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Is Western Intervention in Genocides Justified? Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2021


Western intervention in genocidal wars in other parts of the world is a highly controversial and heavily debated aspect of international politics in recent years. While from an ethical standpoint, intervening may be rationalized, there are international laws that prohibit such actions and historical evidence that demonstrates it can exacerbate the conflict in the region where genocide is occurring. Humanitarian intervention is justified if there are specific prerequisites met regarding the severity of the conflict and other mechanisms of regulation have been unsuccessful, creating an ethical dilemma which warrants action.


Western civilization has been built on principles of democracy and freedom, which identity, legitimize, and support fundamental human rights. International charters of organizations such as the United Nations also support human rights and peace while condemning oppression and genocide. Nevertheless, the status quo of international relations has led to ineffective responses by the UN to crimes against humanity such as genocide in less developed parts of the world. Genocide is a mass killing of a specific population, commonly due to ideological, religious, or ethnic reasons. Scholarly research argues that without a direct influence or intervention, genocides can reach extreme proportions, creating ethical and humanitarian concerns (Kreps and Maxey 1816). The lack of sufficient mechanisms through international organizations often leaves Western nations with the choice of intervention, usually through military means. This has led to the rise of humanitarian intervention which is central to the foreign policy of Western countries. It permits to exercise of military intervention on a limited basis to alleviate a humanitarian crisis such as genocide to prevent human suffering and loss of life.

Socio-Political Justification

When Western states initiated the humanitarian intervention, they believe they are justified. Although this area of international law is a grey area, it is inherently legal if certain conditions are met. These include specific evidence of a crisis that is accepted by the global community, there is a lack of practical alternatives, and the use of force during the intervention must be limited to providing relief and not step outside the objective. This approach has been used by the international coalition through the UN Security Council Resolution in Libya in 2011 when there was specific evidence of human rights abuses and potential use of weapons of mass destruction against the population. However, if there is no unanimous approval, such actions are prohibited by the UN Charter leading to Western countries which choose to intervene technically outside international law.

Recently there has a rise in greater support of institutionalized humanitarian intervention, with many Western countries creating the Canadian-based International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). It was established with the purpose of balancing the link between international law and actual practical interventions by states which feel that there is an ethical duty to respond to egregious infraction of human rights. The ICISS is built on the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that shifts the primary dialogue for intervention among global actors. The primary argument is that genocide renders a foreign government immune to sovereignty protections since it is a violation of the UN charter. Bajoria and McMahon of the Council of Foreign Relations, argue that sovereignty is directly related to the conditional that a government protects its peoples, if that is violated, then the nation’s sovereignty no longer exists, and a Western military humanitarian intervention would not be considered an invasion (Bajoria and McMahon). Furthermore, from a humanitarian standpoint, intervention is necessary which should be complemented by the transformation in international law rather than Western democracies, with available resources to resolve it, standing by.

Humanitarian Concerns

There is a cosmopolitan perspective on interventions that highlights that the global community has the legal and ethical responsibility to intervene, including through the use of force in order to defend vulnerable populations and the principle of human rights. This argument believes in establishing international law that would support humanitarian intervention as a response to genocides and similar crises. The scholar Trahan in her discussion of international law on the issue suggests that the International Criminal Court suggests that military invasions with humanitarian objectives are legally ambiguous (42). It is a perspective shared by many international organizations and charters which exist for the protection of human rights such as the UN Human Rights Council and the European Court of Human Rights. Although these institutions offer judicial mechanisms for prosecuting those who initiate and participate in genocides, they are often ineffective or can only be done ex post facto. It remains a critical argument for humanitarian intervention which suggests that human rights are guaranteed by law but not anyhow enforceable during or even after such crimes as genocides. This allows for Western democracies to conduct planned operations based on the ICISS R2P values.

Opposing Argument

The opposition to the issue does not deny that genocide is an egregious human rights violation that is unacceptable and morally wrong. However, the use of foreign interventions, particularly military, sets a dangerous precedent. An article by Jayakumar citing a famous international politics scholar Noam Chomsky argues that practically every military invasion in recent decades has been done under the cover of humanitarian intervention (1). Even, the UN-approved intervention in Libya led to Western states breaking many rules by overthrowing the ruling regime and establishing a permanent presence in the region with the interest of supporting a pro-Western leader. Meanwhile, the UN charter explicitly establishes the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination which prohibits foreign intervention in internal conflicts of specific countries.

Humanitarian intervention is often used as a double standard since any potential criticism or foreign influence in Western countries is viewed as hostile. Those who promote intervention often focus narrowly on justifying it rather than attempting to resolve structural issues which have led to failures to resolve the conflict at its origins or non-military means. However, the primary issue remains that every single intervention by Western states historically has been done with an ulterior motive, inherently discrediting the “humanitarian” aspect of the operation.


Despite the legal and political challenges, Western interventions in genocide crises are a necessary aspect of humanitarian intervention. If there are no alternatives and there is a moral imperative to intervene, such actions are warranted. However, this mechanism of humanitarian intervention should be carefully balanced and regulated to avoid abuse as a cover for invasion. Therefore, it is better to improve its operation under international law and the UN rather than operating in grey areas as it currently does. The principle of the responsibility to protect is vital in the modern multilateral world and the rise of regional conflicts. More competent and actionable mechanisms should be developed at the international level to ensure the effectiveness of any potential interventions.

Works Cited

Bajoria, Jayshree, and Robert McMahon. Council on Foreign Relations. 2013, Web.

Jayakumar, Kirthi. SSRN Electronic Journal, 2012, pp. 1-5, Web.

Kreps, Sarah, and Sarah Maxey. “Mechanisms of Morality: Sources of Support for Humanitarian Intervention.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 62, no. 8, 2017, pp. 1814-1842, Web.

Trahan, Jennifer. “Defining the ‘Grey Area’ Where Humanitarian Intervention May Not Be Fully Legal, But Is Not the Crime of Aggression.” Journal on the Use of Force and International Law, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, pp. 42-80, Web.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Is Western Intervention in Genocides Justified'. 7 July.

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