The concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been an oft debated one not merely among academics but also at various diplomatic levels. There is considerable dispute over what constitutes humanitarian intervention and how it ought to be applied. In reality, much of this confusion stems from the fact that while there is an emerging consensus regarding the universal nature and inviolability of human rights, there is no concrete mechanism to ensure that the powers thus vested will not be misused. It can be argued that the post Cold War period has, for various reasons, given rise to conditions where a clash between human rights and national sovereignty will arise. Both theoretically and practically there is tremendous debate about which of these should prevail. It shall be argued that while theoretically human rights out to take precedence (which would then be an implicit sanction for humanitarian intervention), in reality, sovereignty cannot be cast aside so easily. Finally, it will become clear, that when humanitarian intervention has indeed taken place, the motives have not always been philanthropic and this can lead to mistrust and confusion.

The definition of a humanitarian act according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one that seeks to ‘prevent and alleviate human suffering’. This definition is supposed to be non political and impartial in that it assumes that all human beings are induced worthy of concern irrespective of sex, race and nationality. However, critics of this position argue that what constitutes human suffering may differ from one epoch to another. On the whole, there is little confusion though over what constitutes humanitarian crises, humanitarian aid and relief.

It is the other word in the contentious phrase ‘intervention’ that is the cause of much debate. It implies interference and violation- in this case a violation of sovereignty. This sovereignty is guaranteed by Article 2.7 of the United Nations (UN) Charter which protects national sovereignty even from intervention by the UN. The Article forbids the UN to intervene ‘in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of a state’. Intervention could be of various sorts- military, non military, forcible or non forcible and humanitarian or combination of any of these. The key underlying factor is that no matter what the cause of the intervention or the form it takes, it violates the principle of sovereignty. There are some cases where a state calls for intervention- perhaps to monitor a ceasefire or to keep peace, but on the whole, states at the receiving end of interventionist policies remain bitter about the violation of their sovereignty. This essay shall concern itself with only one kind of intervention- that is humanitarian intervention. This happens when intervention takes place because of gross human rights abuse, torture, genocide, ethnic cleansing or when humanitarian aid and relief is being obstructed and does not reach the civilian victims of an internal dispute, such that it threatens to take on epidemic proportions.

It must also be kept in mind, that the controversy really surrounds forcible rather than non forcible humanitarian intervention, which usually involves the use of military force. Thus the key question then becomes a clash between human rights and national sovereignty wherein lies the crux of this debate. Sovereignty has always been after all, a sensitive issue. The UN is predominantly an association of small countries that guard their sovereignty rather zealously. Moreover, small states which have a say in the General Assembly rather than the Council tend to be extremely wary of interventions. In the light of many ‘interventions’ in the past, the term has become virtually synonymous with ‘invasions’.

At the outset, it is imperative that we examine why humanitarian intervention is now at the top of the agenda in any discussion on human rights. The post Cold War world has seen a rise in the number of UN Security Council resolutions concerned with a humanitarian agenda. At first, it was believed that this was so because it was easier to obtain a consensus on humanitarian issues than on complex political ones. But it has soon become clear that humanitarian actions bring with them their own political baggage, and humanitarian intervention has become the focus of much debate in the Council.

It has been argued by those who believe that the Cold War was a period of stability and balance that the demise of the bipolar world has contributed to rising human rights abuses. It is argued that there is now no bloc to hold in check recalcitrant smaller nations. Moreover, if a superpower now chooses to punish such a state, it is unlikely to explode into major conflict or nuclear war. Most importantly, notions of sovereignty have changed quite considerably.

Stability and the upholding of human rights is now seen as a key feature of the new international order. It is now accepted that civil wars are rarely benign. They cause immense loss of lives and property and the chief victims are ordinary civilians who find themselves caught in the crossfire. In the light of statistics such as these, most countries now agree that is not prudent to let civil wars fester or burn themselves out. There is a broad consensus that one should not wait till a conflict escalates or spills over into neighbouring countries.

Finally, international civil society has committed itself to a global ‘human rights culture’ that outlaws genocide, torture, human rights abuses, but which often come into conflict with principles of non intervention and sovereignty. In such a case, the key issue then becomes where the international community should intervene or let a murderous state annihilate its own citizens.

A key feature of the changed attitude to humanitarian issues and human rights has been the role of the media. The ‘CNN factor’ as it sometimes called can exert immense public pressure on leaders to act. As pictures of starvation, disease, suffering and genocide are telecast in all their vivid gory details into living rooms, the clamour for Western governments to ‘do something’ increases. But this can have the opposite effect as well. As the pictures from Mogadishu of body bags and mutilated American soldiers were telecast back home, there was a change of mood, and there was pressure on Clinton to now withdraw his soldiers from Somalia.

