The essay will be based on the theoretical values of constructivism. Consequently, the essay will present the argument that there is a need for international law to accommodate humanitarian intervention, especially considering the UN’s fiduciary duty of protecting mankind. Therefore, the essay will present the argument that legal provisions should be made to support humanitarian interventions, considering that part of the problems encountered by humanitarian responses is the lack of legal support.

Why Humanitarian Intervention Is Morally Right

The world has come into terms with humanitarian interventions since the 16th and 17th Century when war was morally justified as a way of protecting rights and maintaining law and order. Most rulers had the right and responsibility to enforce certain rules that were beyond their jurisdiction. For instance, moralists saw it justifiable to conduct humanitarian intervention when Christians were mistreated by non-Christians during the medial times. Similarly, according to Nardin, Humanitarian interventions were also justified during the Spanish invasion of America.

Fundamentally, supporters of humanitarian intervention as a morally right activity refer to Natural law, which consists of moral behavior governed by nature. Ideally, natural law consists of perceptions held for natural reasons, and are binding to all rational beings. Thus, the rules set by natural law are more general than the norms of particular communities, and therefore justified the rulers’ intervention – whereby they defended the innocent and punished wrongdoers.

A legal evaluation of natural law reveals its support for humanitarian intervention. According to Nardin, it does not, in any way rest upon customs nor positive law. With this regard, common morality is upheld based on the fundamental principle that an individual’s rights are guaranteed not because they are a member of a particular community but because they belong to the human community, which exists within a common moral world. This perspective does not rely on any religious, customs or legal connotations of any community, awarding it the characteristic of ‘minimal morality.’

Common morality operates under the assumption that humans are rational beings with the ability to rationally choose what is best for them. Moreover, the common morality acknowledges that every human has some standards that they ought to live by. This implies that individuals must respect the agency of others and support each other in various ways, termed as the principle of respect and beneficence respectively.

These principles justify people’s moral obligation to help others. Therefore, it is quite obvious that there is a link between common morality and humanitarian intervention, especially considering that humanitarian intervention seeks to block the violation of universal human rights. This implies that if people in some part of the world are experiencing oppression, states have to intervene, and at least based on the principle of common morality. Moreover, the understanding of dignity provides a fundamental basis for identifying the kind of oppression that requires some sort of humanitarian intervention. Similarly, the principle of beneficence requires that humans cannot sit at their comfort while others are experiencing serious levels of oppression.

The morality of humanitarian intervention has also been argued out by philosophers with different perspectives. For instance, J.S Mill argued against the idea of humanitarian intervention because according to him, humanitarian interventions interfere with the receiving country’s quest for authentic liberty. According to Doyle, Mill argues that humanitarian intervention gives people the freedom that they might not hold on to. However, this essay opines that while Mill’s argument may be valid, it undermines the true urgency of humanitarian intervention in some situations. For instance, if the Rwandan genocide is evaluated against this argument, it comes out clearly that sometimes humanitarian intervention is urgently needed. During the Rwandan genocide, the helpless Tutsis were under attack, in which almost a million of them died in three months. Humanitarian intervention was justified in this situation because the Tutsis had no power, nor the capacity to defend them.

If moral principles are anything to go by, they form the fundamental basis for deliberations and give a clear indication of the kind of decisions to be made in situations like the one the Rwandan Tutsi found themselves in. However, deciding which course to take in such situations requires the decision-makers to be prudent in their judgment, by considering the practical and legal consequences of their decisions. This creates the need for understanding international law and the role of key international organizations such as the UN with regards to humanitarian intervention.

International law and Humanitarian Intervention

Within the context of international law, humanitarian intervention is conceptualized as a deliberate decision to launch peace-making interventions in another country without seeking their consent, to change the policies, function, and goals of its governing authorities, thereby achieving results that favor the intervening authority.

