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Ernesto Rodriguez

Philosophy 12: Ethics

Summer 2004

Research Report




Human Rights vs. World Order: Looking at the Ethical Issue of Humanitarian Intervention


“If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica…to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”

-Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General


The Issue

The idea of human rights is one held in the highest regard by our society. Many would argue that above all else, the measure of our humanity is ultimately our concern for the well being of our fellow humans. This concern for our fellow human beings would include that we should not want, nor tolerate, the mass suffering of people under a repressive or murderous government. From a purely ethical perspective, it cannot be argued that a person should stand and watch as a young child is tortured or killed by his parents. Likewise, from the same purely ethical position, it stands that the world should not allow states to perpetrate large-scale violations of human rights against their people. History has tried the collective morality of the world on more than a single occasion. The Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, and a tribal genocide in Rwanda all serve as proof that the issue of humanitarian intervention is by no means a hypothetical situation.

Given the premise that it is ethically justifiable to intervene in the name of human rights, to do so would be to violate the proper sovereignty of a nation. In the same way a society is comprised of individuals, the world is comprised of individual nations. And like individuals within a society, nations “are bound by legal and moral obligations in their relations with each other” (Belloni). These moral obligations between nations provide a foundation for a world order that ultimately prevents much greater atrocities than any one nation could possibly achieve.

Therein lies the issue, whether or not human rights should take precedence over international law. What would be the consequences, if nations arbitrarily attacked each other on the grounds of intervention? What would be the consequences if instead; nations did nothing to intervene in the event of genocide? Is it acceptable to violate a nation’s sovereignty in order to preserve life and justice?


The Case for Humanitarian Intervention

The argument for intervention that immediately comes to mind is the philosophical one: our moral duty to prevent human suffering and atrocity. Were we to find ourselves powerless victims of oppression or genocide, we would surely plead for someone to intervene and stop our suffering and save our lives. And would those who have the power to intervene not be obligated by their own ethical standards to do so? Is not the entire purpose of justice to mitigate the amount of evil humanity must endure?  

In December of 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty released a report entitled “The Responsibility to Protect”. This report favored humanitarian intervention based on two principles:


“A. State Sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its People lies with the state itself.

B. Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in

question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.”


This argument is based on the idea that a state has the duty to protect its people from suffering, and if the state is either unable or refuses to honor that duty the responsibility falls on the international community to intervene and protect those people. The report defines such an event as either a “large scale loss of life” or “large-scale ethnic cleansing”, both of which the world has witnessed as recently as the 1990’s.

Another argument is that “inaction in the face of brutality simply invites more brutality. But firmness can stop armies and save lives”, as stated by former president Clinton. This argument is easily bolstered with statistics, after non-intervention in 1994 left 800,000 people dead in Rwanda. And indeed one is compelled to ask if 800,000 lives was not a heavy price to pay to respect the concept of sovereignty.


The Case Against Humanitarian Intervention

            Those who argue against humanitarian intervention do so on the grounds that it is a “violation of the rules safeguarding the independent choices of other political communities, and is inherently open to the possibility of abuse by the strong trying to coerce the weak” (Belloni). For one nation to interfere in the affairs of another nation, however sinister, is nonetheless a violation of that nation’s right to sovereignty; and a violation of the mutual obligation of non-intervention between nations. To this extent, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika proclaimed, “we remain extremely sensitive to any undermining of our sovereignty, not only because sovereignty is our last defense against the rules of an unequal world”. And so, this argument chooses non-intervention with respect to international law.

            The case against humanitarian intervention also cites its inherent subjective nature. How are we to objectively define a situation that would warrant intervention? Who even has the moral right to establish such a definition? How are we to be assured that an intervening nation is acting in name of human rights and not in its own interests? To accept humanitarian intervention as justification for military action would be create the opportunity for nations to hide more devious intentions behind the veil of human rights.


In Conclusion

            The general consensus is that humanitarian intervention should in fact prevail over the laws of sovereignty given that it can be accomplished in a way that is fair to all nations and successful in alleviating human suffering. The responsibility to carry this out ideally falls on the United Nations. But even U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan concedes that the security system in effect is “imperfect, yet resilient”. In the Balkans, NATO forces acted unilaterally, without the consent of the U.N. to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s cruelty in Kosovo. In Rwanda, U.N. involvement was minimal and there was no intervention by other nations, which resulted in the violent deaths of 800,000 Tutsi people. And thus, while there is a need to place morality above international law, to place human rights above state sovereignty, there is also a need to do so in a way that will not undermine the relationships between the nations of the world.








Resources / Works Cited


Belloni, Roberto. Kosovo and Beyond: Is Humanitarian Intervention Transforming International Society? 2002. Center on Rights Development


The International Commision on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Responsibility to Protect. December 2001


MacArthur, John R. Humanitarian Intervention: Two Views (Against Liberal Intervention), August 4, 2003


Williams, Ian. Humanitatian Intervention: Two Views (Intervene with Caution), August 4, 2003


Walker, Chris. Humanitarian Intervention.


Abrams, Elliot. To Fight the Good Fight. The National Affairs, Inc. 2000


Chomsky, Noam. Judge the US by deeds, not words – Humanitarian Intervention. New Statesman, 4/9/1999


Walzer, Michael. The Triumph of just war theory – and the dangers of success – International Justice, War Crimes, and Terrorism: The US Record. Social Research, Winter 2002