It can be argued thus that there is, and should be a general consensus on the importance of human rights. These are basic to one’s existence and the denial of these human rights ought to be the responsibility of the international community. However, how the international community discharges this responsibility is a matter of debate. Here it can be argued that while there is a consensus regarding the universality of human rights, there is little consensus on when, where and how states (or the international community) should intervene to restore these human rights. It can be argued that case studies show that interventions have traditionally been motivated by national interest rather than a simple desire to alleviate suffering. Hence, once realist calculations of national interest enter the picture, the humanitarian aspect of the mission is both bound to suffer and to become tainted by bias.

First, it can be argued that the concept of sovereignty should not be sacrosanct. This concept is implicitly tied to a country’s responsibility towards its citizens. When a state abuses its citizens and is clearly in violation of human rights, then state frontiers should not be seen as water tight boundaries that can protect criminals and mass murderers. But there are two aspects to how this intervention should be carried out and the motives behind this intervention. We begin by examining the latter first.

It can be conclusively argued that interventions are rarely without motives which are not always philanthropic. In the light of the light of the abdication of moral responsibility on the part of society of states in the face of genocide in Rwanda- most crucially in the capitals of Western states- suggests that we should be cautious about investing too much faith in state leaders as guardians of human rights in world politics, and suspicious when they do invoke human rights to legitimize their actions. In the absence of an international mechanism for deciding when intervention was permissible, states might espouse humanitarian motives as a pretext for covering up the pursuit of national interests.

A good example of this was the French led Operation Turquoise in Rwanda. The French for long had been propping up the Hutu government in power and had even been providing troops when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, operating from Uganda threatened to run over the country in 1990 and 1993. French action stemmed from Mitterand’s anxiety to ensure that French credibility in Central Africa did not fade away. But the response of the leaders to the genocide that took place suggests that the expression of international solidarity in the face of the genocide was limited to moral outrage and the provision of humanitarian aid to its victims.

While the French actions were often criticised as being too little, too late, NATO actions in Kosovo have been seen as a case of too much too soon. Several reasons were put forth for NATO’s actions. It was argued that Serbian actions in Kosovo had created a supreme humanitarian emergency and breached a whole range of international legal commitments. Milosevic’s use of force against the Kosovar Albanians challenged global norms of common humanity and that NATO had a moral obligation to stop such action. However, a closer examination of events shows us that the motives at stake were complex. While humanitarian motives were present, there were others that coloured the character of the intervention. First, it was argued that NATO inaction would damage its credibility particularly as the previous year’s diplomacy with Milosevic had been underlined by the credible threat of force. The Americans were interested in maintaining the Dayton peace accord and ensuring regional stability. After all, as Clinton put it, Kosovo was in the ‘heart of Europe’ and in “NATO’s backyard”. Western states were also concerned about the massive flow of refugees into the Southern Balkans could threaten the stability of the already weak states of Macedonia and Albania and generate a massive flow of asylum seekers in the West. But in the opening weeks of the Operation Allied Force, the ethnic cleansing and mass murder continued unabated. The Western leaders now subtly changed their objectives. It was no longer about perverting a catastrophe, but about ‘reversing’ one. The question that NATO consistently avoided was answering how its bombing campaign from the air could attain its humanitarian ends. Moreover, the NATO campaign was considered by many to be in breach of international law as it did not have the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. While NATO argued that its actions were justified under Resolution 1199 and later 1244, others have argued that no such customary right of intervention exists and any such right would undermine international order and security.

Another key case is that of the Australian intervention in East Timor in the days leading up to its independence. While in this case, there was no conflict in terms of the legitimacy of the action (it was clearly authorised by Resolution 12640, it is to be noted that the reason why the Indonesian government did not oppose the resolution was the incredible financial pressure brought to bear upon it by the United States. The invasion of Haiti was in part a response to the flood of Haitian migrants seeking refuge in Florida, the importance of that state in the American electoral process, and the influence of the Black Caucus in Congress and for the Clinton vote bank.

Thus we see that state interest plays a key role in intervention. The obvious corollary to this is that when states are dictated by their national interests rather than a pure humanitarian motive, there will be selectivity in terms of interventions. Intervention occurs when a state feels that military action might further its own political interests in the long run. In northern Iraq, the trilateral UK-French-US alliance was strongly influenced by the fact that a number of the refugees were headed towards Turkey, a key NATO member and a close ally. Since Turkey had its own Kurdish problem to deal with, it was unwilling to accept several hundred thousand more Kurds flowing into the region. There is little doubt that Yugoslav defiance of NATO and the refugee crisis were both important reasons for NATO intervention. And, as has been already pointed out, if the motives were entirely humanitarian, then they clearly failed to stop the genocide or ethnic cleansing.