Generally, their little support accorded to humanitarian intervention by international law. However, it is important to note that international laws are legislated both formally and informally; whereby new laws develop from informal discussions, actions by state and non-state organizations, and social learning. Nonetheless, several international developments are indicating and supporting that humanitarian intervention can be executed while maintaining state sovereignty. Moreover, a discourse has emerged on the reinterpretation of humanitarian intervention principles that favors the establishment of customary international laws supporting humanitarian intervention. However, such a process would involve a lot of political dynamism and power debates on how powerful states can be prevented from shaping these laws and disenfranchising the less powerful states.

The significant challenge to be met by this shifting discourse is the realist view of international relations as a struggle for superiority. Moreover, empirical evidence indicates that states tend to protect their interest when handling issues of humanitarian intervention. A typical example is that of the Darfur conflict, a win which China and Russia seemed to protect their strategic interests of the oil-rich Sudan. It was, therefore, easier to protect that either or both these two countries, which were also members of the UN Security Council would reject humanitarian intervention in Sudan.

Nonetheless, an important consideration by the international community is to focus on normative structures, rather than on material structures, which is in line with the constructivist theory of international relations. Theoretically, the constructivist theory attempts to connect liberalism with realism, referring symbolic-inter-actionist and symbolic interactionism sociology, at the expense of the liberalist argument that state interest and identities can be transformed by international institutions. Theories of constructivism give wider scope in the understanding of international law by highlighting issues of purpose and identity. With regards to the conceptualization of humanitarian intervention, its core ideas can be based on constructivism because humanitarian intervention treats rules, ideas and norms not only as constraining but also as constitutive.

International organizations such as the UN are increasingly playing a significant role in maintaining security, peace and order. However, dealing with humanitarian intervention issues has been challenging to the UN. For instance, while the UN charter does not determine the rights of member states, there are only a few occasions where the UN has justified humanitarian intervention as a result of gross human rights violation. Nonetheless, the charter gives high regard to individual human rights.

Observably, the UN charter contains several references that justify the need for humanitarian intervention in situations where there is a gross violation of human rights. For instance, the UN General Assembly has made major pronouncements on humanitarian assistance, referring to the states’ responsibility for dealing with various crises they encounter.

However, there has also been a re-evaluation of the idea of state sovereignty by those in favor of international cooperation and globalization. For instance, in 1991, the UN General Assembly resolved that the national unity and state sovereignty of countries must be accorded full respect as stipulated in the UN charter. With this regard, according to Taylor & Curtis, no humanitarian intervention should be executed without the appeal and consent of the receiving country. Moreover, the authority of determining the existence of security threats only lies with the UN Security Council (i.e. Article 39 of the UN Charter). Similarly, according to Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter, the Security Council has the authority to determine what measures to be taken in maintaining peace and order. Notably though, the term ‘threat to peace’ is now broadly interpreted to include civil wars, human right violations and humanitarian crises, in which the Security Council and the UN are allowed to respond appropriately.

The UN’s power to address issues related to humanitarian intervention is espoused within the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report of 2001. According to ICISS, states have the responsibility of protecting their citizens but are they are incapable of doing so; the international community has the responsibility to issue protection. Therefore, the ICISS document allows for intervention measures against tyrannical states and the responsibility of the international community to rebuild them. Particularly, this responsibility to protect was adopted by the UN General Assembly during the 2005 World Summit. Upon adopting the document, the General Assembly declared that if states demonstrate a failure to protect their citizens from any form of ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity, the international community, through the UN Security Council will assume the responsibility of taking collective action as permitted by Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. Therefore, according to Arbour the principle of responsibility to protect lies squarely within the confines of international humanitarian law and human rights, which gives priority to the victims’ interests rather than the underlying state-centered motives.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have increasingly played important role circumstances requiring humanitarian intervention. NGOs raise awareness about humanitarian situations and call for interventions aimed at protecting vulnerable populations through rapid response and aid activities. In some cases, they have directly called for interventions from the international military.

The strong emergence of strong UN transitional forces indicates a shift in the debate of whether states are right to intervene in the debate on where the responsibility of protecting the endangered people lies. Nonetheless, there is an apparent tension between these transitional forces and more dominant intergovernmental aspects. Ideally, the UN as a transitional organization represents the humanitarian interest that overrides the interests of individual states. Particularly, the NGOs, office of the secretary-general, specialized agencies, and bureaucracies represent UN’s transitional face. Nonetheless, the UN’s services and missions in the past few decades have overlapped its original mandate to include democratization, human right protection, promotion of economic development and humanitarian missions.

