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Humanitarian intervention constitutes an essential subject in the discourse of international relations. Nations have the right to protect their sovereign rights. The goal is to safeguard their territorial integrity. Indeed, nations have the right to confront an aggressor country militarily. However, some states also intervene to address domestic matters within a government in the interest of acting as a good international actor as provided for in the global system. The objective of such interventions entails minimising or ending civilian suffering. While such involvements present a nation as good international actor, questions emerge on the morality of the intervention. Why should nations select to offer humanitarian aid to some and not others? If humanitarianism is a principle that dictates the use of force abroad, then it needs to apply universally. However, why did nations choose to intervene in Kosovo while at the same time showing little interest in ending the current pre-ISIL attack in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet the two countries need humanitarian backup? Such selective application of the discourse of humanitarian suggests the non-existence of such things as humanitarian interventions. Hence, it suffices to conclude that states are not moral actors and that they only ever use force abroad in the pursuit of selfish ends. Nevertheless, as argued in the current paper, this assertion is contentious.
The Contentious Debate of Humanitarianism
Humanitarianism as a topic in the discourse of international relations (IR) dazzles most IR scholars. Schrock-Jacobson (2012, p.827) defines it as ‘a deliberate incursion into a state without its consent by some outside agency, to change the functioning, policies, goals of its government, and/or favour the intervening agency.’ The discussion on the issue mainly focuses on the fundamentals of humanitarianism (Krisch 2002). Defenders of the nations’ rights to intervene focus their debate primarily on morality. However, Krisch (2002) asserts that the historical chronology of humanitarianism replicates the arguments on power abuse by influential intervening nations. This situation raises doubt on the justification of the morality of the right to intervene. Although the author discusses various arguments raised by the proponents and opponents of humanitarian intervention after the Kosovo intervention, he raises doubts about its legitimacy.
Support for intervention is mainly anchored on the principle of humanitarianism. For example, Spiro and Berkeley (2013) argue that citizens have all the moral grounds to end any violation of other innocent people’s rights, coupled with brutal treatments. He insists that it is through interventions that the deployment of force helps to enforce the standards of civilised conduct towards the innocent. This provision is essential in situations where oppression within a state raises to levels where the connection between the government and the population is broken. In such scenarios, the sovereignty of the country as advanced through the discourse of international relations by the UN is invalidated.
From a utilitarianism school of thought, intervention is justifiable. It can help to save more lives in comparison with the cost incurred if the intervention is not implemented (Spiro & Berkeley 2013). Indeed, in case a conflict within a nation escalates due to non-intervention, the stability of the neighbouring country is likely to suffer. In some situations, a humanitarian crisis may escalate to an international security issue. For example, the conception of nations such as Afghanistan as potential disaster zones through the1990s due to lack of intervention ended up being a global security disaster when the countries ultimately became the breeding ground for terrorists.
From a liberal school of thought, arguments in support of intervention are based on the sovereignty of states. For example, Graham and Wiessner (2012) assert that the sovereignty of nations suggests that none of them has a higher authority relative to the other and that no state bears utmost superiority. Indeed, Article 2, Subsection 7 of the UN Charter explicitly sets out the jurisdictional authority of states. The charter does not authorise any state to intervene on domestic matters, although the subsection does not prejudice the use of enforcement measure as spelt out in Chapter 7 (Graham & Wiessner 2012). From a realist point of view, it follows that no country possesses any permissible jurisdictional authority against the people of another nation. Hence, citizens of any nation have the sole power to determine the destiny of their land. Graham and Wiessner (2012) further assert that states that intervene often have imperialistic or self-serving motives as the pillar on which the decision for intervention is anchored.
Amid the arguments raised for or against intercession, I believe that no nation has absolute sovereignty. Hence, a principle to guide the decision to intervene should be developed in a manner that the responsibility of international actors to protect becomes the basic guideline for intervention where a nation’s apparatus is unable or is not willing to guarantee ardent protection of its citizens as witnessed in the case of the genocide in Rwanda—in such a case, functioning as a moral actor is necessary while deciding to engage in humanitarian intervention. However, cases of intervention regarding Kosovo and Iraq raise questions on this necessity.
States-Are They or Are They Not Moral Actors?
Intervention is deeply anchored in the historical development of global societies. People inclined to moral perspective justify war as the primary means of protecting people’s rights, coupled with encouraging them to uphold the law. Whether states are moral actors or not depends on the ethics of humanitarian intervention. In medieval ages, state rules were regarded as having the duty of enforcing some specific laws. The Spanish deployed this principle in the American conquest. Natural laws constitute one of the stipulations that guide the moral behaviour, which rulers have the mandate or the duty to enforce. Such laws dictate the various precepts that are justifiable by reason. The precepts bind all rational people. Therefore, any deviation from the principle by a state would call upon other states to intervene in the attempt to enforce the code to punish any act of immoral doing. The goal here is to defend the rights of innocent people.
The idea of common morality presents states as moral actors when they choose to intervene. However, from a realist school of thought, intervention is not right since it erodes the right of a nation to remain free from external inversion. Common morality presents people as having the right not ‘as members of a particular community, but as members of the human community in a common moral world’ (Krisch 2002, p. 329). The concept is founded on reason where it reflects on issues such as customs and laws. It assumes that states are rational and that they should function according to some prescribed standards. One of such standards is that besides the need for states to respect others, they must properly support each other. These two aspects present the idea of humanitarian intervention as morally justified since it upholds the principle of respect for human dignity and beneficence when a nation intervenes to address the domestic matters of another nation to eliminate civilian suffering.