The question of selectivity is also crucially linked to the influence of the media. It has been sarcastically pointed out by some, that the European holiday makers were moved by the plight of the residents of the once beautiful and majestic Sarajevo but did not spare a thought for the Hutus and the Tutsis who were slaughtering each other at the same time. Thus, television coverage, its biases and the angles that it chooses to present, are an influential factor in moulding public opinion and thereby influencing the policy of governments.

In Sudan at the same time hundred thousand civilians were killed and millions were displaced and it generated cross border spill over effects. But the international community avoided coercive engagements and watched from the wings. Even in the case of Rwanda, warnings of an impending genocide conveyed by the men on the ground to the Secretariat was not passed on to the Secretary General and that Security Council. We can thus see these actions in the light of the above factors- lack of public pressure and the lack of interest shown by any of the Great Powers in either of these two conflicts.

This brings us to the question of the use of military force in humanitarian intervention. It is quite clear that the size of the force is not entirely related to the success of the operations. While the French had a force of not more than 5000 in Rwanda, and were at least able to save some lives, a huge force of 33,000 was completely ineffective in the Balkans in the face of continuous attacks. Thus, when the troops are deployed, there is often a lack of a clear command structure or an adequate mandate. This brings us back to the question of how the international community can, even with the best of intentions, be responsible for the ineffective implementation of their proposals.

To summarise, we see that while in theory genocide, human rights and torture must all be stopped, in practice there is little political will to do so. It is difficult to disagree in principle with the solidarist case that states have a moral obligation to intervene in exceptional cases that offend minimum standards of humanity. Those who believe that as a legal right humanitarian intervention has the potential to be abused, may also agree that it is justified on moral grounds, as often being the only way to end the slaughter. But these principles are challenged by the actual practice of international relations, where self interest predominates and nations are reluctant to intervene if it means a loss of lives for their soldiers or if ground troops have to be involved. Thus, both in terms of the means and the ends of humanitarian intervention there remain key flaws.

In the light of this pessimistic portrayal, one might then ask: what is the solution? The solution is not one-dimensional. On the one hand, human rights are universal and must be upheld. But who will uphold these rights and how are just as important questions. The first is relatively easy to answer- it must be the United Nations that must be the repository of all such actions and the authorisation for them. While there are numerous arguments about the efficacy of the UN and the undue US influence within the body, it still remains the only democratic global forum that can sanction such action. However, it is perhaps more prudent to argue that military intervention, even on humanitarian grounds, should be used as last resort. In this respect, the reflections of Kofi Annan are rather though provoking. He suggests that non military weapons such as sanctions and diplomacy ought to be used first and only when these are completely exhausted must one resort to force. He also makes the point that intervention should not be unilateral as it makes various states uncomfortable and causes suspicion and tension. He argues ‘can we really afford to let each State be the judge of its own right, or duty, to intervene in another State’s internal conflict?’ He argues that such decisions need to be taken collectively and he sees the UN Security Council as the best instrument for doing so. He thus argues “only the Council has the authority to decide that the internal situation in any State is so grave as to justify forceful intervention.”

Two other suggestions could be made in this regard. First, that non forcible humanitarian intervention even without the consent of the government through independent international aid agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres can be remarkably effective. It creates moral pressure on the government in question and can relieve an impending humanitarian disaster. It can thus be argued that where there is a humanitarian crisis emerging, it is perhaps prudent and less confrontational to encourage such agencies to step in and assist in the relief effort rather than to simply back the provision of humanitarian aid with military power that would antagonise the government in question.

The other solution relates to the long term causes of such humanitarian disasters. Human suffering is not always linked to the breakdown of state frontiers and the provision of succour should not be linked to questions of national interest or greed. However, past experience shows us that until the framework of the state is weak, collapsing or engulfed in internecine strife, the international community has been reluctant to intervene. This shows that states are more willing to see humanitarian intervention in terms of crisis management rather than developing global political and economic politices to address the underlying the structural causes of poverty and inequality. Hence, in a broader sense one can see humanitarian intervention as a short term tactic used by Western nations to take away attention from the real problems that are confronting many developing countries. If attention did focus on these problems, a serious re-working of North-South relations would have to take place. It is simply easier to train attention, especially through the media, on human suffering and the immediate provision of aid.

In conclusion, one can perhaps make several pertinent points. First, as has been repeatedly said, there is little doubt that in theory human rights ought to take precedence over national sovereignty, a principle which would then legitimise humanitarian intervention. However, there are various problems with how humanitarian intervention has been carried out in the past, both in terms of the motives behind these actions and the means used for them. The use of military force can be counter productive and the motives of various nations in using force are not always benign. Thus, it can be argued that unless a reasonable mechanism is found whereby the violation of sovereignty is linked solely to the restoration of human rights rather than to Great Power motives, the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention will continue to remain flawed and controversial.