It is within this role of addressing cosmopolitan issues such as human rights that create a foundation for dealing with intervention issues with a special interest in the people rather than the states. Evaluated from a closer perspective, the UN operates from a binary position of the government of member states and the citizens of these member states for whom the government is established. Therefore, it is possible to extrapolate that the transition forces legitimize the UN’s role in a humanitarian intervention aimed at protecting civilians from gross violation of human rights.

However, an interesting question to evaluate is whether the realists’ representatives, the Security Council and the sovereign states can preside over the transnational face. The main motives of intergovernmental arrangements are the sharing of power, with sovereignty perceived as the most important asset of state systems. Therefore, there is little chance that the UN’s intergovernmental orientation will diminish. However, there has been a trend of increasingly stronger transnationalism which creates an opportunity of increasing humanitarian interventions.

Points supporting Humanitarian intervention

Liberalists’ arguments supporting humanitarian interventions have strong humanitarian roots. They argue that humans have the moral grounds to stop any form of gross violation of human rights and brute on innocent people. In most cases, it is only through a humanitarian intervention that gross violation of human rights can be stopped. In certain situations, the oppression reaches a point that there no longer exists any connection between the state and its citizens. Thus, in such situations, arguments for state sovereignty are no longer valid. More importantly, humanitarian intervention is valid from a utilitarian perspective because the interventions are likely to save more lives than their costs. If conflicts are allowed to escalate in the name of protecting state sovereignty, they can reach a level where they affect the neighboring regions or states.

If humanitarian crises are left unattended, they can become a threat to international security as witnessed in the case of Afghanistan, whereby in the 1990s, the United States spent much time considering Afghanistan as a humanitarian crisis zone, not knowing that it was gradually becoming a national security threat by being a training ground for militias and terrorists.

However, we acknowledge these arguments do not apply in all circumstances. We agree with Nardin that humanitarian intervention must be selectively used. Nevertheless, intervening forces often play an important role in eliminating the barrier to piece, whether it is the regime or just a person. A typical example is the de-denazification of Germany after the Second World War, and the killing of Sadam Hussein to eliminate terror threats.

Those who oppose humanitarian intervention claim that state sovereignty means that there is no higher authority not superior jurisdiction than the state itself. Article 2 of the UN charter provides an explicit opinion on state jurisdiction by asserting that the UN is not authorized to intervene on matters that are fundamentally within any state’s domestic jurisdiction but instead, states are permitted to present such issues for settlement but without the violation of measures espoused within Chapter seven of the Charter. This implies that the citizens of such states enjoy the privilege of self-determination without the interference of any outside force.

Claims have also been made that some states intervene with self-serving intentions and in such cases, the interventions only result in short-term desired outcomes, which are not sustainable in the long-term. In other cases, the humanitarian interventions result in a weak government or government with tyrannical powers. Similarly, Walzer argues that foreign soldiers and politicians may misinterpret that situation or underestimate the severity of the human right violation and respond disproportionately. Nonetheless, the foreign authority’s responsibility to protect victims of gross human rights violation override state sovereignty and are therefore justified to intervene whenever countries are unwilling to protect their citizens.

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An important point to note is that there are conditions to humanitarian interventions that must be considered by intervening authorities. The interventions must be considerate of the magnitude and scope of the problem because only extreme circumstances and life-threatening situations require the use of an external intervening force. This implies that certain situations can locally be dealt with, leaving only serious cases such as genocide systematic massacre or communities, and ethnic cleansing to be dealt with by humanitarian intervention.

In conclusion, the ethical and moral arguments presented herein justify humanitarian intervention. It has come out clearly that sovereignty should never prevent taking action against perpetrators of gross human rights violation. Nonetheless, this essay supports humanitarian intervention but recommends that major international bodies such as the UN should develop legal and political guidelines to ensure any humanitarian intervention occurs within the confines of the principle of common morality and not to serve any political interests.


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