The discussion above suggests that nations are moral actors since they highlight their obligation to help in eliminating suffering when they engage in humanitarian intervention. Chertoff (2013) supports this assertion by noting that in situations of oppression, states must function as moral actors when they uphold their duty and obligation to act through interventions. The concept of beneficence implies that it would be wrong for moral states to ignore mass injustices that occur within a nation. However, the selectiveness of nations in situations that require their involvement raises questions on their functioning as moral actors in humanitarian interventions. For example, Doyle (2017) supports the idea of non-intervention as advanced by philosophers such as J.S Mill.
J.S Mill suggests that nations act as immoral actors when they choose to engage in humanitarian interventions. According to Doyle (2017), the philosopher argues that intervention undermines the authenticity of any nation’s domestic struggles that aim to achieve liberty. The philosopher claims that even though any foreign intervention may guarantee the freedom to the oppressed, such people may not uphold it permanently. Amid the legitimacy of such viewpoints, it is apparent that such positions incredibly misjudge the humanitarian situational exigency. The atrocities committed in Rwanda supports this view. Vulnerable and defenceless Tutsis were deprived of their lives in 90 days. A nation that wishes to intervene in such a situation may be viewed as participating as a moral actor unless it has other self-benefiting motives of engaging in foreign nations’ humanitarian intervention. For example, in my view, a nation acts immorally when it selects situations in which to intervene based on its anticipated gains such as looting raw materials and/or shipping people home when it topples the oppressing regime.
States’ Use of Force Abroad in the Pursuit of Selfish Ends
The question of whether nations ever use force abroad in pursuit of selfish ends depends on the circumstance and individual cases of humanitarian interventions. The looming US interventions in Syria that seek to foster compliance with international law norms of prohibiting the utilisation of chemical weapon are attracting different reactions from both the international community and organisations that are charged with implementation and/or ensuring conformity to the international law around the globe. The EU and the US regard the intervention as necessary since they seek to punish the Syrian government for crimes against humanity for which international organisations and bodies such as international criminal courts are meant to castigate through legal processes (Kyl, Feith & Fonte 2013). However, a strike on Syria may also amount to the violation of a fundamental international law that upholds the sovereign rights of a given nation to remain free from foreign attacks, especially in the case where the UN Security Council does not authorise the use of force in Syria (Graham & Wiessner 2012). Should the strike occur, it would mean that states use force abroad in pursuit of selfish ends. Consequently, the situation would present the US and its allies as nations whose main agenda is to control the world, as opposed to bringing tranquillity to any war-stricken state.
Before the use of force in any state, an analysis of the validity of such intervention in the context of international law is important. In fact, according to Chertoff (2013), the use of force against another nation is unwelcome under the provisions of international law since it represents an effort to pursue justice through vigilantes. However, little doubt has existed in the deployment of chemical weapons against citizens over the past two years in Syria. Indeed, if the UN Security Council finds evidence that Syria used the chemical weapons, international law provisions on the universal declaration of human rights will have been violated. This finding may call for the international community to intervene and/or punish President Assad’s regime for such crimes against humanity. With the evidence of crimes and atrocities against innocent civilians, nations that seek to intervene in the Syrian crisis will not be using force to achieve selfish ends to eliminate the suffering of the oppressed.
From the above argument, it sounds imperative for the international community, including the US, to intervene to restore and/or enhance conformity to the international order on matters of respect for universal human rights. However, there are limitations to which strikes may be justified under the provisions of international law. For instance, the international criminal court whose mandate entails punishing crimes against humanity is guided by the Rome statute, which only holds individuals liable for crimes committed by regimes other than the entire nation (Graham & Wiessner 2012). Hence, specific persons who served in President Assad’s regime may be held liable for their use of chemical weapons against the citizens of Syria. This verdict only holds if the UN Security Council finds evidence for the use of such weapons. Hence, the unilateral deployment of force against Syria remains unjustified and in contradiction with the international laws on the freedom of sovereign states. Hence, any participating nation would be using force to achieve selfish ends since the intervention in Syria would amount to breaching its (Syria) sovereign rights of remaining free from external inversion.
From the above discussions, the international law’s legal foundation for justifying the launching of attacks on Syria seems questionable. Although the UN Security Council may not find evidence that Syria has violated the international law by attacking Turkey, hence prompting counter-attacks in self-defence, the global regulations, for instance, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) may be called into action when evidence is found on the use of a chemical weapon against the Syrian citizens by their government. In the future, humanitarian intervention and R2P may form the basis for making provisions for justifying interventions without necessarily seeking the authority of the UN Security Council (Craig 2013).
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If a conclusion is made that a state acts for selfish reasons, does the engagement mean that the intervention is not humanitarian? Humanitarian interventions encompass international law customary norms, which may serve as an important exception in matters of prohibiting the deployment of force. Hence, if selfish gains drive the intervention, then it does not qualify as humanitarian since it does not focus on relieving the suffering of the oppressed people. This opinion suggests that an intervention cannot be deemed humanitarian if the motives are not purely meant to help the suffering people.
Chertoff, M 2013, ‘The responsibility to contain: protecting sovereignty under international law’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, no. 1, pp.130-147.
Craig, M 2013, ‘International law and the US military strikes on Syria’, The Huffington post, Web.
Doyle, T 2017, ‘A moral argument for the mass defection of non-nuclear-weapon states from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty regime’, Global Governance, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 15-26.
Graham, M & Wiessner, S 2012, ‘Sovereignty, culture and international human rights law’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol.110, no.2, pp. 403-427.
Krisch, N 2002, ‘Legality, morality and the dilemma of humanitarian intervention after Kosovo’, EJIL, vol.13, no.1, pp. 323-335.
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